A wonderfully streamlined, agenda-free biography of China’s greatest intellectual.
Chin (Four Sisters of Hofei, 2002, etc.) corrects centuries of misquoting, projection, over-analysis and general wrongheadedness about the words and thoughts of Confucius (551–479 BCE). Exerting to this day an indescribable influence on China, he is so intertwined with its state and society that it seems impossible to see the man anymore, much less understand what he was trying to say. “We give him credit for all that has gone right and wrong in China because we do not really know him,” Chin writes. Few facts are available about his life, and the gaps have often, at times fancifully, been filled by disciples writing centuries later. Chin eschews this temptation, concentrating instead on what is known—or what she at least thinks she knows—about his life and teachings. Born as a common gentleman—meaning that he could be educated but otherwise would have to make his own way in the world—Confucius seems to have spent a good deal of his life in service to various courts. He moved frequently, not always for clear reasons, and often had around him a group of students willing to act as foils for his philosophical wit. A true scholar, Confucius had a few core beliefs but no overarching set of ideas to which he tried to force all situations to bend. (Chin approves.) Revered for his wisdom and humility, he nevertheless had a pragmatic side: “I have never refused to teach anyone who approaches me on his own with a bundle of dried meat.”
Confucius finally gets his due. Chin sticks to the facts as she can discern them and lets the master speak for himself.