- Lives of Confucius: Civilization's Greatest Sage Through the Ages
Almost a century ago, the renowned historian Gu Jiegang (1893-1980) remarked that each era has its own Kongzi, and in fact each era has had many disparate Kongzis. Such varying personalities, he continued, mystify Everyman, who is longing for a true Kongzi.1 Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson's Lives of Confucius: Civilization's Greatest Sage Through the Ages is written with precisely these readers in mind. As a result of the authors' expertise in early China and late imperial China, Lives of Confucius chronicles not only the unsuccessful life of the historical Kongzi, a fact that has often been conveniently forgotten or apologetically explained away, but also Kongzi's legacy and cultural immortality as it has been shaped by the various agendas of self-appointed followers and ardent critics, and maintained through a much celebrated textual tradition and local and imperial cults.
Beginning with the two earliest available portraits of Kongzi in Sima Qian's Shiji and the Analects, Nylan skillfully weaves the varied and piecemeal second-century B.C.E. accounts of the life of the historical Kongzi into a lucid narrative. By highlighting the major turns in an eventful journey of self-fulfillment in a troubled time, Nylan [End Page 429] presents a Kongzi of humble origins, with a forceful personality and strong ambitions, who ended up, despite his efforts, underappreciated and unsuccessful. Although such a bleak image of the "Supreme Sage" might leave modern general readers and beginning students in uncomfortable confusion, this honest introduction well paves the way for the main thesis and approach of this 2010 reexamination of Kongzi. Precisely because there is no one convincing portrait of the "authentic" Kongzi, and because "the essence of Kongzi's life and teachings was just as hotly contested in 100 bce, in the courtly circles that produced Sima Qian's version and the Analects, as it is in China today" (p. 26), Nylan and Wilson follow Gu Jiegang's advice to take "one Kongzi at a time" (p. 246). They provide six carefully selected and distinctive perspectives to illustrate the multifaceted "lives" of Kongzi.
As Nylan observes, "Without critics, Confucius would be nothing" (p. 29). Selecting five such critics - Mozi, Yang Zhu, Han Feizi, Zhuangzi, and Wang Chong - Nylan teases out a Kongzi as he appeared to rivals and contenders from the fifth century B.C.E. to the first century c.e. Contextualizing Kongzi and his teachings in light of these critical assessments functions, as Nylan points out, to dutifully remind us that Kongzi - in his lifetime and several centuries after his death - was only one of "the Hundred Masters" who sought the patronage of the ruling elite, and, in fact, he was not even the most appealing one. Only through historical transformation and manipulation is his image as a "loser" in his lifetime gradually neutralized and eventually forgotten, his elevation to the "Supreme Sage" in the Han dynasty achieved, and the final apotheosis to the most important figure and a cultural symbol in the late imperial and contemporary periods reached.
The third chapter, "Kongzi, the Uncrowned King," carries forward the analysis of the "gradual de-stigmatization and transformation" of Kongzi in the Han. Nylan firmly rejects all three parts - the canonization of the Confucian texts, the bureaucratization of the Confucian classicists, and the creation of the Grand Academy in the capital - that constitute what she calls a "myth" regarding Kongzi's legacy in the early Han (p. 70). This "myth," Nylan points out, concerning the purported role of Emperor Wu's, and, more broadly, the Han's, exclusive patronage of "Confucianism" in establishing it as the sole state ideology in the early Han, features in both early histories such as the Hanshu and many modern histories of China (pp. 70-72). However, as Nylan argues, "the figure of Kongzi was periodically invoked by the court, but only as part of a much larger group of worthies and gods...