Sagely Perspectives

Lives of Confucius: Civilization's Greatest Sage Through the Ages - Michael Nylan, Thomas Wilson

During my time at KU I took a class on Confucius (from here on, Kongzi). While it’s focus was the great sage’s teachings, it was through the lens of others, his followers in later times as well as some contemporaries. It was taught by a young man who the students called Scott, who was making his life’s academic work consist of Chinese Philosophy. The class was during a spring semester. This time a year became a perfect metaphor for how my mind opened up when studying these ancient texts. Going from a dormant cold remembrance of spring to a more visceral understanding of it’s joys. This class was not the first time I explored Kongzi’s teachings, but it had been years before. At this point, I was older, I had learned more about Chinese history and culture. I found my old copy of D.C. Lau’s translation of The Analects to be out dated. 


The class introduced me to the debates surrounding the Sage. I was unfamiliar with the finer points of the different positions of arguing intellectuals. Their arguments were based in their interpretations, not unlike many religious scholars. However, interpretation was everything when trying to gauge what kind of impact Kongzi had on China, for different interpretations held sway at different times in history. The class’s goal was just to cover the ancient Chinese texts concerned with Kongzi and introduced the fundamental paradigms surrounding this field of study. So, when I found the book Lives of Confucius: Civilization’s Greatest Sage Through the Ages by Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson, that claimed to adequately discuss these warring paradigms of Kongzi, I was skeptical. Kongzi is no small topic of inquiry. Could one little book take on such a large topic as his legacy and still leave enough meat to digest? What I found in this work was a well structured introduction into the Sage’s legacy, much to my surprise.


The book is divided up well. It is chronologically organized by who first wrote about the master. So, the reader starts with the image that the famous historian Sima Qian created during the time of the Han Dynasty. As the chapters progress, the reader moves through time to modern day, while learning about the most dramatic changes in people’s view of Kongzi. Each chapter outlines the then current interpretations of the Sage’s wisdom and how it was practically applied. This works well as the last chapter is really asking questions about how Kongzi should be continued to be viewed. How his teachings might be a source of salvation for our out of control societies. 

Such a subject might be a bit dry for some and even those of us who enjoy it can find some author’s philosophical waxing too dull to bear. Nylan and Wilson, however, keep the discussion moving swiftly by not being overbearing with their knowledge. While the chapters are long and detailed the authors get to the point fairly fast without letting the reader get lost in all the different names and Dynasties and dates over four thousand years of history. They also don’t play favorites with view points, at least not until the end when more of their personnel views become apparent. They even included a recreation of one of Kongzi’s decedents offering a ritual sacrifice to Kongzi centuries after his death, which adds a nice little bit of narrative to enjoy.


What complaints I have about the book are few, but irksome even for an amateur academic as myself. They used endnotes instead if footnotes. A minor thing, I know, but bothersome nonetheless. At least they used notes. It is impossible to count the number of books on academic topics allowed to float around the market without any sense of accountability, a thought that distresses me greatly. The authors move back and forth between calling the Sage Confucius and Kongzi, I wish they would have picked one, preferably Kongzi. The last critical view I have is not a complaint, but a curiosity. As I read I couldn’t help but wonder who their intended audience was. The work swung between a beginner level, at which they would explain basics, which was just review for me. Yet, it shifted to a more expert level, in which they assumed the reader would understand certain aspects of Chinese culture and history. In the end, it seems a good text for undergrads taking higher level courses. However, for the general public, I would not recommend this to someone who has no idea who Kongzi is, or does not have any real academic exposure to Chinese history. There would simply be too much confusion. Yet, I feel that the authors explained themselves well enough that an intelligent person could wade through this work and come out with a nugget of wisdom. It is simply not a good starting point for people new to the topic.


In conclusion, this book would be a good place to go to after getting some general exposure to the topic. It would help broaden a person’s understanding of Kongzi’s place in Chinese culture and the effect his writing might still have on our future.  If you have read The Analects you could take a swing at this, but there is a healthy bit of history mixed in with the philosophy. A historical understanding is more important for this book rather than knowing what is in the centuries old text, for the authors do explain the meaning and their use of each part of The Analects. However, reading The Analects would be very helpful. I had an enjoyable time reading this book and will end up keeping it on my bookshelf. There is great list of suggested readings, plus some very nice ideas I would like to re-explore again in the future. For anyone who better wishes to understand this enduring, yet highly debatable, timeless Sage, Nylan and Wilson’s work should be of help. 

 Giant, realistic Kongzi by artist Zhang Huang

Giant, realistic Kongzi by artist Zhang Huang.