Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Confucius and the Relevance of Confucian Philosophy to Contemporary Debates About Teaching

  • Shu Fun FungEmail author
  • Janet Orchard
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_22-1


Confucius, like Socrates, is known to modern readers through the testimonies of his students. The Analects of Confucius were not written by him but recorded by others. As such, the philosophical teaching that they might have to offer is quite unlike a contemporary academic paper or book with a clear linear narrative. Yet if anything, perhaps more can be learned more from his insights and his practice precisely because of the “unity” between knowledge and behavior that is achieved by this notable characteristic of Chinese educational theory. Confucian scholars have noted how they can see the man as he was in life from the texts that have been passed down the generations.

From the portrait of Confucius that may be pieced together from the Analects, it has been suggested that this offers the image of an exemplary teacher for all ages. To understand this claim, a brief account of Confucius and his upbringing is given, placing him in the historical origins of Chinese classical education. The distinctive notion of the good teacher which develops in Confucian thought is summarized, and the relevance of this distinctive Confucian notion to contemporary educational practice is explored.

Beginning with an account of Chinese classical education, the word “teach” Open image in new window (教) includes three parts, one of which is closely bound up with religious elements. Part one 攴(Pu) means “to tap”; part two 子(Zi) means “child,” while part three 爻(Yao) denotes “divination.” The place of the first two characters may seem obvious in an account of traditional education, with the child 攴(Pu), containing the symbol of the pointer, denoting the teacher teaching children by the whip. Perhaps more striking to a modern eye is the inclusion of divination. As ideographic and phonetic symbols, these characters show clearly the close relation of religion to education in Chinese classical tradition.

Other key terms for teaching and learning in classical Chinese education follow. These include 教(jiao, meaning “teach”), 學(xue, meaning “learn”), and 斆(xiao, meaning “teach” and “self-learn”); all three concepts connect to notions of “teaching” today. Included in the above part is 爻(Yao) also meaning “count” and the following part of the symbol 廬(lu, which means house) to express the school building. This close connection between the concept of the school and the house as the location of study is significant in Confucian educational tradition.

Before Confucius, access to education and books was strictly controlled by the government of the day and, under the so-called Wangguan Shishou (王官世守), available only to aristocratic children. Confucius’ own education was received from the king. The curriculum he is likely to have received may have reflected the classical expectations of the day. In The Book of Rites, Confucius is reported to have said:

Travelling in a state, one can know about its culture. The gentility, honesty and sincerity in the conduct of the people there prove the cultural influence of the Book of Songs ; their good understanding and sound knowledge of history prove the cultural influence of the Book of History; their broadmindedness, mildness and kindness prove the cultural influence of the Book of Music ; their pureness, tranquility and exquisiteness prove the cultural influence of the Book of Changes ; and their reverence, carefulness and sedateness prove the cultural influence of the Ritual ;and their eloquence and enumeration of historical facts prove the cultural influence of the Spring and Autumn Annals. Xu Chao (2000, p. 255)

The impact of what might be described as traditional Chinese “textbooks” is significant, although what Confucius adds to them is unique. The Book of Changes (易經) is the oldest; it can be traced back to the Xia Dynasty (夏朝) (c. 2070–c. 1600 BC) or before. The Book of Odes (詩經) is a collection of classical poetry, mainly belonging to the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), with the most ancient poetry traced back to the Shang Dynasty (c.1600–1046 BC). This and the Book of Music (樂經) (now lost) are the basis of classical aristocratic education. With the decree summary of the Book of Documents and the teachings of the nobility etiquette – Book of Rites (禮經) – these constitute the basic structure of a classical Chinese curriculum. The stated purpose of education of this kind was to cultivate national talent with Zuozhuan (左傳) stating that “the country’s major events are Si(祀) and Rong(戎).” Si(祀) means “religious” and Rong (戎) means “military”.

The Analects are not the work of Confucius himself, as stated above, but rather of Confucius’ disciples. The Analects, indeed many of the pre-Qin Chinese books in general, are non-thematic narratives, which do not focus on a particular topic of discussion and its resolution. However, they do allow us to see how Confucius, his family, students, and others, including contemporary political figures, relate to one another. We learn that Confucius is a good teacher. One of his best students remarked that his Master was good at leading his pupils, step-by-step. He broadened their horizons with culture, bringing them back to essentials by means of the rites. The pupils couldn’t give up his studies, he maintained, even if he wanted to, however overwhelming he found the whole matter of education.

Confucius’ thought is inextricably linked to classical religions, and in the opinion of a number of commentators, the Analects clearly show his religious piety, for example, Book III:

‘Sacrifice as if present’ is taken to mean ‘sacrifice to the gods as if the gods were present.’

The Master, however, said, ‘Unless I take part in a sacrifice, it is as if I did not sacrifice.’ (Lau 1979, p. 69)

Confucius’ contention to be discerned from this is that if anyone does not attend to a ritual himself, personally, then that ritual becomes meaningless. The key, Confucius maintains, lies in what might best be termed the “piety” of the heart. If not personally involved, then the ritual has become a pure form, divorced from the spiritual realm of tear, the main Chinese religious spirit, which is “sincere.”

In this heightened state of self-consciousness, the Master suggests, “He has not lived in vain who dies the day he is told about the Way.” The good life is one which cannot be lived for the sake of self; by contrast, to grasp the “Way (道means Truth)” may be very worthwhile.

This view of the world determines Confucius’ understanding of the purpose of education. The Analects in a number of fragments attests to what Confucius considered to lie at the heart of the educational endeavor:

The Master said, Men of antiquity studied to improve themselves, men today study to impress others. (Lau 1979: Book XIV, p. 128)

Tzu-chang asked, ‘What must a Gentleman be like before he can be said to have got through?’ The Master said, ‘What on earth do you mean by getting through?’ Tzu-chang answered, ‘What I have in mind is a man who is sure to be known whether he serves in a state or in a noble family.’ The Master said, ‘That is being known, not getting through. Now the term “getting through” describes a man who is straight by nature and fond of what is right, sensitive to other people’s words and observant of the expression on their faces, and always mindful of being modest. Such a man is bound to get through whether he serves in a state or in a noble family. On the other hand, the term “being known” describes a man who has no misgivings about his own claim to benevolence when all he is doing is putting up a façade of benevolence which is belied by his deeds. Such a man is sure to be known, whether he serves in a state or in a noble family. (Lau 1979: Book XII, p. 116)

Older traditions of scholarship in Chinese classical education contributed to the shortcomings of “today’s scholars” being highlighted here of pursuing an external personal reputation (“wen”(聞) meaning “being known”) rather than “Da”(達)meaning “getting through” or internal cultivation. The relationship between education and social and political power in our own times too may be recognized, whether or not individuals wish to condone it.
We can also see in the “higher” view of which Confucius conceives echoes of the classical Chinese conception of education he inherited, with “divination” at its heart. Attending to the dialogue between Confucius and his student Chi-lu子路, the Analects, Book XI:

Chi-lu asked how the spirits of the dead and the gods should be served. The Master said, ‘You are not able even to serve man. How can you serve the spirits?’

‘May I ask about death?’

‘You do not understand even life. How can you understand death’ (Lau 1979: Book XI, p. 107)

The meaning of this passage is often misunderstood by people. In referencing the spirits, Confucius is not particularly concerned to talk about them, less still the vexed question about their place in a possible life after death. Given China’s ancestor worship tradition, the place of ghosts/spirits as the ancestors of Chinese people is an ongoing preoccupation. However, while Confucius has “ultimate concerns,” these focus on life as it is lived. If we focus on the logic of the passage, we see that the guidance of Confucius to Zilu is on the need to make sense of this life and that to “serve” humanity is a necessary precondition to paying our obligations to our ancestor spirits.
Confucius’ experience as an administrator (3 months as a minister of justice within the Lu kingdom) is reflected too in his humanistic attitude toward piety. In the Analects, Book XII,

Hung-kung asked about benevolence. The Master said, ‘When abroad behave as though you were receiving an important guest. When employing the services of the common people behave as though you were officiating at an important sacrifice. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire. ‘In this way you will be free from ill-will whether in a state or in a noble family.’ (Lau 1979: Book XII, p. 112)

Here Confucius’s personal code of conduct rooted in deep respect for others can be seen very clearly. This long-standing insight of a stance toward others in the practice of moral education being one of respect and persuasion, rather than disrespect and coercion, has continuing relevance to the contemporary world, as Cao and Liu (2016) have suggested.
True to his own education, the basis of education for Confucius lies not in the acquisition of knowledge but in the practice of value. As the Analects record:

Tzu-lu said, ‘I should like to hear what you have set your heart on.’

The Master said, ‘To bring peace to the old, to have trust in my friends, and to cherish the young.’ (Lau 1979: Book V, p. 80.)

The Master said, ‘It is these things that cause me concern: failure to cultivate virtue, failure to go more deeply into what I have learned, inability, when I am told what is right, to move to where it is, and inability to reform myself when I have defects.’ (Lau 1979, Book VII, p. 86)

The Governor of She asked Tzu-lu about Confucius. Tzu-lu did not answer. The Master said, ‘Why did you not simply say something to this effect: he is the sort of man who forgets to eat when he tries to solve a problem that has been driving him to distraction, who is so full of joy that he forgets his worries and who does not notice the onset of old age?’ (Lau 1979, Book VII, p. 88)

We see here, not a saint, but a man who continues to work hard for what he believes is right. A man who is so joyful that he forgets his worries and does not notice the onset of old age is truly an exemplary teacher for all ages.
Moving from the Analects to contemporary educational practice, on key feature of the Confucian education, tradition is the considerable importance it attaches to equality. Confucius himself taught people, no matter how rich or poor, where previously education in classical China had been limited to the nobility. In the Analects, Book XII, it is recorded:

The Master said, ‘I have never denied instruction to anyone who, of his own accord, has given me so much as a bundle of dried meat as a present.’

According to Huang Ka皇侃, the bundle (ten) of dried meat refers to an ancient tradition whereby Confucius could charge for tuition, yet he only demanded the most meager gifts. More importantly, these “presents” were submitted by students “themselves,” i.e., they reflected the desire of those students themselves to learn, the most motivated ones Confucius regarded as his real students. Given the context of largely compulsory education today, perhaps the issue of motivation then and now is different? Imagine the situation in which everyone has the motivation to learn, with the work and responsibilities of teachers only to guide and inspire students!
For Confucius, to be a good teacher does not require wisdom from the outset but rather a commitment, through continuous learning, toward wisdom. In the Analects, Book II:

The Master said, ‘At fifteen I set my heart on learning; at thirty I took my stand; at forty I came to be free from doubts; at fifty I understood the Decree of Heaven; at sixty my ear was atuned; at seventy I followed my heart’s desire without overstepping the line.’ (Lau 1979, Book II, p. 63)

Wisdom here is connected to the older traditions of religious piety, moral endeavor. Moreover, this text suggests that from the Confucian point of view, there are no naturally pious people; but rather that piety is the result of continuous self-directed effort. Furthermore, Confucius recognized that in this process the teacher will make mistakes and freely acknowledged when he was mistaken himself. Indeed, he went as far as to express his gratitude to others when they pointed them out to him. The Analects record:

When Wu-ma Chi recounted this to him the Master said, ‘I am a fortunate man. Whenever I make a mistake, other people are sure to notice it. (Lau 1979, Book VII, p. 90)

Tzu-kung said, ‘The gentleman’s errors are like an eclipse of the sun and moon in that when he errs the whole world sees him doing so and when he reforms the whole world looks up to him. (Lau 1979, Book XIX, pp. 155–156)

Related to this point, learning in community was critical to Confucius, with not only the teacher supervising the students, but students also supervising their teacher’s behavior! Characteristic of the Confucian tradition in education is the requirement that claims and behavior are consistent in principle and not because of social status, seniority, or other perceived distinctions.

The wealth of the Chi Family was greater than that of the Duke of Chou, and still Ch’iu helped them add further to that wealth by raking in the taxes. The Master said, ‘He is no disciple of mine. You, my young friends, may attack him openly to the beating of drums.’ (Lau 1979, Book XI, p. 108)

Chiu was a very appreciative student of Confucius, and he had excellent management skills, but he had exploited the tenant of the family, who was not personal and committed to the interests of society. Confucius sought (harshly) to expel him from the school in association with his students.
In conclusion, in this and other ways, Confucius has much to teach modern educators about teaching. Indeed, in these present times, on numerous occasions hard-pressed educational professionals worry about how to balance personal and professional life, including how to attend to the needs of their own children. One final passage from the Analects may offer enlightenment, concerning a conversation between a disciple and Ch’en Kang, Confucius’ son:

Once my father was standing by himself. As I crossed the courtyard with quickened steps, he said, “Have you studied the Odes?” I answered, “No.” “Unless you study the Odes you will be ill-equipped to speak.” He retorted. I retired and studied the Odes.

Another day, my father was again standing by himself. As I crossed the courtyard with quickened steps, he said, “Have you studied the rites?” I answered,” No.” “Unless you study the rites you will be ill-equipped to take your stand.” I retired and studied the rites. I have been taught these two things.

Ch’en Kang retired delighted and said, ‘I asked one question and got three answers. I learned about the Odes, I learned about the rites and I learned that a gentleman keeps aloof from his son.’ (Lau 1979, Book XV, pp. 141–142)

Take heart! Confucius for one did not regard neglect of ones’ own progeny to be an educator’s problem!


  1. Cao, Y., & Liu, J. (2016, November 22). What is the theory of education in practice (Translation from the Chinese), Guangming newspaper.Google Scholar
  2. Lau, D. C. (tran.) (1979). The analects (Lun yü) (Penguin classics). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  3. Xu, C., & Lao, A. (tran.) (2000). The book of rites (selections). Jinan: Shandong Friendship Press, pp. 255. Google Scholar

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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Literature and Cultural Studies, Faculty of HumanitiesEducation University of Hong KongHong KongChina
  2. 2.School of EducationUniversity of BristolBristolUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Liz Jackson
    • 1
  • Janet Orchard
  • Cong Lin
  1. 1.University of Hong KongHong KongChina