What Role Did the Mother of Confucius, Yan Zhengzai, Play?

Taoism, Legalism, Confucianism—the three pillars of Chinese philosophy that have influenced all thinking and actions in China. (Image:  Kevinsmithnyc  via   wikimedia /  CC BY-SA 3.0)
Taoism, Legalism, Confucianism—the three pillars of Chinese philosophy that have influenced all thinking and actions in China. (Image: Kevinsmithnyc via wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Confucius was perhaps the greatest philosopher and educator in the late Spring and Autumn periods of ancient China. His mother, Yan Zhengzai, who became one of the famous people from ancient China for the influence she had on Confucius when he was young, was not only his first mentor, but she also played a key role in his childhood education.

Confucius’s father passed away when he was 3 years old, leaving Confucius’s young mother without any support. In the interests of her son’s education, Yan Zhengzai decided to move back to her home city, Lu Do.

Lu Do at the time was the capital city of Lu state, and the national center of politics, economics, and culture. It would provide the best educational environment for her young son.

Confucius' mother, Yan Zhengzai, who became one of the famous people from ancient China for the influence she had on Confucius (pictured above) when he was young, was not only his first mentor, but she also played a key role in his childhood education. (Image: via wikipedia / CC0 1.0)

Confucius’ mother, Yan Zhengzai, who became one of the famous people from ancient China for the influence she had on Confucius (pictured above) when he was young, was not only his first mentor, but she also played a key role in his childhood education. (Image: via wikipedia / CC0 1.0)

Igniting Confucius’s interest

Yan Zhengzai understood that the way to get the best out of a student was to foster and ignite the student’s own interests. Whenever a ritual was taking place, Yan Zhengzai always encouraged her son to observe the ceremony.

As a result, little Confucius enjoyed imitating the rituals. Yan Zhengzai also made her son learn various Zhou rites in order to assist the monarch in ruling the country. As a result, Confucius developed an appreciation of rituals from a young age.

Teaching Confucius by herself

Yan Zhengzai’s father was a scholar of Lu state, and played the role of her mentor and teacher. Yan Zhengzai gave lessons to five young pupils in her own home, and used the proceeds from the lessons to support her and her son.

Yan Zhengzai taught not only Chinese language, but arithmetic, chanting, rituals, and ceremony. Little Confucius joined his mother’s classes before the age of 6 and had learned all of the lessons by the time he was 10. The teaching career of his mother brought an enormous influence to Confucius’s ideals of education.

famous people from ancient china

Yan Zhengzai also made her young son, Confucius, learn various Zhou rites in order to assist the monarch in ruling the country. Pictured above: The Fou (缻) is an ancient Chinese percussion instrument that later became a standard instrument in Confucian ritual ensembles. (Image: Kevin Spencer via Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0)

Further studies

When Confucius was 10 years old, his mother sent him to the best school in town. There, he studied poetry, classical literature, and history. Yan Zhengzai died at around 35 years of age when Confucius was 17. Her life story relates how the greatest educator and philosopher in ancient China emerged.

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