Even though Confucius is best known today as a teacher and philosopher, he could just as easily be described as a politician and policy wonk. Through his teachings his aim was to unite the weak and divided states that were vying for supremacy during his lifetime into a single prosperous country that was governed according to the same principles and practices that his hero, the Duke of Zhou, had implemented when laying the foundations for the growth of the Zhou dynasty five hundred years before his birth.
While Confucius ignominiously failed to achieve this objective, his teachings on governance still have great resonance today – though they are probably just as likely to be ignored by contemporary politicians as they were by the ruling class of Confucius’s time.
These teachings are succinctly captured in Chapter 5 of Book 1, in which he gives the following advice: “The way to rule a thousand-chariot state is to devote yourself to its affairs and fulfill your commitments; be economical in expenditure and love your subordinates; and mobilize the common people for labor at the right time of the year.”
The only explanation that needs to be added is that in ancient China, rulers had the right to “mobilize” the common people to work on public works projects such as irrigation systems for free. Confucius’s point is that rulers should only do this during the busy planting and harvesting periods. He is also hinting that if the ruler demanded too much free labor from his people, they would either rebel or flee to another state with a much more benign leader.
An ambitious politician himself, Confucius was a tireless networker eager to understand the prevailing political landscape. In Chapter 10, his follower Ziqin marvels that “When the Master arrives in another state, he always manages to find out about how it is governed.” When he goes on to ask Zigong how Confucius gets all this information, his fellow disciple replies that he “obtains it by being warm, kind, courteous, unassuming, and deferential.”
As Zigong concludes, “He uses a different method for seeking out information than other people, doesn’t he?”