Today, the Chinese people are celebrating the birth in 551 BC of Confucius. (Or they may be done celebrating – I’m not sure if it’s still the 28th there.)
For a while, the 2,500-year-old tradition of remembering his birthday was discontinued, but things have relaxed a lot, and Chinese tradition is the in thing again.
Confucius, like all great spiritual leaders, is half-real, half-mythic. Although he is revered as a great teacher, there exists not a single written document that can be traced directly to him. All of his philosophy has been expounded by disciples and students. He was introduced to the West by an Italian priest nearly two thousand years after he lived.
And, like most spiritual leaders, his teachings have been interpreted in different ways. Early on, the divide was between a legalistic version of Confucianism and a purely humanistic version. Eventually, writings based on his teaching became a test for civil service placement for almost 1,500 years.
Zi gong (a disciple of Confucius) asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?”
The Master replied: “How about ‘shu’ [reciprocity]: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?”
His name, btw, is more like Kung fu-tzu, which means ‘Master Kung,’ but master in the sense of teacher. His emphasis on education and learning at least partly explains China’s reverence for scholars.
Interestingly, the Kung family has the oldest documented family pedigree in the world. Since his death, 83 generations of Kungs have been recorded. There is a Confucius Genealogy Compilation Committee and it asserts that Confucius has 2 million direct descendants that are registered and probably another million unregistered. In 2009, women were included in the registery for the first time.
And of course, these are only the historically documented descendants. Many moved to other countries, notably Korea and Taiwan, and those numbers are only approximate.
Yale professor Joseph T. Chang has created a mathematical model that demonstrates that given the population of the planet in 551 BC and assuming even a small degree of cross-cultural mating, there is a mathematical certainty that everyone alive today is a descendant of Confucius.