Kongfuzi, or Confucius
American pop culture, in its habitually rude and fuzzy way, tends to place Kongfuzi somewhere between a temple deity worshipped by "Confucians" in China, and a caricature of a bearded old wise man who writes fortune cookies or punch-lines for Earl Derr Biggers.
Notwithstanding the gradual stimulation of a temple-going "cult of Confucius" among nobles in China (something Jesuit missionaries mistook for an organized religion when they reported on the phenomenon to the West in the 16th century, renaming Kongfuzi "Confucius"), Kongfuzi was a minor bureaucrat but an honored teacher, whose ideas came to dominate Chinese ethical and political philosophy for much of the last two and a half millennia. At the height of his official influence during his own lifetime, he served as chief of police, staring down thugs on the mean streets of Lu.
Dirty Harry he was not, however; soon after his appointment, beleaguered by the jealous back-stabbing of other bureaucrats and minor nobility, Kongfuzi was forced out of his position and driven into exile, wandering through the states of Wei, Song, Chen, Cai and Chu looking for an enlightened ruler who would value his ideas, but instead meeting indifference during a period of heightened factional violence and unrest.
He returned to Lu in 484 B.C.E., settling down to teach his political philosophy and to edit what have come to be known as the "Confucian classics," including The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, and the Analects. As a teacher, he was a great popular success, attracting more than 3,000 students and 72 official "disciples," as well as earning the title "Ultimate Sage-Teacher"; still, it was not until the Han Dynasty (beginning 206 B.C.E.) that the Chinese nobility began to distinguish Kongfuzi's thought from other thinkers of his time and to canonize his works as officially-favored doctrine, assisted by the elaborations of Mencius, Xunzi and other subsequent disciples.
Kongfuzi's ideas must be seen as having grown out of the period of social and political chaos that robbed the Chou dynasty of emperors of their legitimate authority, ceding it to factions controlling each of the states of imperial China. In his own view, Kongfuzi merely sought to re-establish the social order in the way that the so-called "ancient kings" had established it, and that by introducing the ancient values Kongfuzi was merely acting as the messenger of older ideas.
The key concept in Kongfuzi's thought is ren, translated as "love of man" -- a humanitarian insight into the society that surrounds one, the highest virtue and the ultimate goal of receiving a proper education in "gentlemanly ways." To attain ren, good citizens practice li, a combination of rituals, customs, manners and protocols that, for Kongfuzi, were not necessarily fixed, but represent the acceptable social rules for one's time and place. The higher principle that helps to shade these proprieties is yi, or righteousness premised upon rationality. Thus, guided by reciprocal, practical respect and empathy for others within one's community (yi), one cultivates virtue (ren) by practicing good moral habits (li). However, ren was not, for Kongfuzi, merely a system of self-realization; his view was that the purpose of education was to guide individuals to the attainment of ren in order to create a governable, peaceful society.
In his teachings on the best practices of rulers, Kongfuzi de-emphasizes legislation and traditional law enforcement in favor of governing "with morality, as if he [the ruler] were the Northern Star, staying in his position, surrounded by all other planets." Ultimately, the ruler who governs with morality and as a moral example will be more effective, in Kongfuzi's view, than one who governs by strict law enforcement. As he writes in the Analects: "If you lead people with political force and restrict them with law and punishment, they can just avoid law violation, but will have no sense of honor and shame. If you lead them with morality and guide them with li, they will develop a sense of honor and shame, and will do good of their own accord."