Confucius’ political thought is based upon his ethical thought. He argues that the best government is one that rules through “rites” (lǐ) and people’s natural morality, rather than by using bribery and coercion. He explained that this is one of the most important analects: “If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of the shame, and moreover will become good.” (Translated by James Legge) in the Great Learning (大學). This “sense of shame” is an internalisation of duty, where the punishment precedes the evil action, instead of following it in the form of laws as in Legalism.
Confucius looked nostalgically upon earlier days, and urged the Chinese, particularly those with political power, to model themselves on earlier examples. In times of division, chaos, and endless wars between feudal states, he wanted to restore the Mandate of Heaven (天命) that could unify the “world” (天下, “all under Heaven”) and bestow peace and prosperity on the people. Because his vision of personal and social perfections was framed as a revival of the ordered society of earlier times, Confucius is often considered a great proponent of conservatism, but a closer look at what he proposes often shows that he used (and perhaps twisted) past institutions and rites to push a new political agenda of his own: a revival of a unified royal state, whose rulers would succeed to power on the basis of their moral merits instead of lineage. These would be rulers devoted to their people, striving for personal and social perfection, and such a ruler would spread his own virtues to the people instead of imposing proper behavior with laws and rules.
While he supported the idea of government ruling by a virtuous king, his ideas contained a number of elements to limit the power of rulers. He argued for according language with truth, and honesty was of paramount importance. Even in facial expression, truth must always be represented. Confucius believed that if a ruler were to lead correctly, by action, that orders would be deemed unnecessary in that others will follow the proper actions of their ruler. In discussing the relationship between a king and his subject (or a father and his son), he underlined the need to give due respect to superiors. This demanded that the subordinates must give advice to their superiors if the superiors were considered to be taking the course of action that was wrong. Confucius believed in ruling by example, if you lead correctly, orders are unnecessary and useless.
There is not much known of Confucius’ disciples and a little over half of them had their surnames recorded in the Zuo Zhuan. The Analects records 22 names that are most likely Confucius’ disciples, while the Mencius records 24 names, although it is quite certain that there have been many more disciples whose name were not recorded. Most of Confucius’ disciples were from the Lu state, while others were from neighboring states. For example, Zigong was from the Wey state and Sima Niu was from the Song state. Confucius’ favorite disciple was Yan Hui, most probably one of the most impoverished one of them all. Sima Niu, in contrast to Yan Hui, was from a hereditarily noble family hailing from the Song state. Under Confucius’ teachings, the disciples became well-learned in the principles and methods of government. He often engaged in discussion and debate with his students and gave high importance to their studies in history, poetry, and ritual. Confucius advocated loyalty to principle rather than to individual in which reform was to be achieved by persuasion rather than violence. Even though Confucius denounced them for their practices, the aristocracy was likely attracted to the idea of having trustworthy officials who were studied in morals as the circumstances of the time made it desirable. In fact, the disciple Zilu even died defending his ruler in Wei.
Yang Hu, who was a subordinate of the Ji family, had dominated the Lu government from 505 to 502 and even attempted a coup, which narrowly failed. As a likely consequence, it was after that that the first disciples of Confucius were appointed to government positions. Few of Confucius’ disciples went on to attain official positions of some importance, some of which were arranged by Confucius. By the time Confucius was 50 years old, the Ji family had consolidated their power in the Lu state over the ruling ducal house. Even though the Ji family had practices that Confucius disagreed and disapproved, they nonetheless gave Confucius’ disciples many opportunities for employment. Confucius continued to remind his disciples to stay true to their principles and renounced those who did not, while being openly critical of the Ji family.