This is a complete reworking of a story I posted last year. The previous version was a simple rewrite of an old Sophia Fahs story, but I was not happy with the Fahs version for a number of reasons I won’t go into here. For this version, I did some additional research into myths surrounding the birth of Confucius, and I have provided footnotes (if you have corrections or comments, please leave a comment below). As with all myths and legends, there will be many different versions; I have tried to provide a story that is a reasonable compromise between the different versions I found. You may wish to know that traditionally Confucius’ birthday can be celebrated on September 28 (Quifen 27 in the Chinese lunar calendar).
Once again, my purpose was to come up with a story that would be suitable for use in a Unitarian Universalist worship service, to show that many great religious leaders and prophets have legends of miraculous births. I’ll be telling this story this Sunday at the Palo Alto Unitarian Universalist church, and wanted to share it here in case someone else might find it useful.
At Christmas we like to remember the old story of the miraculous birth of Jesus of Nazareth. But did you know that there are other miraculous birth stories of other great religious leaders? Today I’m going to tell you about the miraculous birth of Confucius, a story with angels and wonderful animals and wise men. See if you think this story is at all like the story of Jesus’s birth.
The Birth of Confucius
Once upon a time, in a place called Tsou, there lived a man named Shu-liang Ho, who was also called K’ung Ho. He had been a soldier, now retired, and he was so tall that people said he was ten feet tall. He lived in China some two thousand five hundred years ago, at about the time when Gautama Buddha lived in India.
K’ung Ho was an older man, perhaps 70 years old. His first wife had died, and leaving him the father of nine daughters. But K’ung Ho also hoped to have a son. So he went to the head of the noble house of Yen, and asked for one of their daughters in marriage. The youngest daughter, Yen Ching-tsai, said that she would be willing to marry this older man.
The two were married, and not long thereafter Yen Ching-tsai traveled to Ni-ch’iu Mountain, one of the mountains that Emperor Shun had dedicated to the worship of its guardian spirit. There she offered up prayers, hoping that she might give birth to a boy-child. That night, she dreamed that a spirit came to her and said, “You shall have a son, who will be a great sage and prophet, and you must bring him forth in the hollow mulberry tree.” Not long after this dream, she became pregnant. (1)
While she was pregnant, she fell into a dreamy state, and five old men came up to here, leading behind them a unicorn (this was a Chinese unicorn, or K’e-lin, was the size of a small cow, had one horn, and was covered in scales). The unicorn carried in its mouth a tablet made of green jade. On the tablet was carved a prophecy: “The son of the essence of water shall soon succeed to the withering Chou, and be a throneless king”; which meant that her baby would grow up to become wise and valued leader, even though he would never hold political power. She tied a silk scarf around the unicorn’s horn, upon which the animal disappeared. (2)
Soon it came time for Yen Tching-tsai to give birth. She told her husband that she must give birth in the “hollow mulberry tree,” wherever that was, and her husband said that there was a dry cave in a hill nearby that went by that name. So even though she was near to giving birth, they travelled to the dry cave that was named “The Hollow Mulberry.” (3)
On the night the child was born, two dragons appeared in the sky to keep watch; one to the right of the hill where the cave was, the other to the left of the hill. Then two spirits appeared in the air above the hill, two women who poured out fragrant drafts, as if to bathe Ching-tsai in beautiful aromas as she was giving birth. (4)
And within the cave, Ching-tsai heard music, and a voice saying to her: “Heaven is moved at the birth of your son, and sends down harmonious sounds.” A spring of water bubbled up within the dry cave, so that Ching-tsai could bathe her new baby; and to confirm the prophecy that the new baby was the “son of the essence of water.” (5)
The Dragons and the Wise Men keep watch (5)
Five venerable men came from afar to pay their respects to the new baby. (6) Some people said they were the five old men of the sky, the five immortals who never die, and they had come down from the five planets to celebrate the birth of this great child. (7)
This little baby grew up to be a great human being, a prophet and sage who was known as K’ung-fu-tzu, the Master or Teacher K’ung; or here in the Western world, he is best known to us by the name Confucius.
Confucius said that by the age of fifteen, he knew that he wanted to spend the rest of his life learning how to master one’s own self, and learning how we can live harmoniously with brothers and sisters, with our parents and children, with all those with whom we come into contact. He learned these things, and he began to teach others how to live wisely and well. Confucius grew so famous that leaders of nations invited him to come and teach them how to govern their nations fairly and wisely. Even today, some two thousand five hundred years after he was born, millions of people around the world still follow his teachings.
This story is copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper. Permission granted to religious congregations to reproduce this story.
(1) Confucius, the Great Teacher: A Study, by George Gardiner Alexander. pp. 33 ff. The Chinese Classics: Life and teachings of Confucius, vol. 2, trans. James Legge, p. 58. Confucius: His Life and Thought, by Shigeki Kaizuka (Dover reprint, 1956/2002), pp. 42-44.
(2) Sages and filial sons: mythology and archaeology in ancient China, by Julia Ching and R. W. L. Guisso (Chinese University Press, 1991), p. 143. Legge, p. 58 n.
(3) Legge, p. 58 n.
(5) The dragon, image, and demon, or, The three religions of China: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, by Hampden C. DuBose (New York: A.C. Armstrong, 1887), pp. 91-92. (Source of illustration)
(7) From Long Ago and Many Lands, by Sophia Fahs (Boston: Beacon, 1948).
I think this story is inappropriate and have campaigned to exclude it from our church.
These Confucius miracle birth stories are not part of the Confucian religion. They appear in no important text. They are folk tales. From the very beginning Confucianism was anti-supernatural. Associating Confucius with magic is anti-Confucian.
This is very different from Christianity. The Jesus miracle birth stories are in the Bible and have been taken seriously by Christians for centuries. Even Channing thought miracles were important evidence of the truth of Christianity.
Confucianism and Christianity are profoundly different in their attitude towards miracles. The story’s basic point is therefore false.
I would argue that it is also defamatory towards Confucianism. Modern UUs don’t believe miracle birth stories. So by claiming that Confucians do you are unfairly accusing them of superstition.
Why not tell the story of Mencius’ single mom moving house three times to get into a good school district? That is a real part of the Confucian tradition. Of course it suggests that ancient Chinese values aren’t so different from modern UU values. But that isn’t bad, is it?
Tom @ 1 — Let’s begin by acknowledging that “Confucianism” is a Western construct that may be an awkward fit to Eastern religious realities.
You write: “From the very beginning Confucianism was anti-supernatural. Associating Confucius with magic is anti-Confucian.”
Which “Confucianism” are you talking about? If you’re talking about the contemporary Neo-Confucianism of Tu Wei-ming and his Harvard allies, I think the above statement has validity. But consider this statement from a well-regarded textbook on world religions: “As Confucianism became a quasi-state religion in the Han Dynasty and after, it found it needed a quasi-theology, a quasi-divinity, and a quasi-priesthood with its own rites. Quasi-divinity it found in Confucius himself….” (Many Peoples, Many Faiths, Ellwood and McGraw, p. 189). In other words, “Confucianism” as historically practiced by many Chinese people has long included the supernatural.
Another textbook on world religions points out that “there is a common Chinese distinction … between the terms chia (schools of thought, philosophy) and chiao (teaching, religion). The former refers more to the great thinkers and their teachings, and the ‘great traditions’. The latter refers to the religious and, by extension, to the unique ways in which the great traditions have been appropriated at grass-roots level. A distinction between the great intellectual traditions and the cultic and devotional side of religious life has been made in all the Chinese traditions, Confucianism, Taoism and also Buddhism…” (Introduction to World Religions, ed. Christopher Partridge). Using this culturally appropriate distinction, perhaps we could say that you are aligned with chia, the traditions of the intellectual elite; the above story is aligned with chiao, the grass-roots traditions of ordinary people. In which case your argument may be true, but it does not address the point of the story.
I would also submit that you take a mildly reductionist approach to contemporary liberal Christianity. Contemporary liberal Christians apply a variety of hermenuetics to the miracle birth stories of Jesus: some interpret the stories as supernatural miracles giving proof of God’s power, some of us interpret the stories as mythically true but not literally true (which is the theological attitude of the above story), some dismiss the stories as later accretions to the basic message and teaching of Jesus — so there is no one liberal Christian attitude towards miracles. Thus we cannot safely compare “Confucian” and “Christian” attitudes towards miracles in the way you try to do.
You also make two points that get you embroiled in one of the basic controversies of postmodernism. On the one hand, you write: “Confucianism and Christianity are profoundly different in their attitude towards miracles.” On the other hand, you are willing to write: “…ancient Chinese values aren’t so different from modern UU values.” But making that second claim opens you to the same critique you level against me in the first claim. In fact, I would say that ancient Chinese values are more profoundly different from contemporary U.S. values than are the ancient “Confucian” beliefs in the supernatural are from contemporary U.S. beliefs in the supernatural. The “Confucian” value system is anti-individualist in the extreme; the “five relations” trump individual self-determination every time; whereas the contemporary U.S. value system gives primacy to individualism. (And in this context, I would not try to compare the subcultural “UU values” with macrocultural “ancient Chinese values” — that’s comparing a species with a phylum.)
I’d be much more open to your criticism if you made the argument that the above story tries to fit “Confucianism” into a Western liberal Christian meta-narrative — which would be an awkward fit, to say the least. If you wanted to campaign to remove this story from your church on these grounds, I think you might have a good theological basis on which to do so (although it wouldn’t take much to tweak the story to meet such a theological objection). But I believe your argument as it stands represents a misunderstanding of “Confucianism,” and an improper comparison between “Confucianism” and Western religious concepts.