Illustrious lineage in a modern twist, Confucius-style

James Kong, half British, tends to make people doubt his noble ancestry -- the direct descendent of Confucius. The sage's philosophy plays a part in every facet of his life.
Ti Gong

James Kong, 25, the 79th direct descendent of Confucius

There is a story about Confucius in the “Records of the Grand Historian” that relates how the ancient sage was indifferent to a disciple named Ziyu because of his ugliness. However, Ziyu later became a notable scholar. 

The moral of the story is that people shouldn’t be judged by outward appearances and that even a wise man like Confucius can make mistakes. 

For James Kong, 25, the 79th direct descendent of Confucius, appearances can be deceiving. He is half British, which tends to make some people doubt his noble ancestry. 

“I don’t look Chinese necessarily, but I have a lot of Chinese culture embedded in me,” he said. “People may think I am too Westernized or too liberal, but, actually, I am not.” 

Indeed, he considers Qufu in Shandong Province, the ancestral town of Confucius, as his hometown. His favorite foods are fried cicada and steamed buns, both specialties of local cuisine. 

He wears a dark green jade pendant carved with the figure of Confucius every day. 

“It is part of me, so I keep it close,” said Kong. 

He studied “The Analects,” a collection of sayings and ideas attributed to Confucius, in English as a teenager, which was not part of the standard English school curriculum. His British mother, who can speak nine languages including Chinese, invited teachers to tutor him through Confucianism. 

“‘The Analects’ teaches how to be a good person,” said Kong. “However, some people take it too seriously. They think it is a bible, which is not true. I love the fact that Confucius was not perfect. He was a man, not a god. People need to be analytical and critical while reading it.” 

He said he believes that Confucian opinions about women need to be updated. For example, one of the sage’s sayings recorded in “The Analects” holds that women and despicable people are hard to get along with. 

For Kong, his place in the family tree of Confucius, one of the largest extended families in the world, places both honor and pressure on him. 

“When I was young, my identity sometimes scared me,” he said. “One day when I was sick and stayed home from school, my Latin teacher told everyone that I was the ‘Chinese Jesus,’ and my classmates asked me some silly questions when I came back. They just didn’t understand.” 

When Kong was a little boy, he was told that he must learn Chinese and sire a son in the future in order to carry on the family line. 

“I cried at a school camp because it was all so stressful,” he said. “I even didn’t know how to have a boy or treat a baby. But I came to appreciate that I can’t please everyone and I need to try to please myself. That’s sort of my philosophy with everything.” 

Kong, who grew up in London, frequently flies to China, especially Qufu, to attend ceremonies like tomb-sweeping and fulfill family duties. 

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Kong (left) participates in a tomb-sweeping ceremony with his father Richard Kong (center) at the Confucius Temple in Shanghai.

In 2009, he took time off from studying for his General Certificate of Secondary Education qualifying exam in the UK to attend a ceremony in Qufu, unveiling an 80-volume family genealogy containing 2 million names, including his own. It was the first revision of the family tree in about 70 years. 

The revision was spearheaded by his grandfather, Kong Deyong, who spent a decade on international research. Keeping up with the times, women’s names were added to the family tree for the first time.

“Previously, there was no women’s names but now my sister’s name has been included. It’s a profound change,” said Kong, who calls himself a feminist. 

Kong said he is very proud of his 92-year-old grandfather, who is the chairman of the World Federation of Confucius Descendants. 

“My grandfather is my great role model,” he said.

Although Kong admits he had no particular talent for learning Chinese, he persisted in his study because he wanted to be able to communicate with family members. 

Confucianism puts emphasis on the cultivation of moral virtues, such as ren, or “benevolence,” yi, or “righteousness,” and li, or “ritual.” These concepts are deeply embedded in Kong’s faith. 

Confucianism plays a part in every facet of his life, even playing football. 

“My teammates get angry because I myself never get angry,” said Kong. He recalled a football game where he tackled a player, who reacted by pushing Kong roughly and daring him to fight back. But Kong instead extended a hand to the person to shake hands. 

As a football enthusiast, Kong said he would like to create a football team in Qufu, with Confucianism infused into the club’s ethos. 

He now works as a football agent in a sports world. Kong said he works with people in the football realm on the basis of mutual understanding and trust — a rare commodity in the competitive and brutal industry. 

“I do business in the spirit of Confucianism,” he said. “I don’t care about money. My job is to make people happy, not only my clients — the players but also the clubs.” 

He also devotes his time to promoting Confucianism in Western countries and doing charitable work. With the support of his mother, Kong set up the Confucius Better World Foundation to help the underprivileged. 

“The foundation is based on the idea of social harmony, an important value in Confucianism,” said Kong. 

Respect for tradition doesn’t make Kong a boring person. In addition to playing football, he plays the guitar and writes rap songs. 

“I don’t introduce myself to people as a descendent of Confucius,” he said. “I want them to appreciate me for who I am without that honor.”

Ti Gong

Kong speaks at a Confucius Better World Foundation donation ceremony. 

Ti Gong

Kong donates wheelchairs in Shandong Province in 2015.

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