Story about Confucius

Folklore Item: “Supposedly, Confucius taught that if you are a teacher, and if a student comes to you and can’t pay, if they give you a token of appreciation, then you have to teach them.”

Background and Context:

“Confucius had a book of sayings that his disciples wrote for him. We don’t actually know if he said all of them, or how authentic it is. But, when you talk about Confucianism, it is treated as canon. It’s just a collection of sayings that he supposedly said and what Confucianism is all about. It’s a bit like the New Testament, but since Confucius isn’t taken as God, it’s a bit different. He’s a philosopher, he is not a religious figure. That [the book of sayings] is something that our parents would make us memorize—they would recite them to us and make us recite them back, even before we could read. It was the official philosophy some two thousand years ago, and always has been until recent years. Confucianism was endorsed in the same way that Christianity was endorsed in the late Roman Empire.

“Basically, the philosophy of Confucius is that you’re supposed to be a gentleman, which is defined slightly differently from the Western gentleman definition. You’re supposed to be kind, to be forgiving, to be polite, to be prudent or frugal, and to allow others before yourself. And I was taught all the sayings as a child, but I can’t remember them anymore.

“We know that he was supposed to be a teacher who took in students for the price of a beef jerky. Dried beef wasn’t a unit of exchange, it was a symbol of exchange in ancient China. That was supposed to be the teaching philosophy of all teachers in China in all time: if a student comes and he wants to learn and he can pay for it, even if it’s just with a beef jerky, you’re supposed to take him in and teach him with all your heart. My mother happens to be a teacher. So, when she was teaching and there were students who could only pay half of the fee, I think every semester she took about three or four people just for free if they really couldn’t pay for it. She treated the Confucian philosophy as her personal philosophy. She told us that if you teach somebody and they can’t pay, if they can give a token of appreciation, you have to teach them. It was important that we learned from Confucius and treated Confucius with respect.”

Q. How do we know that Confucius taught students for free?

A. It’s been recorded in words—there have been books upon books written about Confucius, at his time and after his time. And people will say it’s true. Do we actually have archeological evidence? I don’t think so. I mean, it’s really hard to gather evidence for something as minute as what he took. But it really fits in with the Confucian philosophy, so even if it’s not true, we’re taught that it is. But it’s a good thing to do anyways—on principle, it’s true. If you’re going to teach, it means that you really want other people to know what you know.

Analysis: Confucius appears to have become a folklorized historical figure in China, since stories such as this anecdote are widely accepted, even though we do not know for sure whether they are entirely factual. This story also reveals the widespread influence of Confucian philosophy in China and Taiwan today—people such as the informant’s mother are deeply committed to living in accordance with Confucius’ philosophy, as well as raising their children within this philosophy.