29 January 2011

The Analects

The Lunyu ( 论语 ), better known in English as the Analects or as the Analects of Confucius, is considered to be one of the most influential books (if not the most influential) on Chinese and other East Asian cultures.  The Analects is one of the Four Books, which, along with the Five Classics, were considered to be fundamental reading for any Chinese scholar.  As a result, these books have been widely read in China for over two thousand years and form the core of what we know today as Chinese culture.  The Four Books consist of Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects, and Mencius and the Five Classics include the Classic of Poetry, the Classic of History, the Classic of Rites, the Classic of Changes, and the Spring and Autumn Annals.  I've already made my way through two of these, the Analects and the Classic of Changes, and while I have no intention of reading all nine of the books, I might read a couple more while I'm over here.  The Four Books serve as an introduction to Confucianism and the Five Classics are books that were thought to have been either compiled or edited by Confucius. 

So who exactly was this Confucius character?
Of the nine texts listed above, the only two that are considered to provide reliable information about Confucius' life are the Analects and the Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals.  The Shih chi, or Records of the Historian, is generally used for biographical information about Confucius, but many of the "facts" in this work have come under scrutiny.  Basically, there are numerous legends surrounding the history of Confucius, so it is very difficult separate myth from fact.  For example, Confucius was originally thought to have compiled or edited all of the Five Classics, but his actual influence on these texts is now a matter of debate.  But let's try to separate fact and fiction and find out about one of the most influential men in Asian History.

We'll start off with the fact that Confucius isn't actually Confucuius' name.  Confucius was born with name Kong Qiu ( 孔丘 ) and is referred to in China as Kong Fuzi ( 孔夫子 ) or Kong Zi ( 孔子 ).  Confucius is supposed to be the romanization of 孔夫子, or Kong Fuzi, and while not entirely accurate, it has stuck as the name used in the west to refer to this Chinese teacher.  Confucius was born in either 552 or 551 BC in the Chinese state of Lu and spent much of his adult life traveling.  He actually left Lu for 13 years near the end of his life to travel to various states in China.  Confucius died in the year 479 BC.  This honestly seems to be about the extent of completely reliable information concerning his life.  So I'm not sure if the next few sections are entirely accurate because there is different information presented in different sources.

Early Life
The Zuo Commentary lists Confucius' father as Shu He of Zou, while the Shih chi names Shu Liang He as his father.  Most histories do seem to agree however, that Confucius' father died when Confucius was around three years old.  Nothing is mentioned about his mother in these ancient texts, but I have read sources that claim that Confucius became an orphan at a very young age, others that write that his mother died when he was 17 and still others that claim she died when he was 23.  In other words, nothing is really known about his mother.  Despite his supposedly noble lineage, Confucius was poor when he was growing up, which was most likely due to the death of his father.

Middle Age
Although the exact year of his arrival and departure are unknown, Confucius traveled to the Chinese state of Qi sometime during the end of the 6th century BC.  After his return to Lu, it is believed that Confucius occupied the office of police commissioner between the years of 502 BC and 497 BC.  Confucius became dissatisfied with the position (there are a couple different stories about what happened) and left Lu again in 497 BC.  He first traveled to the Chinese state of Wei, before moving on to the states of Song, Shen, Cai, and then finally returning to Wei.  Confucius returned to Lu around 484 BC.

Old Age
It is believed that Confucius received a low-level counseling position in Lu after his return.  It is also reported that he spent a lot of time studying history and music.  Confucius died in Lu in the year 479 BC.


Study, Study, Study
Confucius was a huge proponent of the constant acquisition of knowledge.  Although he did present his own ideas about the world, he really encouraged his disciples to come to their own conclusions about the world through observation and study.

The Way
Dao ( 道 ), or the Way, is a concept that had already been around for a long time prior to Confucius, but is nonetheless something that was referred to multiple times in the Analects.  The Way is difficult to explain and to understand.  In some cases "the Way" seems to refer to universal truths about the world and mankind.  The Way can also refer to the path taken by a person or an institution.  It can refer to what is right, or proper, while also being used to describe the practices used to attain enlightenment, as well as englightenment itself.  There really is not one exact definition for the term, but it has played an important role in Chinese culture and religion.

De ( ), or virtue, is also a term with more than one meaning.  However, among Confucianists the term is generally described as a gift from heaven, which brings with it terms of obedience that must be obeyed.  The five major virtues are discussed below.

1. Benevolence
Benevolence was seen as the most important moral quality that a man could possess.  The term really refers to the act of looking at the situation from another person's perspective and acting accordingly.  Confucius was known for championing the "Silver Rule", which is similar to the "Golden Rule".  Confucius is quoted in the Analects as saying "never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself".

2. Wisdom
Wise men are never confused about the distinction from right and wrong.  A wise man is also a good judge of character.  Confucius believed that men acquired knowledge through constant learning, although there is a famous quote in the Analects in which he suggests the possibility of a being that is born with knowledge.  He never claims that this being actually exists, but he does leave open the possibility.

3. Courage
Courage is another important aspect of men in Confucianism.  Confucius states that any benevolent man is sure to possess courage.  However, the opposite is not necessarily true. 

This concept, known as hsin, encompasses more than the English word "sincerity", but it is the closest equivalent.  Like the English word, hsin means to be reliable in word.  However, this doesn't just refer to lying or to keeping a promise.  This also deals with resolutions and any statement made not based in fact.  So anytime you've failed to keep your New Year's resolution, you failed to be hsin.

5. Reverence
Understood as the awareness of one's responsibility to mankind.  Reverence is a fear of failing combined with a man's understanding of his goal in succeeding in his responsibility. 

Confucius taught that men should be constantly striving to become the best possible men that they can be.  This was not for the purpose of obtaining rewards in heaven or on earth, but rather it was pursued for its own sake.  Although Confucius does make multiple references to God, he was not a religious teacher and he never goes into any specifics about what a man should do to get to heaven. 


Confucius' disciples carried on his ideas after his death and eventually succeeded in spreading Confucianism to government officials in China.  The ideology went through some ups and downs over the next few hundred years, but in 140 BC Confucian literature became a mandatory requirement for the civil service examination.  This requirement continued until the 19th century.  As a result, Confucius' ideas have formed the bedrock of Chinese culture.  His influence also spread to many neighboring Asian countries.

The Analects
The Analects are a collection of Confucius' teachings that were assembled by his disciples between 30 to 50 years after his death.  The book consists of 20 chapters and while each chapter contains a central theme, the book itself does not seem to be arranged in any logical order.  I'm going to cover this book with the same method I used for I Ching and provide some interesting quotes.  Some of these quotes are from Confucius' disciples, rather than from Confucius himself, so I've indicated Confucius' disciples' quotes with a "D".  I've also bolded some of my favorite quotes.  The main aspects of Confucianism have already been discussed earlier in this post, so it probably won't be too hard to see which quotes or chapters apply to which ideas.  Also, a quick note on the chapter titles.  The names of the chapters usually come from the first few lines of the chapter and therefore do not necessarily represent the theme of the chapter.

Book I: Studying [Xue Er ( 學而 )]
D - "Being good as a son and obedient as a young man is, perhaps, the root of a man's character." (2)
"Make it your guiding principle to do your best for others and to be trustworthy in what you say." (8)
"When you make a mistake, do not be afraid of mending your ways." (8)
"The gentleman seeks neither a full belly nor a comfortable home.  He is quick in action but cautious in speech." (14)
"It is not the failure of others to appreciate your abilities that should trouble you, but rather your failure to appreciate theirs." (16)

Book II: The Practice of Government [Wei Zheng ( 為政 )]
"The rule of virtue can be compared to the Pole Star which commands the homage of the multitude of starts without leaving its place." (1)
"Nowadays for a man to be filial means no more than that he is able to provide his parents with food.  Even hounds and horses are, in some way, provided with food.  If a man shows no reverence, where is the difference?" (7)
"He put his words into action before allowing his words to follow his action." (13)
"To say you know when you know, and to say you do not when you do not, that is knowledge." (17)
"Faced with what is right, to leave it undone shows a lack of courage." (24)

Book III: Eight Lines of Eight Dancers Apiece [Ba Yi ( 八佾 )]
"When you have offended against Heaven, there is nowhere you can turn to in your prayers." (13)
"The asking of questions is in itself the correct rite." (15)
"What can I find worthy of note in a man who is lacking in tolerance when in high position, in reverence when performing the rites and in sorrow when in mourning?" (26)

Book IV: Living in Brotherliness [Li Ren ( 里仁 )]
"If a man sets his heart on benevolence, he will be free from evil." (4)
"In his errors a man is true to type.  Observe the errors and you will know the man." (7)
"... the gentleman is not invariably for or against anything.  He is on the side of what is moral." (10)
"If one is guided by profit in one's actions, one will incur much ill will." (12)
"Seek to be worthy of appreciation." (14)
"The gentleman understands what is moral.  The small man understands what is profitable." (16)

Book V: Gongye Chang [Gongye Chang ( 公冶長 )] - A student of Confucius
"How dare I compare myself with Hui (one of Confucius' disciples)? When he is told one thing he understands ten.  When I am told one thing I understand only two." (9)
D - "While I do not wish others to impose on me, I also wish not to impose on others." (12)
"... he was not ashamed to seek the advice of those who were beneath him in station.  That is why he was called 'wen'." (16)  This refers to Kung Wen Tzu and the word "wen" means diligence in learning and seeking advice.
D - "Chi Wen Tzu always thought three times before taking action.  When the Master was told of this, he commented, 'Twice is quite enough'." (20)
"Others may equal his intelligence but they cannot equal his stupidity." (21)

Book VI: There is Yong [Yong Ye ( 雍也 )] - Yong was a student of Confucius
"A man whose strength gives out collapses along the course.  In your case you set the limits beforehand." (12)
"To be fond of something is better than merely to know it, and to find joy in it is better than merely to be fond of it." (20)

Book VII: Transmission [Shu Er ( 述而 )]
"It is these things that cause me concern: failure to cultivate virtue, failure to go more deeply into what I have learned, inability, when I am told what is right, to move to where it is, and inability to reform myself when I have defects." (3)
"When I have pointed out one corner of a square to anyone and he does not come back with the other three, I will not point it out to him a second time." (8)
"I never dreamt that the joys of music could reach such heights." (14)
"In the eating of coarse rice and the drinking of water, the using of one's elbow for a pillow, joy is to be found." (16)
"... he is the sort of man who forgets to eat when he tries to solve a problem that has been driving him to distraction, who is so full of joy that he forgets his worries and who does not notice the onset of old age" (19).  This quote is in reference to himself.
"I would rather be shabby that ostentatious." (36)

Book VIII: Taibo [Taibo ( 泰伯 )]
"It is not easy to find a man who can study for three years without thinking about earning a salary." (12)
"Do not concern yourself with matters of government unless they are the responsibility of your office." (14)
"Even with a man who urges himself on in his studies as though he was losing ground, my fear is still that he may not make it in time." (17)

Book IX: The Master Shunned [Zi Han ( 子罕 )]
D - "There were four things the Master refused to have anything to do with: he refused to entertain conjectures or insist on certainty; he refused to be inflexible or to be egotistical." (4)
"I kept hammering at the two sides of the question until I got everything out of it." (8)
"I have yet to meet the man who is as fond of virtue as he is of beauty in women." (18)
"It is fitting that we should hold the young in awe.  How do we know that the generations to come will not be the equal of the present?  Only when a man reaches the age of forty or fifty without distinguishing himself in any way can one say, I suppose, that he does not deserve to be held in awe." (23)

Book X: Among the Xiang and the Dang [Xiang Dang ( 鄉黨 )]
D - "He simply never drank to the point of becoming confused." (8)
D - "The stables caught fire.  The Master, on returning from court, asked, 'Was anyone hurt?' He did not ask about the horses." (17)

Book XI: Those of Former Eras [Xian Jin ( 先進 )]
"You do not understand even life.  How can you understand death?" (12)

Book XII: Yan Yuan [Yan Yuan ( 顏淵 )] - Also known as Yan Hui, one of Confucius' favorite disciples
"Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire." (2)
"The gentleman is free from worries and fears." (4)
D - "Duke Ai asked Yu Juo, 'The harvest is bad, and I have not sufficient to cover expenditure.  What should I do?'  Yu Juo answered, 'What about taxing the people one part in ten?'  'I do not have sufficient as it is when I tax them two parts in ten.  How could I possibly tax them one part in ten?'  'When the people have sufficient, who is there to share your insufficiency?  When the people have insufficient, who is there to share your sufficiency?'" (9)
"Raise the straight and set them over the crooked." (22)

Book XIII: Zilu [Zilu ( 子路 )] - A student of Confucius
"Show leniency towards minor offenders; and promote men of talent." (2)
"Fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers.  Straightness is to be found in such behavior." (18)
"The gentleman is at ease without being arrogant; the small man is arrogant without being at ease." (26)

Book XIV: Xian Asked [Xian Wen ( 憲問 )] - Yuan Xian was a student of Confucius
"If a man remembers what is right at the sight of profit, is ready to lay down his life in the face of danger, and does not forget sentiments he has repeated all his life even when he has been in straitened circumstances for a long time, he may be said to be a complete man." (12)
"Men of antiquity studied to improve themselves; men today study to impress others." (24)
"It is not the failure of others to appreciate your abilities that should trouble you, but rather your own lack of them." (30)
"To be neither modest nor deferential when young, to have passed on nothing worthwhile when grown up, and to refuse to die when old, that is what I call a pest." (43)

Book XV: Duke Ling of Wei [Wei Linggong ( 衛靈公 )]
"He who gives no thought to difficulties in the future is sure to be beset by worries much closer at hand." (12)
"The gentleman is troubled by his own lack of ability, not by the failure of others to appreciate him." (19)
"Not to mend one's ways when one has erred is to err indeed." (30)
"I once spent all day thinking without taking food and all night thinking without going to bed, but I found that I gained nothing from it.  It would have been better for me to have spent the time in learning." (31)
"Benevolence is more vital to the common people than even fire and water.  In the case of fire and water, I have seen men die by stepping on them, but I have never seen any man die by stepping on benevolence." (35)

Book XVI: Chief of the Ji Clan [Ji Shi ( 季氏 )]
"To take pleasure in the correct regulation of the rites and music, in singing the praises of other men's goodness and in having a large number of excellent men as friends is to benefit.  To take pleasure in showing off, in a dissolute life and in food and drink is to lose." (5)
"Those who are born with knowledge are the highest.  Next come those who attain knowledge through study.  Next again come those who turn to study after having been vexed by difficulties.  The common people, in so far as they make no effort to study even after having been vexed by difficulties, are the lowest." (9)

Book XVII: Yang Huo [Yang Huo ( 陽貨 )]
"It is only the most intelligent and the most stupid who are not susceptible to change." (3)
"For the gentleman it is morality that is supreme.  Possessed of courage but devoid of morality, a gentleman will make trouble while a small man will be a brigand." (23)
"If by the age of forty a man is still disliked there is no hope for him." (26)

Book XVIII: The Viscount of Wei [Wei Zi ( 微子 )]
This chapter seems completely out of place in the Analects.  It deals more with experience of Confucius' disciples than with Confucius himself.  It also provides listings of men who removed themselves from society and who were known as gentlemen.

Book XIX: Zizhang [Zizhang ( 子張 )] - A student of Confucius
D - "A man can, indeed, be said to be eager to learn who is conscious, in the course of a day, of what he lacks and who never forgets, in the course of a month, what he has mastered." (5)
D - "When a man in office finds that he can more than cope with his duties, then he studies; when a student finds that he can more than cope with his studies, then he takes office." (13)
D - "The gentleman's errors are like an eclipse of the sun and moon in that when he errs the whole world sees him doing so and when he reforms the whole world looks up to him." (21)

Book XX: Yao Spoke [Yao Yue ( 堯曰 )]
"A man has no way of becoming a gentleman unless he understands Destiny; he has no way of taking his stand unless he understands the rites; he has no way of judging men unless he understands words." (3)

So what do you think?  Some wise words?  I would say so.  Confucius seems like a man who was obsessed with self-improvement and for that I really respect him.  He presents some universal truths as well as some of his personal opinions on government and society.  His words have helped to guide Asian cultures for thousands of years and as a result he must be viewed as one of the most influential human beings to have ever walked the earth.

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