Question about education in Confucius’s time

I am posting this on behalf of a graduate student at University College London…

Dear All,

I am interested in discovering about the schooling/education that Confucius would have received, but have found great difficulty in locating readings on this. I know Confucius studied at his local village school and then went to the state capital to continue his studies. Would anybody be able to provide some information on this, and or recommend any texts (in English) on the ‘education system’, the curriculum and any fees that might have been paid in Confucius’ time, and who might have been permitted to study?

Thank you in advance for your kind consideration.

Qasir Shah

9 replies on “Question about education in Confucius’s time”

  1. I am hesitant to advise you since I am not conversant in Chinese sources, but since you asked for English sources, perhaps my suggestions would prove profitable. You might try reading the early parts of Chen Guying’s “Rediscovering the Roots of Chinese Thought.” This is a somewhat polemical text that seeks to prove the provenance of Chinese philosophy as beginning with Lao Tzu, but it does broach the subject of a teaching relationship with Kongzi and the cultural differences between the state of Lu and Chu and would touch upon difference in education. If Chen’s thesis has merit, Kongzi was inclined to travel to further his education. Page three of the text references a list of Kongzi’s teachers in Sima Qian, who’s text should be available in English. You might be able to backtrack in your research from there. Herlee Creel’s “Confucius and the Chinese Way” touches briefly on Kongzi’s education, pp. 27-28 and 75-76. It is possible that Kongzi’s schooling may have been not much more than a debating circle of friends, private tutoring, and hands-on ritual life. Peimin Ni’s “Confucius” views Kongzi’s education as “gongfu.” Of course, Kongzi put great emphasis on the “Shijing,” and researching its usage in the apparatus of education in the state of Lu could provide you with vein of resources to mine. All the best with your work.

    • Dear John,
      Thank you for your helpful hints; I’ll follow these and see where they lead.
      It really is quite difficult to find reliable information on whatever may have constituted ‘schooling’ during Confucius’ time.

  2. The idea that Confucius was an educated man is a later myth, so asking about his schooling is pointless. If you consult the earliest source, the Analects, you will find that in the early chapters, Confucius not only does not read the Classics, he does not even know of them. Indeed, it was his disciple Dz-sya (LY 6:13) who began the collection of songs that later grew into the Shr (Poetry) Classic. And so on. It is not until late in the Analects that “Confucius” is said to recommend study, This myth of the learned Confucius of course grew further in Han. In addition to our book The Original Analects (Columbia 1998), which separates the various strata of that basic text, there is a forthcoming book, Introducing Confucius, which tells his story in a much shorter space, down to the official acceptance of Confucianism (a quite evolved thing) under Han Wu-di. You might want to watch for it at your local newsstand, come January.

    • “Educated” could mean various things. I think we do not know that Confucius received no training, or that he was not learned; and I think we do not know that he could not read and write. I think asking others about things one does not know is rarely pointless, and I think it can be worthwhile to investigate things we do not know, including matters on which it is hard to think we already have a strong combination of evidence and argument, e.g. the relative dating of most pairs of Books of the Analects and how many many sections may have been interpolated into previously compiled Books of the Analects, and how and when the compilation of Songs began. I think it is important not to present what is unknown as though it were known.

  3. “Confucius’ education” is a topic certainly worth exploring. Come to think of it, much of Chinese traditional education is attributed to him, yet there seem to be few studies (in English, at least) which directly explore the matter. Good news is, Qasir’s student has stumbled upon an important topic worth exploring; bad news is, there don’t seem to be direct sources. One would need to scour through available sources – like Sima Qian and the Analects, as mentioned above (that is, whilst being conscious of their textual history and status as historical sources) – AND read about broader topics (e.g., Zhou culture, especially about scribes and aristocratic education) from which to draw inferences. Worth an entire dissertation!

  4. I’m fascinated by this statement:

    “I know Confucius studied at his local village school and then went to the state capital to continue his studies.”

    How do we know this? Or what I really mean is, Who said this?

  5. This is a topic rather obscure even in Chinese sources. There are a great number of contemporary Chinese books to depict the life of Confucius in very detailed way, but by and large, they are constructions based upon available historical accounts. As a Ru scholar not primarily oriented in philology, I would not dissect the Analects as much as the aforementioned sinological work does, although I do not oppose it; after all, Ruism is not Christianity, and thus, scholarship can be invested less in uncovering the true Confucius. However, I would not accept any all-too real and detailed depiction of Confucius’s life either since what we know from the historical account does not amount to much. So, in general, I accept the view received by the tradition: Confucius was a basically self-taught and broadly learned person, who opened the first private school in late Zhou to transmit ancient cultures. Anything else seems to succumb to the whims of perspectives that researchers bring to the project of uncovering the true Confucius. I may be wrong, and wait for correction. 🙂

  6. There’s a lot to unpack in asking questions like “Was Confucius educated?” or “How much schooling did Confucius have?” I’m glad there are a lot of unpackers on this comment string. Just a small point from my thinking: one underlying issue is the anachronism of “education” and “educated” for something that seems depicted more broadly in myths of Confucius as “cultured” or, more awkwardly, “ortho-cultured.” It encompasses how you clothe yourself and wear your hair as much as whether you can read, write, or recite.

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