Roles of the Disciples in Confucianism

According to Sima Qian, few of Confucius' disciples fully understood his teachings.
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The disciples of of Confucius helped to spread their master's philosophy, which went on to become widely studied all over the world. Although some estimates -- such as the one by the Han court historian Sima Qian -- claim that Confucius' disciples numbered as many as 3,000, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a more reasonable estimate as being around 70. These disciples formed an early part of the Confucian tradition, and their debates, interpretations and challenges to their master's teachings formed an essential part of Confucian thought.

1 Attendance

During his life, Confucius' disciples attended to their master while following him, and when Confucius was forced to leave the office of the public works in the Lu court, his disciples followed him in his travels to find new employment. During their travels, Confucius and his disciples endured many hardships and even came close to starving. Although the search for a patron was unsuccessful, it was during this time that Confucius taught his philosophy to his disciples and encouraged them to study ancient Chinese texts.

2 Development

Since Confucius was teaching his disciples directly, many of his teachings dealt specifically with these disciples and their own personal weaknesses. For example, Confucius' warnings against greed were addressed to his disciple Fan Chi, which implied he was likely overly concerned with acquiring material goods. Similarly, Confucius warned against the dangers of laziness and a lack of moral integrity by criticizing his disciple Zai Wo who embodied those traits.

3 Continuity

Confucius' disciples provided a continuity of thought that helped attract new students to Confucianism. The philosophical school of Confucianism started out as a predominately oral tradition with masters passing on their knowledge to disciples. Confucius' initial disciples such as Master You and Master Zeng not only spread his teaching, but also went on to form their own Confucian schools. This created a tradition of masters and disciples, without which, Confucian thought would not have spread as quickly as it did.

4 Interpretation

The role of Confucian disciples was not limited to parroting his words. These disciples interpreted and explained their master's thought, thereby adding their own understanding to the Confucian tradition. After Confucius' death at the age of 72, his disciples compiled his teachings into the book "Analects" and other philosophical texts. However, this sometimes caused conflicting views. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the many variant versions of "Analects" and their sometimes competing ideas, are the result of the differing interpretations of the disciples.

James Stuart began his professional writing career in 2010. He traveled through Asia, Europe, and North America, and has recently returned from Japan, where he worked as a freelance editor for several English language publications. He looks forward to using his travel experience in his writing. Stuart holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and philosophy from the University of Toronto.