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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #29 (July 19, 2005), page 15.

"Only in winter do the pine and cypress show they are evergreen."

Confucius: A Biography

By Jonathan Clements

Sutton Publishing, 2004

Hardcover, 136 pages, $16.95

By Josephine Bridges

Everybody knows of Confucius, but few know much about him," writes Jonathan Clements in his introduction to Confucius. If you want to know more about the man, this biography is a quick and entertaining read, rich with history and studded with the sayings for which the sage is known.

The author begins Confucius with a handy four-page chronology and ends it with some of the most amusing notes I have ever read in a scholarly work. In between, Clements uses his considerable story-telling skill to make "the troubled life of a teacher who lived two-and-a-half thousand years ago" come alive, while acknowledging that "hardly any of his biographical details are certain."

Each of the chapters begins with an epigraph from Confucius in which the philosopher comments on what he was thinking and doing at various ages. "At fifteen, I set my mind on learning," leads into the first chapter, "Ancestry and Early Life." Here we see the philosopher against the backdrop of the larger world in which he lived. "When Confucius was born," writes Clements, "Rome was still a collection of huts. Pythagoras had yet to develop his theory of geometry, Buddha was still not enlightened, and Jerusalem had yet to build its fabled Temple." Here we also learn such details as Confucius’s height, "probably over two metres."

The second chapter, "Scholar and Teacher," relates a conversation between Confucius and a grieving woman who explains to him that her father-in-law, husband, and son have all been killed by tigers. When Confucius asked if she had thought about moving to a safer locale, the woman tells him that there is no tyranny in the region where she lives. "‘Mark this well, oppressive government is fiercer than a tiger,’" says Confucius to his followers.

Confucius’s son Top Fish didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, we learn in "Editor and Recluse," the third chapter. "Growing up with a father whose sole income stemmed from teaching, Top Fish became an indifferent student at Confucius’s impromptu academy."

As "Statesman and Minister" Confucius proved himself more than competent, but those he advised didn’t always agree with his wise counsel. When the rival Honoured Duke sent Confucius’s master, the Decisive Duke, eighty dancing girls, "Confucius was deeply distrustful of the new arrivals, rightly believing them to be agents … deliberately sent to drive him and the Decisive Duke apart." When the Decisive Duke chose not to heed Confucius’s warning, "the dancing girls stayed, and Confucius left."

"Exile" is the next-to-last chapter, and it describes a time of great uncertainty for the philosopher. Here we learn that some of Confucius’s most famous words — "It is a pleasure to learn, and to put your learning to its appropriate use. It is a delight to receive friends from afar. It is a quality of the true of heart that they do not care they are not famous" — were likely to "have their origin in the period after Confucius’s fall from grace, when he was forced to wander from kingdom to kingdom, peddling his advisory services — not a statement by a generous host, but a plea by an itinerant guest."

In the final chapter, "Sage," Confucius seems grumpier than we expect from our wise elders, and this also keeps the reader’s interest. Confucius is annoyed at most of his students for "picking and choosing" among his teachings rather than accepting them in their entirety, and furious when a disciple asks his advice and then ignores it. He berates an old friend of his whom he finds meditating, accusing him of "squatting on his heels like a barbarian." But when a strange creature is captured during a hunt and Confucius is called upon to identify it, the sage takes the creature to be a terrible omen, and we sympathize with his vulnerability and sorrow.

Eleven black and white illustrations, including a gorgeous but historically inaccurate depiction by Hokusai, accompany the text. Fortunately, they are printed on good quality paper, unlike the rest of the book, which is on newsprint.

I’ll close with words Confucius used to describe himself, "just a normal man, who so loves the pursuit of knowledge, that its pursuit makes me forget to eat, and its attainment brings me joy, such that I forget my years."

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books

  Amazon