Like many artists and thinkers who would come after him, Master Kong (better known to English readers as Confucius) faced the frustrating experience of not being fully appreciated by his contemporaries during his lifetime. Although Confucius left a legacy of wisdom that would keep his name famous for around 2.5 thousand years and counting, he evidently lived a life in which he often felt disappointed, with many ambitions left unfulfilled. He apparently yearned for a more prestigious position in life than that of an itinerant tutor and advisor. Confucius reportedly did fill some government positions from time to time, but his forays into governance were usually short and unrewarding. Frustration about his inability to maintain a steady high-profile state leadership position leaks though in Confucius’ sayings, such as “If only someone were to make use of me, even for a single year, I could do a great deal; and in three years I could finish off the whole work” (The Analects, book 13, section 10). In times when Confucius was in a gloom about his unfulfilled ambitions, he was said to have sometimes fantasized about living abroad. Confucius’ students took note of their teacher’s musings and recorded them in texts such as the aforementioned Analects of Confucius.
Within The Analects, Confucius’ admiration for the so-called “barbarians” can be seen, and his growing fantasy about possibly traveling to live with them pops up now and then in sections of the book. In one of his earliest mentions of respect for China’s neighbors, Confucius reportedly stated, “The barbarians of the East and North have retained their princes. They are not in such a state of decay as we in China” (Analects, book 3, section 5). This vision of a less chaotic environment seemed to appeal to Confucius, especially as his government ambitions continued to be thwarted.
In the sayings of Book 5 of The Analects, a reported comment of Confucius can be found where the frustrated teacher proclaimed, “The way makes no progress. I shall get upon a raft and float out to sea” (Analects, 5, 6). He likely hoped his raft would wash up in the lands of the barbarians he admired. Disciples around the philosopher apparently stopped their master from carrying out this particular fantasy, but his thoughts of living abroad continued to persist. By book 9 of The Analects, the ongoing struggle of Confucius’ students to keep their teacher from leaving the Chinese kingdoms reappeared. In one of the most explicit sayings on this matter, the text stated: “The master wanted to settle among the Nine Wild Tribes of the East. Someone said, I am afraid you would find it hard to put up with their lack of refinement. The Master said, Were a true gentleman to settle among them there would soon be no trouble about lack of refinement” (The Analects, 9,13). Despite the teacher’s retort, his disciples convinced him to stay, as there is no evidence that Confucius ever acted on his fantasy of joining the barbarians.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Ming Dynasty depiction of Confucius, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).