Of the greatest East Asian thinkers, Confucius (551–479 BC) is usually described as making the biggest impact on Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese culture. Yet the major sources on the sage were edited, compiled, elaborated and even invented over 200 years after his death; little can be said of him with certainty.
Nonetheless, for centuries his supposed observations in the collection known as the Analects on human relations, politics and ritual, and their often much later interpretations, formed the basis of Chinese state doctrine. So pervasive was his influence, even in the twentieth century, that Mao Zedong took particular care, in compiling his pantheon of ‘ghosts and monsters’, to single out Confucius, and the Chairman's Red Guards dug up what purported to be his grave. Nowadays, the Party praises Confucius: he occupies a central position in the regime's newest vogue – ‘harmony’ – and Beijing sponsors Confucius Institutes around the world. (In the world of the Chinese Communist Party ‘harmony’ means no multiple voices, diverse agendas or genuine competition in politics.)
Among the latest scholars to tackle this uncertain but fascinating subject is Annping Chin, who teaches history at Yale. I described one of her earlier books, Four Sisters of Hofei, in these pages (LR, May 2003) as a ‘wonderful book, elegiac, poignant, and recreative of a lost world’. Chin's touch