Confucius - Founder of the first vocational school in Chinese history

May 15, 2021                                      

Confucius, 孔子Kǒng Zǐ (551–479 B.C.), was a great Chinese Master of Education and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period. Legend has it that he had 3000 disciples. I wonder, how did Confucius build up his own knowledge system? With this question in mind, I did my study. Confucius could not seriously start learning until he was 15-year-old. Based on the materials found, it can be concluded that Kong Zi mostly did self-study, and he was the first self-taught big education master in Chinese history. Before he was 20-year-old, Kong Zi found himself a (so called) white collar job in the most powerful noble enterprise. Before 30, Kong Zi started a vocational school to train his disciples the needed skills to live a better life.

    Kong Zi’s father 孔纥 Kǒng Hé, was a nobleman. Kong He’s first wife gave birth of nine children, all were daughters. His concubine gave birth of a son, the son however was with foot disease. He finally got another concubine Yan Zhengzai (颜徵在) who brought Kong Zi into the world. Kong He was then already 66 years old, and Yan was not even 20. Kong He died shortly after Kong Zi was born. Kong Zi was brought up by his single mother and in an ordinary family. Kong Zi learned reading from his mother and his grandpa. He also learned some practical skills like playing trumpet and driving carriage because he wanted to help his mother in household.  

    Confucius’s thoughts and the dialogues with his disciples are collected in the book “Analects”, 论语 Lún Yǔ. In Chapter 2.4 of Analects, Confucius remarked: “At fifteen I had made up my mind to give myself up to serious studies. At thirty I had formed my opinions and judgment (吾十有五而志于学, 三十而立)”. Confucius did not get his noble title until his mother passed away, so he was then about 15-year-old. To gain the noble title was not an easy thing for a 15-year-old young man. Advised by the elderly, Kong Zi parked his mother’s coffin along a big road and required to bury his mother with his father together. Fortunately, there were no any boys left in his father’s family, Kong Zi was officially identified and regained the noble title of his father’s family.

   Kong Zi was modest and had very strong desire to learn. After he got his noble title back, he had opportunities to enter the meetings of noble classes and had the access to the important places. In Chapter 3.15 of Analects, it says: “子入太庙, 每事问”. Which means that Kong Zi asked many 'why' and 'how' questions when he entered the Grand Temple, a place dedicated to enshrining the ancestors of the emperors and the most important generals. Confucius considered ‘to learn actively’ as the correct manner to gain knowledge. In Chapter 5.14 of Analects, Confucius remarked, “Not ashamed to seek for information from others more ignorant than himself. 不耻下问Bùchǐxiàwèn“. In Chapter 7.21, it says, ”When three men meet, one of them who is anxious to learn can always learn something of the other two "三人行, 则必有我师 Sānrénxíng, zé bìyǒu wǒshī“. Kong Zi did what he said, and he taught himself to be a versatile person.

    Kong Zi became gradually fame but he did not forget the ordinary people. Chapter 15.38 of Analects recorded of “有教无类(Yǒu jiào wú lèi)”. Confucius remarked,People from every class can be taught”. It was the first time in Chinese history to openly declare that everyone could learn regardless of background, personality, or interest. Confucius's disciples were all kinds of people who asked for advice sincerely, such as nobles, wealthy businessmen, commoners, the previous wrongdoers, and even the street ruffian who originally rushed to Kong Zi in order to get some 'protection fee' but then became one of Confucius’s top and loyal disciples. Many from barbarian regions also went to follow Confucius. Kong Zi used so-called blended learning to teach his disciples differently so that they could grow better along their own ways and to serve in different positions later.

    The core principles of Confucius’ teaching can be summarized as: 传道,授业,解惑,which means: “Teaching the skills, Preaching the Ways, and Solving the puzzles”. At the beginning, he taught disciples the basic vocational skills that job markets required - the “Six skills 六艺 Liù Yì”: 礼,乐,射,御,书,, Lǐ Yuè Shè Yù Shū Shù. They referred respectively to Rituals, Music, Archery, Driving (chariot), Calligraphy and Arithmetic. Later, Kong Zi started to teach them the “Six Classics 六经 LJīng”. The Six Classics includes “Shījīng”Shàngshū”Yí lǐ”Yuè jīng”Zhōuyì”and Chūnqiū”, and the Six Classics has been considered to be the Confucian Classics.

    Many of Confucius’s educational concepts are still very practical until now. In Chapter13.6 of Analects, Confucius remarked, “If a man is in order in his personal conduct, he will get served even without taking the trouble to give orders. But if a man is not in order in his personal conduct, he may give orders, but his orders will not be obeyed. 其身正,不令而行;其身不正,虽令不从。”. In Chapter 11.21, Analects noted a good example of how Confucius taught his disciples differently, we call it now ‘teaching with differentiation’. Two disciples asked the same question: “If I should carry out into practice any truth which I had learned? 闻斯行诸?”, Confucius provided them, to their surprise, with different answers. Because the advice was given based on the two disciples’ own situations and personal characters. 

    One saying in Chapter 15.40 attracted my attention, Confucius remarked, 辞达而已矣, which means: “Language should be understandable and nothing more.” Just to be understandable! The evolution of Chinese language seems to show that Chinese keeps in developing itself in a more simplified way, yes, understandable should be enough. To master the language till make yourself understood requires already hard work, the same to Kong Zi. After regaining his noble title back, what Kong Zi firstly needed to do, was to learn the noble language to gain the access, and to make himself understood in a much wider area's and ranks.

    Confucius’s teaching not only helped the disciples to get better jobs, but also preserved most of his precious thoughts. He encouraged disciples to ask, to review, to discuss, to reflect, to conduct their life as what they have learned. Confucius was always modest and mild. His teaching practice still inspires our modern learning. His educational principles embody the concept of universal education that had never existed in ancient China, and have had a profound impact on China's education for more than 2,500 years. Confucius was widely considered one of the most important and influential individuals in human history. His teaching and philosophy form the basis of East Asian culture and society, and remain influential today.

Kitty Miao, May ‘21