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November 19, 2021

Responding To: Inquiries into the Future of Cosmopolitanism

Confucius as a Cosmopolitan: Thought and Practice

Peng Guoxiang

In a previously published article I wrote, “While we know that Kongzi(Confucius) traveled around many principalities in China, we should realize that such travel at that time, during the Spring and Autumn period, was truly a transnational venture, completely different from how we travel between provinces in China today. Before the Qin dynasty, the writings, languages, currencies, and clothing of various principalities were different. Kongzi did not quite need a visa but obviously he had to face the challenges of the vast differences and diversities that existed. Kongzi did not promote his ideas only in his home principality of Lu. He once said ‘should the way fail to prevail, I prefer to float about on the sea by taking a raft’ 道不行乘桴浮於海 (Analects 5.7). His world extended far beyond the so-called Middle Kingdom. Therefore, it is not farfetched to regard Confucius as a cosmopolitan and a world citizen.”Footnote 1 In this article, I will elaborate the point that Confucius is a cosmopolitan in order to provide a description of an example of Confucian cosmopolitanism.

My arguments are in two parts: what Confucius as a cosmopolitan said and what Confucius as a cosmopolitan did, namely, his thought and practice that both define him as a cosmopolitan. We will see, no matter what kind of cosmopolitanism we have in mind, Confucius exemplified the fundamentals of cosmopolitanism. The significance of the example of Confucius is that it helps us to reconsider how to live a cosmopolitan life in the contemporary world imbued with various emotional nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and secessionism.

Thought: What Confucius Said as a Cosmopolitan

There are some words of Confucius that clearly reveal his cosmopolitan outlook and thought. The passage incited above, “should the way fail to prevail, I prefer to float about on the sea by taking a raft,” is just one example. This statement makes it obvious that Confucius did not limit his way to a certain place, not only the principality of Lu, where Confucius was born and grew up, but also China. “I prefer to float about on the sea by taking a raft,” means that Confucius could choose to leave if his way cannot be realized in the land of China. The message this statement expresses is repeated elsewhere in the Analects. The disciples of Confucius recorded that “the master was wishing to go and live among the nine wild tribes of the east子欲居九夷.” When asked “they are barbarian areas. How can you do such a thing?” Confucius answered, “If a virtuous man dwelt among them, what barbarian would there be?”(Analects 9.14) This dialogue between Confucius and his disciples also indicated that Confucius did not care about living in a so-called barbarian area. For him, wherever a virtuous person lives is no longer a barbarian area. On the one hand, this passage means a virtuous person is able to transform the environment where he/she lives. On the other hand, it means that a virtuous person is not attached to a particular territory.

In addition to the statements in the Analects, usually acknowledged as the most reliable source of Confucius’ teachings, there are more forceful records of the cosmopolitan thought of Confucius elsewhere. There is a story about the King of Chu who lost his bow while hunting and Confucius’ comment on the King of Chu’s response to this event. When his attendants asked if they should search for it, the King of Chu said, “No, the King of Chu has lost his bow, but since the people of Chu will get it, the bow is then not lost. Why do we still want to look for it?” Obviously, what the King of Chu said intends not only to show his generosity but also to let the people of Chu know that he loves his people and is willing to share his property. We have to acknowledge that the King of Chu’s response was wise and not self-centered, even though it was just a gesture. But the comment that Confucius made on King Chu’s response is more surprising. Confucius said, “It is a pity that the King of Chu is not great enough. Why didn’t he simply say ‘a person lost the bow, other people will get it. Why must that person be from Chu?” Why did Confucius consider the King of Chu to be not great enough? The answer is that the King of Chu’s generosity and love were still limited to the people of Chu. For Confucius, by contrast, generosity and love should be extended to all people under heaven. What Confucius advocated here is obviously a cosmopolitanism that goes beyond a particular territory and ethnicity.

As a matter of fact, Confucius himself has a clear self-awareness of being a cosmopolitan. If one of the defining characteristics of a cosmopolitan is not being attached to the place where he or she was born and grew up, when Confucius claimed, in a humorous manner, to be “a person of the East, West, South, and North,” an image of a paradigmatic cosmopolitan is vividly revealed.

Practice: What Confucius Did as a Cosmopolitan

What Confucius said is consistent with what he did. In addition to the cosmopolitan ideas mentioned above, as a cosmopolitan, Confucius was also defined by his longtime travel among different principalities.

The territory of China in the Spring and Autumn Period was limited but divided into many principalities. It is difficult to specify how many principalities there were. This is not only because different historical books have different records but also because the decreasing number of principalities was frequently due to incessant wars of annexation. Lots of small and weak principalities were annexed by bigger and stronger ones. It was said that 35 principalities were annexed by Duke Huan of Qi, 17 by Duke Xian of Jin, 26 by King Zhuang of Chu, and 20 by Duke Mu of Qin. By the late Spring and Autumn Period, about only 20 principalities were left. Except for Qin and Jin in the west, Yan in the north, and Wu and Yue in the south, Confucius had visited most of the other main principalities, especially those in central China.

Let us have a look at two maps. Map one is a map of the principalities in the late Spring and Autumn Period; map two is a map showing the main principalities that Confucius had visited. Before traveling around the principalities, Confucius had once visited the principality of Qi and stayed there about two years.

After Qi, the next principality Confucius visited after he left his motherland was Wei. Altogether, in his travels, he visited Wei four times. Then Confucius visited Song, the motherland of his father. The third was Zheng, where Confucius was highly respected. Before leaving for Chu, Confucius and his disciples once ran into desperate situations in two smaller principalities, Chen and Cai, where they ran out of food and Confucius was threatened by local people and nearly died because of a misunderstanding.

Why did Confucius leave his motherland for other principalities? Because he thought his way was not provincial but universal. In his view, the people of Lu and elsewhere are the same human beings; people everywhere rather than just people somewhere, should be treated and respected equally. Viewed from this perspective we can understand why Confucius said, “a person lost the bow, other people will get it. Why must that person be from Chu?” when he heard the story of King of Chu who lost his bow.

There is a well-known story about Confucius during his travels around the principalities. Confucius was once separated from his disciples in Zheng and standing outside the east gate alone. When Zi Gong, one of Confucius’ disciples, was looking for Confucius, someone described Confucius to Zi Gong. In the description, parts of Confucius' physique were compared to that of some great historical men including Yao, Zi Cha, and Yu but other parts of his physique were described as being like that of a homeless dog. Intriguingly, what Confucius accepted was nothing but the image of homeless dog.

This story has always been interpreted as a scene that reflected Confucius’s humility, good humor, and optimism in a terrible situation. But why did Confucius accept the “homeless dog” characterization with pleasure and turn down other descriptions related to those great men? In addition to expressing his humility, good humor, and optimism, I think the “homeless dog” image should be understood as a cosmopolitan metaphor. A homeless dog, positively understood, means precisely a dog who is not attached to any one place.

Without a steadfast belief in his calling bestowed by heaven that the way should prevail in all-under-heaven, it cannot be imagined that Confucius was able to travel 14 years around the chaotic world and, particularly, was courageous and peaceful enough to face various difficulties including death threats.

Concluding Remarks

What Confucius exemplified is a rooted cosmopolitanism, which I have elaborated in “Rethinking Nationalism, Patriotism, and Cosmopolitanism: A Confucian Perspective.” Let me here use a story about, and the words of, Confucius recorded in Mencius to illustrate a little more what this rooted cosmopolitanism entails.

Mencius said, “When Confucius was leaving Qi, he strained off with his hand the water in which his rice was being rinsed, took the rice, and went away. When he left Lu, he said, ‘I will set out by-and-by’-it was right he should leave the country of his motherland in this way. When it was proper to go away quickly, he did so; when it was proper to delay, he did so; when it was proper to keep in retirement, he did so; when it was proper to go into office, he did so - this was Confucius.”

In Mencius’ description, the way Confucius left Qi was different from the way he left Lu. In the case of the former, he was in a hurry whereas in the latter he seemed a little reluctant. According to the interpretation of Mencius, since Lu is the motherland of Confucius, it is understandable that Confucius left in that manner. As I mentioned in my previous essay, patriotism is a natural feeling and does not need to be advocated explicitly. Nevertheless, even though Lu was Confucius’ motherland, Confucius did not limit himself to just this one place. Once he realized that the way could not be carried out in Lu, Confucius chose to leave. In this regard, no principality was exceptional. If the hesitance Confucius showed when he left Lu indicated his root, then his leaving Lu, Qi, and other principalities where he thought that the way could not be realized, is obviously suggestive of his cosmopolitan mentality. In this sense, Confucius exemplified a rooted cosmopolitan perspective.

In a world now full of pernicious nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and secessionism, rethinking and re-appealing to cosmopolitanism is of great significance. Exploring conceptions of cosmopolitanism that go beyond limited cultural traditions is a cosmopolitan way as such. In addition to various conceptions of cosmopolitanism, we need more people who can truly live a cosmopolitan life. If exemplary teaching is more powerful than theoretical discourses, I think Confucius, among other great figures in other spiritual and intellectual traditions, provides a vivid and concrete example of being a cosmopolitan. Whatever conceptions of cosmopolitanism we can create, I think, the core values shared by all versions of cosmopolitanism are fundamental and central for a real cosmopolitan life.

1. Guoxiang Peng, “Rethinking Nationalism, Patriotism, and Cosmopolitanism: A Confucian Perspective,” Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture, Volume 32, 2019, pp. 109-110.

Peng Guoxiang is the Qiu Shi Distinguished Professor of Chinese Philosophy, Intellectual History and Religions and director of the Ma Yifu International Center for the Studies in Humanities at Zhejiang University.

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