The Analects

The Analects

by Confucius


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In this excellent English translation of The Analects, or Sayings, of Confucius, readers will find a rich distillation of the timeless precepts of one of history's most influential teachers and social theorists. A Chinese philosopher who lived c. 551 to c. 479 B.C., Confucius originated and taught an ethical, socially oriented philosophy that stressed proper behavior and a sympathetic, mutually supportive attitude among individuals, their families and society.
From his teachings came a system of ethics for managing society that has influenced generations of politicians, social reformers, and religious thinkers. Indeed, the effect of Confucian philosophy has been so profound that it has become basic not only to an understanding of traditional Chinese civilization, but of Western society as well. Now the essence of Confucian teaching, contained in The Analects, is available in this inexpensive volume, providing inspirational and instructive reading to anyone interested in the history of social thought, Chinese philosophy, or theories of ethical behavior.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486284842
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 04/12/1995
Series: Dover Thrift Editions
Edition description: Unabridged
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 532,635
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 14 Years

About the Author

Confucius (551–479 B.C.) was a philosopher, a political figure, an educator, and the founder of one of the major schools of thought in Chinese history.

Annping Chin is a senior lecturer in the history department at Yale and is the author of The Authentic Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics and a coauthor, with Jonathan Spence, of The Chinese Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

Read an Excerpt


The Analects is the single most important book in the history of China. Yet for the uninitiated, this fact is hard to grasp because the principal figure in the book, Confucius, is often seen to be responding to a question, offering a comment, or just thinking aloud. He refrained from “putting forth theories,” the Analects says, and “did not think that he must be right.” His approach is personal, so that even when a simple fellow asks him a question, Confucius has “to knock at both sides [of the question] until everything has been considered.”

In the introduction to his translation of Montaigne’s essays, Donald Frame tells us, “Montaigne resists definition. . . . Yet this very difficulty points to one answer: that the book is the man.” Perhaps the same is true of Confucius and the Analects, but the Analects is not a record of what Confucius wrote, only of what he said. It is, in hindsight, the way Confucius represented himself to the world, though he never intended for that to happen, since it was his disciples and generations of disciples following them who compiled the book. How then did such a work end up being the central point of reference for scholars, thinkers, rulers, political counselors, and just about anyone in the last twenty-five hundred years of Chinese history? And how did Confucius’ voice become a source of authority for the Chinese, even for the leaders of the present Communist government? Through a combination of hard work and chance, one might say.

In the years right after his death in 479 BC, competitive interpretations of what Confucius had taught helped to keep his name and his ideas alive. Then, in the next two hundred years, two followers, Mencius and Xunzi, took his teachings in different directions, and between them much ground was covered, from the self to society and nature. These men’s disquisitions on man’s inborn dispositions, on his private and public duties, on what is fair and what is misguided judgment, and on the many moral conundrums of life could seem like a long stretch from what Confucius had originally put forth, but the world had changed by their time. People demanded more from the wise and learned because there were more variables in human relationships and in one’s relation to the state. Also, more contenders had entered the field—but Mencius and Xunzi were not just eyeing the opposition. They had to be ready, of course, to spar with the quickest and most discerning minds of their day, but, more important, they were looking to satisfy their yearning for knowledge. In the course of their endeavor, Confucius would grow in name and stature.

Imperial patronage in the Han dynasty, after China became a unified country in the second century BC, helped Confucius secure a permanent place within China’s institutions. Bureaucracy, law, education, social organization, and ritual practice—all stood on principles that bore the influence of Confucius’ assumptions and beliefs. This, however, does not mean that Confucius’ teachings did not go through periods of decline. The longest of these lasted nearly seven hundred years, from the beginning of the Six Dynasties (220–589) to the end of the Tang dynasty (618–906), during which time Buddhism, a foreign religion, captivated the Chinese imagination and the Chinese, in turn, shaped the foreign religion to look like their own. It was in response to the imminent threat of losing their cultural distinction that the Chinese in the beginning of the Song dynasty (960–1279) saw a need to revive Confucian teachings. The movement unfolded gradually, and by the end of that dynasty nearly everything was being addressed by this new Confucianism, from the arcane to the practical, from metaphysics to spiritual cultivation, from scholarship to learning and education, from the selection of officials to principles of government.

The Confucian counselors in the next dynasty, the Yuan (1279–1368), managed to persuade their Mongol rulers to tighten the focus of the civil service examinations, limiting them to four books from the Confucian canon and a set of commentaries sanctioned by the imperial court. The Analects was one of these Four Books. In a society where, for most men, succeeding in the examinations—and thus securing a government post—was the only avenue to raising one’s social standing, what this meant was that the Analects, along with the three related texts, became a fixture in the studies of all those who were able to get an education. These hopeful aspirants would memorize the text when they were very young and then return to it repeatedly almost as a daily exercise. In time, the book would have helped them to shape their views and might even have helped them to find a moral anchor. But the story of the Analects does not end there. If competition against a foreign religion fueled the Confucian revival in the Song, disagreements within the tradition about how to read the Analects kept the book alive, and the man who started it all vigorous and relevant, until today.

Most of the translations in English, however, do not reflect this rich tradition in reading the Analects. Instead, they tend to favor one commentary, Zhu Xi’s from the twelfth century, that had become standard through five hundred years of imperial support and the only interpretation the state would accept in the civil service examinations. My work follows a different approach. I relied on the scholars from the last three hundred years—scholars who put research before ideology—to show me the competing interpretations and the possibilities of understanding a word, a sentence, or a passage, and my translation is what I arrived at after I had considered the range of choices before me. My hope, of course, is to recover some of the ambiguities and nuances in what Confucius says, which are often lost if one comes to trust a single voice or a single vision.

 • • • 

In the introduction to this translation, I offer a brief account of Confucius’ life and some guidance about how to read the Analects. I also explain why one would need traditional commentaries to make sense of this book and how I have tried to handle the bulk of this knowledge and scholarship from the last two thousand years. A chronology of China’s dynastic history follows the introduction.

Very few chapters, called “Books” in the translation, have a prefatory synopsis, because often there is no thread to bind the ideas together in any given section; therefore, unless there is a good reason to suggest one, I have refrained from providing a synopsis lest it become an obstacle, a limitation or misdirection, to reading. Glossaries of names and terms carry the same risk, I feel, and so my approach is to provide in the commentary a thorough description of a name or a term when it first appears in the text, and then to gloss it each time it shows up again. This is my attempt to think aloud about the character of, say, a disciple like Zigong or Zilu and about what Confucius means by ren (humaneness) or ming (destiny). My hope is that by the end of the book the reader will have come to his or her own conclusion about a given person or idea. I have, however, drawn together, in Appendix 1, an index of the disciples of Confucius and of historical individuals that appear in the Analects; in Appendix 2, an index of terms and of topics; and, in Appendix 3, an index of Chinese scholars and thinkers cited in the commentaries. I have also included, following my English translation, the Chinese text of the Analects, because more and more readers in the West have shown an interest in having it, and it is also the right thing to do in a work in which exegesis—as a discipline and by way of translation—is the principal mode of operation.

 • • • 

For a book as old as the Analects, many questions remain—about its origin and development, and about the work that went into producing its early redactions before it took its present shape. We have, through archaeological discovery, a version of one early redaction, dated to the first half of the first century BC. Written on bamboo strips, the text was found in 1973 in Ding prefecture, Hebei province, in the tomb of a Han dynasty nobleman, but it was in bad shape. A fire from long ago in the tomb—which bore the vestiges of a botched robbery—had destroyed more than half of the bamboo strips and left the remaining ones gravely damaged. It took scholars two decades to have the transcription of the Dingzhou Analects published. Comparing this and the received version, we notice variants in the usage of particles and characters and in the partition of the passages but no fundamental differences that would alter our thinking about the standard text.

Since the discovery in Ding prefecture, many more excavated texts have come to light. Some of these have been dated to the first hundred years of the Han dynasty. Others are from 300 BC or earlier, in a period of Chinese history known as “the Warring States.” Confucius appears in eight of the forty-five Warring States texts from the Shanghai Museum collection, most of which are records of his conversations with disciples or political figures. They add to our knowledge of Confucius and his world and have contributed to my own consideration of the Analects, but answers to questions regarding the formation of the Analects still await the emergence of more evidence. A correction in approach, however, has already taken place. It had been widely accepted that a work with a long history, like the Analects or the Laozi, even before it became stabilized, must have evolved linearly from a single mother source. But more and more scholars are giving up this theory, because the excavated materials, especially those of the Laozi, suggest that at inception there were many threads and mutual influences. What this means for the Analects is that the search for its beginnings will be more difficult than we thought, but the odds of finding more early examples may be on our side. In the meantime, we still have a lot to absorb from the book that we have right here.


I am indebted to my grandfather, Jin Yufu, and to scholars like him whose passion for research is big and constant and infectious.

I am grateful to my editor, John Siciliano, who always had time for me to talk through a point, an idea, or a change of mind about form or content. Many thanks to Janet Fletcher for being the most rigorous of copy editors. It is my good fortune to have been able to put a manuscript in her hands again. My thanks also to Yulia Bereshpolova and Shao Xiaofang for allowing me to intrude into their lives any hour of the day to get me out of my trouble with computer technology.

My family has been a part of this journey from the beginning. Mei and Yar helped to keep me on the road. And Jonathan was my constant companion—my “friend and dear friend”—through every stage and turn. He has read every draft and pored over every word, and to him this translation is dedicated.


I have been exploring the Analects of Confucius for most of my adult life—more obsessively in the last ten years—and though the journey has not gotten easier, the pleasure never diminishes. This is because the more I burrow into it the more generous the text becomes, the more knowledge it is willing to give away. Confucius, too, allows himself to be that much more palpable when I search for him with extra effort. But this is what I always wanted, to find him not as an elevated idea but as someone who thinks and speaks and responds to the world with human instincts and an awareness of his own limitations. And in my long relationship with the Analects, something else—something even more important—has happened. It seems that somewhere along the way the book has shed its earlier identity as an object of my studies. In fact, as I read it now, I plunge deeper into my own life. I feel more acutely those things that make up this life: family, friends, students, my country, her politics, memories of childhood, and memories of my parents.

The eighteenth-century scholar Cheng Yaotian says this about literature: “Its influence can be more inspiring than being in the presence of a great man because it calls upon us to articulate our ideas and it beckons us to draw analogies. And so what literature offers is more than just something to rely on: it takes us by the hand and bolsters us up; it holds us by the arm to get us on our way.” The Analects is that kind of literature, yet it is also a book with few points of access. To find a way in can be discouraging even for the most earnest beginners, and it is not because the language is abstruse. The Analects is not a store of esoteric knowledge. It is a work about Confucius’ life and teachings, but the records stand piecemeal—as a bit of a conversation Confucius had with a disciple or someone he knew or as part of a remark he made about a contemporary or a figure from the past. And the fragments are often isolated from one another even though they may be bundled together as a single chapter. This is one reason why the book is difficult to approach. Names of people pose another problem. Of these, there are many, and rarely does the text explain who these people were, and only in a few instances are we told why a person was mentioned or why a conversation took place at all. The heaps of commentaries written over the last two thousand years to help us get through the opaque passages and work out the enigmas can paralyze the reader with their sheer weight and volume. And this is where I would like to come in: to bring clarity to this work with a new translation and commentaries that reflect centuries of scholarship but without the heft. And my hope is to be able to take readers through each chapter and entry, without ever losing them. One example from Book Fourteen may help to illustrate this point:

A young boy from Que took on the task of being a messenger [for the people] of this district. Someone asked Confucius, “Do you see him as someone who is eager to make progress in his learning?”

The Master replied, “I have seen this boy sitting down [in a gathering of adults] and walking abreast of his elders. He is not someone who seeks to make progress [yi]. He simply wants to grow up fast [cheng].”

The two words yi and cheng are critical to our understanding of Confucius’ assessment of the young boy. But before he pronounces the boy to be cheng and not yi, Confucius says that he has seen this child “sitting down with” his elders and “walking abreast of” them, which, according to the mores at the time, was a violation of ritual propriety. Thus the boy, in Confucius’ view, could not have been someone who was “eager to make progress in learning [yi]”: “He simply wants to grow up fast [cheng].” Evidence is crucial to judgment. Confucius applied this principle to the judgment of character, and scholars later on extended it to the reading of a text. But the idea is the same, and this is how we get the moral thinker and the exegete. There is one other thing the record shows, and that is just how closely Confucius observes a person’s—even a mere boy’s—conduct. And the fact that the boy was from Que, which was Confucius’ home district, suggests that the knowledge was firsthand.

A more difficult kind of exegetical work involves searching for a thread among the records in the Analects to tell a bigger story about Confucius’ thinking on a broader subject. And if the subject is politics, one could start with Book Thirteen. There, Confucius comments on how to govern and who is fit to govern; how politics works and what it should serve; when to be flexible and when to get tough; what is an ordered society and whether capital punishment has a part in it. His view on the principles of government appears in 13.3, where he says that rectifying names is what he would attend to first if he were to take charge of a government, because, “If names are not rectified, what is said will not seem reasonable. When what is said does not seem reasonable, nothing will get accomplished.” What this means is that if a government does not restore the integrity of names and words before everything else, then no one will trust what is being said, and consequently nothing can get done. Punishments, too, will become arbitrary, Confucius observes, and so “people will not know where to put their hands and feet.” And once a government has ceased to function, the state will come to ruin.

Confucius always held on to this belief, that a government runs on trust and on all of its moral capital, but he did not clench it too tightly. In practice he allowed flexibility, and he urged those in office to act with common sense. In 13.2, he tells one disciple, after this disciple has received an appointment as a district steward, to assemble his staff first and “assign them to the right positions.” “Try to overlook their minor shortcomings,” Confucius says. “Promote those of outstanding talent.” The disciple asks, “How can I recognize those of outstanding talent in order to promote them?” And Confucius responds, “Promote those you recognize to be outstanding. . . . As for those that you missed, will other people let them slip by you?” And when asked in 13.9 what a ruler should do first when he has already attracted a multitude of people to his state, Confucius says, “Make them rich,” and then “instruct them.”

Examples like these may give the impression that pragmatism is the driving force in Confucius’ political thought, but a closer look at the records—just those in Book Thirteen, for instance—shows that even when Confucius lets moral issues take a backseat, he never loses sight of where he is going—that his aim has always been to achieve greater benefits for a greater number of people. And if he seems inconsistent at times, it may be that he is thinking aloud about the pull and counter-pull of an argument while searching for that precise point of balance. Thus he stands firm against killing people for their transgressions, no matter how serious the offense, because he believes that self-reform can come about only through the influence of moral instruction and exemplary virtue. But he also points out that “only after good men have been in office for a hundred years is there the possibility of winning the war against cruelty and doing away with capital punishment.” In this example the pragmatist in him takes a long view of how to reach a goal, and so even when he is in a hurry to get there, he refrains from taking extreme measures, which, he knows, may introduce other kinds of cruelty.

This is how Confucius works out most of life’s questions. Thus you, as the reader, have to feel the tug going both ways before you are able to hear what Confucius says about trust (xin) and humaneness (ren), learning (xue) and knowledge (zhi), rightness (yi) and petty loyalty (liang). And it is the search for his distinct voice that promises the most satisfaction. This is the reason why, in my task as translator and commentator, I concentrate on Confucius—on gathering evidence about his life and on placing him in his own world. I want us to be able to imagine him thinking or speaking or mulling over a question. And so I do not treat his ideas as a set of concepts and categories that could find their counterparts in the Western philosophical tradition. The latter approach, in a book like this one, could have spoiled the pleasure and the surprise of discovery.

Besides, Confucius himself stays away from “putting forth theories” and making conjectures. He does not speculate about man’s inborn propensities or debate the nature of knowledge. But he is happy to talk about poetry and the rites, for they are inseparable from the speech and conduct of everyday life. An education in both, he proclaims, can give a man discerning eyes and ears, moral acuity and a sense of propriety. In 16.13, Confucius tells his son, “Unless you learn the Odes, you won’t be able to speak.” What he means is that you may be able to string together a few words, but this is not the same as speaking because it will have neither the measured voice of a fine poem nor the poem’s transforming power. Of the earliest anthology of poetry, Confucius says, “The Odes can give the spirit an exhortation and the mind keener eyes. They can make us better adjusted in a group and more articulate when voicing a complaint.” He compares the kinetics in these poems to driving a team of horses in the wild: “They never swerve from the path.” The balance in the act of spurring on and reining in is the point of the lesson. That it should become the gauge of one’s conduct and judgment was what Confucius hoped, but he was also eager for this knowledge to be put to use. He says in 13.5, “A person may be able to recite the three hundred poems, but if he is unable to put [this knowledge] to full use when he is given a political assignment, or if he is unable to hold his own in a diplomatic exchange when he is sent abroad on a mission, no matter how many poems he has learned, what good will it do?” In early China, a man acting as the representative of his ruler on a foreign mission was expected to understand the aesthetic elements and the political implications of the poems his host had selected for their entertainment. And in response, the emissary would ask the court musician of his host to recite, on his behalf, poems of his choice. The test in these functions was whether the emissary could “hold his own.” If his selections were equally forceful and fitting, then he would not have brought “disgrace to the mission his ruler had entrusted to him.” This form of diplomatic exchange, where one’s knowledge of poetry was a means of assessing each party’s strengths, had been around long before Confucius was born, but it was Confucius who noticed a moral dimension in these performances, and he wanted to amplify it in his teachings.

The same could be said about his teachings of the rites. According to his earliest biographer, the Han dynasty historian Sima Qian, Confucius, in his childhood games, liked “to set up ritual vessels and orchestrate a ritual performance around them.” Even though there is no record to support this claim, we can well imagine the scene. For how could a precocious child, destined for great things, not be awed by the weight of bronze implements and the sound of bronze bells and stone chimes? The ritual wares Confucius played with were wooden ones and modest, but he must have witnessed ancestral rites being performed. He would have been drawn to the solemnity of the occasion, and he must have found satisfaction in the fluidity and the balance of a given movement or act. Thus he also told his son in 16.13, “Unless you learn the rites, you won’t be able to find your balance.” “Balance” here refers to a person’s deportment and conduct, but if the person were to try to achieve it for the sake of a good name, he would be missing the point. Confucius says in 17.12, “To assume a dignified exterior with only a soft pith for an interior—that kind of person, to take an analogy from the riffraff [of the world], is like a thief who makes his way into a house by boring a hole through the wall.” If a person were the genuine article, he would want the rites to effect an inward change: “Being human and yet lacking in humaneness—what can such a man do with the rites?” The fulfillment of humaneness (ren) is the beginning and the end of one’s journey through life, Confucius teaches, and to “restrain the self and return to the rites” is “the way to be humane.” This idea is easier to visualize when Confucius construes it as a guide to proper political behavior. He says, “When abroad, conduct yourself as if you were receiving an honored guest. When employing the service of the people in your state, deport yourself as if you have been put in charge of a grand sacrifice.” The acting principle in these instructions is “Do not impose on others what you do not desire for yourself.” That is a heavy burden, and no one who has “only a soft pith for an interior” can hope to carry it off.

 • • • 

Confucius—Latinized from Kong fuzi, or Master Kong—was born in 551 BC, toward the end of an era in Chinese history called “the Spring and Autumn” (770–481 BC). His home was in Lu, a regional state in eastern China in an area now known as the Shandong peninsula.

The Kongs of Lu were common gentlemen (shi) with no hereditary entitlements and privileges. The common gentlemen—in the social hierarchy of the Zhou dynasty (1045–221 BC), just a notch higher than the common folk—could boast of their employability in the army or in any administrative position because they were educated in the six arts of ritual, music, archery, charioteering, writing, and numbers. Confucius’ father had been a military officer and later served as a district steward in Lu, but he was already an old man when he fathered Confucius. A previous marriage had given him nine daughters and a clubfooted son, and so it was with Confucius that he was granted a healthy heir. But he died soon after Confucius was born, leaving his young widow to fend for herself.

Confucius was candid about his family background. He said that because he was “poor and from a humble station” he could not enter government service as easily as young men from prominent families and so had to become “skilled in many menial tasks.” He found employment first with the Jisun clan, a hereditary family, whose principal members had, for many decades, served as chief counselors to the rulers of Lu. A series of modest positions with the Jisuns—as keeper of granaries and livestock, and as a district officer in the family’s feudal domain—led to more important appointments in the Lu government, first as minister of works and then as minister of crime.

Records of the time suggest that, as minister of crime, Confucius was effective in handling problems of law and order but was even more impressive in managing diplomatic missions: he knew when to flex his muscles and when to yield, and how to bring a tough negotiation to a successful conclusion. But his involvement in the internal politics of Lu cut his tenure short. In 498 BC, in an effort to restore the authority of the ruler, he came under suspicion of being the mastermind of a plot to steer the hereditary families to self-ruin, and when the case was unraveled, even the ruler was unwilling to offer his support. Thus Confucius had no choice but to leave his position and his home.

His self-exile took Confucius on a fourteen-year journey, first to Wei, the state just west of Lu, then south to the state of Song, and finally to the states of Chen and Cai before he circled back to Wei. Confucius spent much of that time looking for rulers who might be willing to come under his influence and be guided by his vision of a virtuous government. His search was in vain but he never gave up, because he was anxious “to be put to use.” He said to those who found his ambitions suspect: “How can I be like a bitter gourd that hangs from the end of a string and not be eaten?” How could he let his knowledge and ingenuity and all his inborn potential go to waste just because the going had been rough?—this, I believe, is what he meant.

Confucius was emboldened to think he could set things right for the world because he was born at a time when such aspirations were within the reach of men living in circumstances similar to his. The Zhou dynasty by the mid-sixth century BC was approaching its five-hundredth year. The political framework the dynastic founders had put in place, an enfeoffment system held together by family ties, was still standing, but the joints had been giving out since the beginning of the Spring and Autumn period, and so the structure could collapse if not shored up. The regional rulers, who were relatives of the Zhou king, should have been the king’s strongest supporters, but they preferred pursuing their own ambitions. By Confucius’ time, none of the regional rulers was interested in the security of the empire or the idea of the greater good. The same could be said of the members of the aristocratic class, who had once aided their ruler in government—now they were openly competing with him for wealth and women. Their apathy and ineptitude allowed the common gentlemen—men like Confucius who had once been in their service—to step in and take charge of the administrative functions of the government.

The common gentlemen still could not displace the aristocrats as the society’s elite, yet if they worked hard enough and were smart, they could be influential in most political contests. But the more discerning ones set their goals higher: They saw an opportunity to introduce a few new ideas about worth (xian) and nobleness (shang)—which, they felt, could challenge the set of assumptions that had been supporting the existing social hierarchy. They asked whether proof of ability and strength of character should be the measures of a person’s worth, and whether men of noble rank should be stripped of their titles and privileges for their incompetence and moral indiscretion. Men who posed such questions were not just seeking a chance to compete in the political world; they wanted to rewrite the rules so that the outcome would benefit the virtuous and the competent. This, in part, explains what Confucius was trying to teach. He believed that the moral resolve of a few could favorably affect the fate of many. But integrity alone, in his view, was not enough. Good men had to be tested in politics.

The man whom Confucius looked back to for inspiration and guidance was the Duke of Zhou, brother of the founder of the Zhou dynasty and regent to the king’s young son. Despite the temporal distance between them, Confucius believed that he and the Duke of Zhou wanted the same thing for the dynasty—social harmony and political stability grounded in trust and mutual obligations, with minimal use of legal rules. But the Duke of Zhou was royalty, and Confucius was a professional bureaucrat, which meant that if Confucius did not have a government job he could not have any influence in society and would have few resources to live on. Men who knew him on his travels wondered whether his eagerness for a political position might have led him to overplay his hand and whether he had compromised his principles by letting disreputable men and women act as intermediaries. Confucius’ critics included his own disciples—the three or four who accompanied him in his exile.

Confucius’ disciples were considerably younger than he was. Young men from a wide range of backgrounds—sons of aristocrats, children of common gentlemen, merchants, farmers, artisans, criminals, and sons of criminals—chose to attach themselves to him in order to learn skills that might get them started on the track to an official career. In the process, they acquired a lot more—a gentleman’s refinement and moral acuity, which, in Confucius’ mind, were essential to a political career. Confucius was the “master” (zi) to these followers, who called themselves his “disciples” or “apprentices” (tu). Among his earliest disciples, three stand out in the Analects: Zigong, Zilu, and Yan Hui. And it was these three, Zigong, Zilu, and Yan Hui, who accompanied Confucius on his long journey into the unknown.

Confucius was invited to come home to Lu in 484, when he was nearly seventy. It was probably two of his disciples, who had gotten plum jobs in the Lu government the year before, who orchestrated the move. To get Confucius to agree, they thought, the ruler should offer him a nice sum to retire on. The plan worked. Once back, Confucius found himself in a comfortable position. He no longer had financial worries, and the people of Lu treated him with the kind of respect he had not known before. The ruler and his counselors addressed him as the “elder statesman,” and they would approach him for advice when natural disasters struck or when they were thinking of raising taxes or raising an army against a state they perceived to be a threat. The number of Confucius’ disciples also grew. And even though Confucius says in 2.4, “At seventy, I followed what my heart desired without overstepping the line,” he was not free of care. From the dialogues in his later life, it seems he weighed the opposing views of history and of human character with greater precision. He also spoke more frankly about his defeats and about feeling tired. Yet his voice was unstrained. It was the voice of someone who had lived and traveled, who had done all he could to guide the world away from a violent and arbitrary course while knowing that his efforts would have no effect on those who held the reins. Toward the end of his life, he told his disciple Zigong that he intended to remain silent, and when Zigong protested, Confucius replied, “What does Heaven ever say? Yet the four seasons move in order, and the hundred things come to life. What does Heaven ever say?”

 • • • 

Much of Confucius’ thought and character can be gleaned from the Analects, but without the more formal commentaries and the private ruminations scholars kept in their notebooks or let slip into their essays, we would not have been able to get close to Confucius. Take, for instance, 14.39. Here we learn that Confucius “was playing the stone chimes when a man, carrying a bamboo basket, went past his door” and said, “How squalid this kengkeng sound! If no one understands him, then he should just keep what he believes to himself and that’s all: ‘If the water is deep, just wade across it. If the water is shallow, lift your hem and cross it.’” To this, Confucius replied, “If [this man] is so resolute, he should not have any difficulties.” We would not have known how to approach this record if the commentaries did not tell us that the man carrying a bamboo basket was a recluse, someone who had had enough of this world and wanted out, and that the poem he declaimed was a reflection of his feelings and his stance. There are several such men in the Analects, but this one is the most inscrutable; equally opaque is Confucius’ response, which, as some scholars point out, is not just aimed at the recluse—it also allows us an entry into Confucius’ secret self. If this man is resolute, Confucius says, then, unlike himself, “he should not have any difficulties.”

Commentaries explain not only who the man “carrying a bamboo basket” was but also the point of his message to Confucius. Collected commentaries, however, do a lot more. They give us a group of exegetical materials on any particular question and point out competing interpretations, when they exist, each with its supporting evidence. We are not told in most cases the choicest reading, but if we are patient and are willing to work at it ourselves, we may learn to sort out the plausible from the suspect, the judicious from the ideological; and in the process we are introduced to scholars we would not have known if not for the editors’ erudition and acumen. The collected commentaries, I feel, are a testimony to the moral weight of scholarship—to the all-consuming labor of searching through the knowledge in one’s library and in one’s head to find a reasonable, and perhaps even an exact, explanation of a word or of a statement attributed to a venerated man or someone in his circle.

The nineteenth-century scholar Liu Baonan was the first to attempt a collected commentary on the Analects with a very broad scope. He gave his work a modest disguise as a subcommentary to the Han dynasty exegesis. This was the convention of his time, to acknowledge Han learning as the foundation of Qing scholarship. But one only needs to open Liu Baonan’s Collected Commentaries of the Analects (Lunyu zhengyi) to realize how generous his vision was and how rigorous were his techniques. There have been other attempts since his, most notably that of Cheng Shude, but I decided to follow Liu because of my respect for the Qing scholars, for their polymathic minds and their trust in evidential research.

It took Liu Baonan twenty-seven years to draw together Collected Commentaries of the Analects, and it was not quite finished when he died. I often wondered what spurred him on during those years. What possessed him as he pored over the Analects? Was it Confucius? Was it the scholarship? Was it the moral conundrums in this book? Did he know? Could he have singled out one thing? Liu Baonan did not make such distinctions, I decided, and this was the final lesson I learned from him: Scholarship draws you closer to someone from the distant past and to the difficult questions he asked, and, in the end, everything obsesses you—the scholarship, the man, and his questions.

I have known old scholars who had memorized the Analects when they were children and had then forgotten about the book as their interests took them to questions in history or geography, philology or cosmology. But then, one day, after they had lived for many years, they found themselves reciting what Confucius says in 14.31: “Not to anticipate deception and not to expect bad faith and yet to be the first to be aware of such behavior—this is proof of one’s worthiness.” Or what he says in 1.16: “Do not worry that other people do not know you. But be concerned that you do not know them.” The words in the Analects, having been dormant for so long, suddenly sprang to life for them and became a source for reflection and self-understanding. But, they would add, this knowledge also “bolsters them up” and “gets them on their way.”

Suggestions for Further Reading

The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C. Edited by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Chin, Annping. The Authentic Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics. New York: Scribner, 2007.

Falkenhausen, Lothar von. Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (1000250BC). Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA, 2006.

Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius—the Secular as Sacred. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Tao. La Salle: Open Court, 1989.

Li, Wai-yee. The Readability of the Past in Early Chinese Historiography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007.

Makeham, John. Transmitters and Creators: Chinese Commentators and Commentaries on the Analects. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003.

Mencius. Mencius. Translated by D. C. Lau. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970.

Pines, Yuri. Foundations of Confucian Thought: Intellectual Life in the Chunqiu Period, 722453B.C.E. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

Schaberg, David. A Patterned Past: Form and Thought in Early Chinese Historiography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001.

Schwartz, Benjamin. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985.

Shaughnessy, Edward. Rewriting Early Chinese Texts. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.

Xunzi. Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works. Translated by John Knoblock. 3 vols. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988–1994.

A Note on the Translation

This translation inherits nearly two thousand years of Chinese scholarship and four hundred years of Western attempts to span the language. In order to produce a version that is both new and true to the original, we must build on the scaffolding erected by scholars and readers of many kinds with a wide range of personal and historical circumstances.

Translations of all the passages cited in the commentaries are my own unless otherwise noted. Translations of titles of Chinese books are in the bibliography, not, for the most part, in the endnotes.


Chinese characters in traditional form are provided in the appendices for Chinese terms and Chinese proper names. The more widely adopted pinyin romanization is used throughout this work.

Chronology of Chinese Dynasties

There are variants to the dates of early Chinese dynasties and opposing views about whether the Xia dynasty existed at all. I have followed the dates in The Cambridge History of Ancient China and K. C. Chang’s argument in that volume about the Xia. Chang describes Xia as one among many contemporary states but the dominant polity, which explains why the early Chinese historians refer to it as a dynasty. Archaeological discoveries since 1959 seem to support the broad and sustained influence of a culture centered in northwestern Henan province. This culture could have been that of the Xia.

Legendary Emperors





1.1 The Master said, “Is it not a pleasure to learn [xue]and, when it is timely, to practice what you have learned? Is it not a joy to have friends coming from afar? Is it not gentlemanly not to become resentful if no one takes notice of your learning?”

An alternative translation of the first sentence might be: “Is it not a pleasure to learn and to repeat often what you have learned?” The differences in reading depend on how one understands the phrase shixi. The character shi could mean “timely” or “time and time again”; the character xi could mean “to practice” or “to repeat [like a bird flapping its wings] what one has learned.” The Qing scholar Jiao Xun, for instance, cites the Analects 7:8, 6:21, and 11:22 to support his reading of shi as “timeliness.” He says, “To be able to act in a timely way signifies a higher stage of learning” and so “gives one pleasure.” Most scholars from the Six Dynasties and the Song prefer the other interpretation. Huang Kan, for instance, thinks that shi here means that “one should review daily what one has learned [each year and throughout his life], not letting a moment go to waste.” My decision to side with Jiao Xun has to do with Confucius’ fourth-century BC follower Mencius’ characterization of Confucius as “a sage whose action was timely.” Mencius believes that such a sage is superior to those who are merely “beyond defilement” or “politically responsible,” and he regards timeliness in action as the culmination of learning—not just learning as a pile of knowledge but learning, xue (), as Confucius instructed, to fulfill one’s humanity both at home and in the broader world and learning to cultivate one’s moral and aesthetic sensibilities. A man of this kind of learning will draw even people from afar to his side, but if others “do not take notice of” what he possesses, he will not mind, because he has done it for himself.

1.2 Master You [Youzi] said, “It is rare for a person who is filial to his parents and respectful to his elders to be inclined to transgress against his superiors. And it has never happened that a person who is not inclined to transgress against his superiors is inclined to create chaos. A gentleman looks after the roots. With the roots firmly established, a moral way will grow. Is it not true then that being filial to one’s parents and being respectful to one’s elders are the roots of one’s humanity [ren]?

Master You (Youzi) is You Ruo, one of the younger disciples of Confucius. He, along with Zengzi, Zixia, Zizhang, and Ziyou, was probably responsible for drawing together an early version of the Analects to help these disciples transmit the teachings of Confucius. The Book of Mencius says that after Confucius died, “Zixia, Zizhang, and Ziyou wanted to serve You Ruo as they had served Confucius because of his resemblance to the sage;” and that “they tried to force Zengzi [Master Zeng] to join them” but Zengzi refused because for him no one could surpass the “immaculate” character of Confucius. Although Mencius’ story is about loyalty, it also suggests disagreement among the disciples after Confucius’ death as to how to interpret and how to enlarge Confucius’ teachings. In fact, a comparison between what Youzi says here and what Zengzi says in 1.4 and 8.7 shows that Youzi sees familial rites as central to attaining social harmony while Zengzi focuses on introspection as the way to self-realization. They seem to be taking Confucius’ teachings in two different directions, yet, in the end, both are trying to understand the source of our humanity, ren ().

There are several ways of reading 1.2, the most obvious of which is to say that Youzi advocates submission to one’s superiors as the most expedient way of bringing about peace and harmony, but this simplifies what he is trying to convey about the moral efficacy of the rites. Deeper understanding can be gained from reading the commentaries of the Han, the Six Dynasties, and the Qing, where scholars give more attention to the individual words in this passage. Of the word hao (to be inclined to or to have a liking for), for instance, Huang Kan from the Six Dynasties, quoting an earlier scholar, says, “When parents make mistakes now and then, the son must admonish them but in a way that does not violate their self-respect [bufan]. And even if he has to repeat this a number of times, how could he have a liking for [hao] what he does? . . . A person who is filial to his parents and respectful to his elders [xiaoti zhi ren] will speak up for what is right when he has to, but since it is not his intention to transgress against his superiors [fanshang], it is certainly not his purpose to throw the existing social hierarchy into chaos.” Such a reading is consistent with what Confucius says in 4.18.

1.3 The Master said, “A man of clever words and of a pleasing countenance is bound to be short on humanity.”

The Qing scholar Liu Baonan points out that the early classics do not always use qiao (clever) and ling (pleasing) in a negative sense. But if clever words and a pleasing countenance are all that a man possesses, then he must be lacking in humanity; and, in fact, he could be a glib man, which was what Confucius detested and feared the most, because such a man could manufacture a semblance of humanity without possessing one, and he could be more menacing than those Youzi has in mind, men who have a liking for transgressing against their superiors.

1.4 Master Zeng [Zengzi] said, “Every day I examine myself on three points. When I worked to benefit someone else, did I do my best? In my relationship with my friends, did I fail to be trustworthy? Did I pass on any knowledge I myself had not put into practice?”

Master Zeng (Zengzi) was Zeng Can, the youngest of Confucius’ disciples and someone who could not have been under Confucius’ tutelage for very long. Of this man Confucius says only that he was “slow,” held back, perhaps, by his constant self-examination. Yet it was Zengzi’s understanding of Confucius—further refined and expanded by Confucius’ third-generation disciple Mencius—that dominated later Confucian thought. Here Zengzi lays the groundwork for Mencius’ own teaching on the virtue of introspection, which Wang Yangming in the sixteenth century took to even a deeper level, arguing for introspection regarding not just one’s action but also one’s intention. The title of Wang’s major work, Chuanxilu (A Record of Knowledge Learned through Practice), is also a direct reference to the question Zengzi asks himself: “Did I pass on any knowledge I myself had not put into practice?”

1.5The Master said, “In guiding a state of a thousand chariots, handle all matters with care and respect, and be trustworthy; take a measured approach in your spending, and cherish the people. Employ the common people only at the right time.”

Scholars over the centuries could not agree on just how large a state of a thousand chariots was in the Spring and Autumn period. The contemporary scholar Yang Bojun, using the Zuo Commentary (the most reliable source of this period) and Analects 11:26 as his support, argues that in the early Spring and Autumn this would refer to a powerful state with considerable land, but by Confucius’ time this was no longer true. (The Zuo Commentary says that in the thirteenth year of Duke Zhao [529 BC, twenty-two years before Confucius was born], the state of Jin had in its possession four thousand chariots.) Both Han and Qing scholars point out that the word jing (), “respect,” suggests jing (), “vigilance”—that if a person is attentive to the affair put in his charge from beginning to end, he is bound to be successful. To “employ the common people at the right time” means to employ people for state projects or military service only at a time when they can be spared from their own work on the land. The Song thinker Cheng Yi observes that the guidelines Confucius sketched out may seem “elementary,” but “even the rule of the sage emperors Yao and Shun was no more than a fulfillment of these principles.”

1.6 The Master said, “A youngster should be filial to his parents when he is at home and respectful to his elders when he is away from his home. He should be prudent in action and trustworthy in words. He should cherish all people but should stay close to the most humane. And if he has energy left to do more, he should devote himself to the arts.”

According to the Book of Rites, a child from an elite family would spend nearly all his time with his parents in the first ten years of his life. After that, he would have to “leave home and seek instruction elsewhere.” Learning the appropriate way of expressing his affection toward his parents while he is home, will, therefore, prepare him to be respectful to his elders when he is outside the home. What Confucius stresses in this passage and throughout the Analects is the importance of grasping the fundamentals of human relationships in early life, before one sets out into the world. Thus, he feels, the cultivation of correct conduct and character should come before a literary education and an education in the arts, wen (). This poses a problem for later scholars like Zhu Xi, who says, “If a person focuses his effort on perfecting his conduct and does not learn from the written words [wen], then there is no way for him to study the accomplishments of the former sages and worthies and no way for him to know what things ought to be, and so his action might be the result of selfish intent.”

1.7 Zixia said, “If a person is able to appreciate moral worth as much as he appreciates physical beauty, is able to serve his parents with the utmost effort and his lord with no self-interest, and in his relationship with friends is trustworthy in words, though he may say that he lacks learning, I would surely call him learned.”

There has been much discussion about the first clause and the word yi (易) in the sentence. Many scholars say that the first clause refers to the relationship of husband and wife; that since this relationship is “the beginning of all relationships,” Confucius’ disciple Zixia “speaks about it first, before the relationship of parents and children, of rulers and ministers,” and the relationship between friends. But just what Zixia is trying to say about this man as a husband is a subject of intense debate, because the word yi () here could mean “to be just like something” or “to regard something lightly.” Thus the man could be someone who is able to appreciate his wife’s moral worth as much as he appreciates her physical beauty, or he could be someone who appreciates her moral worth but regards her physical beauty lightly. The first reading, I feel, is subtler and seems consistent with how Zixia feels about the bond between the moral and the aesthetic. In 3:8, for instance, he suggests that a woman looking after her appearance can be used as a trope for moral improvement. What is also interesting about Zixia here is that he does not quite fit Confucius’ description of him—that “he is good in literary learning”—because in 1:7 his words seem to reinforce what Confucius says in 1:6—that lessons in human relationships have more weight than literary education.

1.8 The Master said, “If a man of position [junzi] does not have integrity, he will not inspire awe. And when he tries to learn, he will not persevere to the end. Such a man should stay close to those who do their best and are trustworthy. He should not befriend those who are not his equals. And when he makes a mistake, he should not be afraid to correct it.”

This is one of those rare occasions in the Analects where the term junzi () does not refer to “a man of noble character” or “a gentleman” but rather to “a man of noble birth” or “a man of position,” which was the more common designation for junzi in early China before Confucius was born. Yet most scholars still understand junzi to mean “gentleman” here, which, as one commentary points out, does not make sense because a gentleman, in the context of the Analects, is already “someone of integrity” and so would not need a lecture from Confucius about how to reform his character. Besides the term junzi, the words gu and zhu have also generated some debate: whether gu means “steadfast” or “inflexible,” and whether zhu means “to stay close to” or “to be guided by.” If gu means “inflexible” and zhu means “to be guided by,” the second and third sentences would read: “If he devotes himself to learning, he will not be inflexible. Let yourself be guided by the principles of doing your best and being trustworthy.” I, however, feel that if Confucius is speaking about a man who lacks gravity, he thinks that such a man will not be steadfast in his learning. And if he asks this man “to stay close to those who do their best and are trustworthy,” he would want to tell him also “not to befriend those who are not his equals.” Of this last remark, nearly all the scholars agree that this does not refer to men who are not your social equals but rather refers to men whose character is not as good as yours. For, other than “to aggrandize yourself,” what reasons could there be for you to make friends with those you have nothing to learn from?

1.9 Master Zeng [Zengzi] said, “Tend to the death rites of the recently deceased with utmost care and respect, and do not forget to offer sacrifices to the long-departed; then people will have much to gain in the cultivation of their virtue.”

Zengzi says in 19:17 that he has heard his teacher say that only on the occasion of mourning for one’s parents is a man able to realize himself to the full. Here he must be urging the ruler to perfect himself in this way, because, as Confucius observes in 12:19, a ruler with a cultivated self will have a moral influence on his people.

The Jitong chapter of the Book of Rites says, “There are three ways of caring for one’s parents: when they are alive, look after them; when they are deceased, tend to the death rites; when the death rites have been completed, offer them sacrifice.” It also says, “To conduct sacrifice is to keep on caring for one’s parents; it is to continue the act of filiality.”

1.10 Ziqin asked Zigong, “When the Master goes to another state, he invariably learns about its government. Does he get his information by asking or is it offered to him?”

Zigong said, “The Master acquires his information by being affable, kind, and respectful, and by showing restraint in his action and a willingness to yield. The way the Master asks for information is different from that of other people.”

Ziqin and Zigong were both disciples of Confucius, with Ziqin being the much younger of the two. And unlike Zigong, who was at Confucius’ side throughout most of the latter’s fourteen-year journey, Ziqin could not have known how Confucius conducted himself when he was in a foreign state, and so he asked this question.

Liu Baonan, citing a commentary by his contemporary Wu Jiabin, says that most rulers would keep a tight lid on what they knew about the affairs of their government, especially when they were around outsiders. But when they met Confucius, it seemed natural for them to share their knowledge with him. Such was the force of his presence, which, as Zigong explains, had nothing to do with skills of entreaty or persuasion.

1.11 The Master said, “When your father is alive, observe what he would like to do. After your father is dead, reflect on what he has done. If for three years you refrained from altering your father’s ways, you can be called filial [xiao].”

The Song scholar Fan Zuyu says that when the father is alive, a filial son is someone who will look to see what might be his father’s wishes. (Zengzi’s relationship with his father as described in the Mencius is an example.) This reading is different from that of the Han scholars Kong Anguo and Zheng Xuan, which says, “When the father is alive, you can only observe what the son intends to do,” not what he does, if you want to gauge his character, because, out of respect for his father, the son is not yet able to act independently. The Qing scholar Qian Daxin professes that he prefers Fan’s reading because “what Confucius says here is about filial behavior,” “not about how to observe a man’s [the son’s] character,” which is the understanding of the Han scholars. Many commentaries try to explain why Confucius thought that a filial son would try not to change his father’s ways in the three years after the father’s death. What if the father’s conduct was far from being perfect? The Qing scholar Wang Zhong feels that this is simply “the hard truth of being filial [xiao ]”: “If this principle does not exist, then the son upon his father’s death in the morning could very well change the father’s ways by evening time.” Kong Anguo and Liu Baonan say, “When a filial son is in mourning and is still yearning for his departed parent, he feels as if his parent is still alive and so he simply cannot bring himself to alter his father’s ways.” I find it interesting that Confucius asks the son “to observe” and “to reflect” (guan) rather than “to carry out” his father’s intent or “to carry forward” his action. Thus in the case where the father’s character is wanting, it is up to the son to amend the father’s mistakes and to carry out what the father cannot accomplish, but only after he has spent three years in mourning and in quiet reflection on his father’s conduct; in the meantime he should “refrain from altering his father’s ways.”

1.12 Master You [Youzi] said, “Harmony is what is most prized in the practice of the rites [li]. It is what makes the way of the former kings beautiful, and this [principle] applies to matters big and small. Yet it does not always work: if you aim only at achieving harmony [in everything] because you know that it is the ideal and do not let the rules of the rites guide your action, it will not work.”

The late Tang–early Song scholar Xing Bing offers a different interpretation of the second half of this passage. He believes that Youzi was addressing the ruler, asking him not just to follow the ritual rules, li (), rigidly “in matters big and small” or to “aim only at achieving harmony [he ].” What Youzi meant, Xing Bing writes, is that a ruler should “use music to harmonize the heart [and emotions] of the people and the rites to check their conduct.” Many translations follow the gist of this explanation, though scores of traditional scholars disagree with it. These scholars feel that in his comments Youzi had only the rites in mind and his concern was about how to achieve harmony every step of the way and “in matters big and small.” “Harmony here refers only to the rites,” Liu Baonan writes, “not to music.”

1.13 Master You [Youzi] said, “Trustworthiness comes close to rightness because your words can be counted on. Respectfulness comes close to ritual propriety because it allows you to stay clear of shame and disgrace. If you do not lose the affection of those who are your relatives by marriage, then you could have the respect of your clan.”

Youzi stresses that trustworthiness, xin (), only “comes close to rightness [yi ]” and respectfulness, gong (), only “comes close to ritual propriety [li ],” thus suggesting that rightness and ritual propriety are harder to attain. Huang Kan gives an example of Weisheng of Lu, who lived up to his word but was so inflexible that his action could not have been right. This man waited under a bridge for a woman at an appointed time and day. A sudden downpour caused the stream to flood, and the man, unwilling to go back on his word, held on to the pillar of the bridge as the water rose and was drowned. The Tang scholar Li Ao uses the example of a well-known figure in the history of the Spring and Autumn period to illustrate how a person might be respectful but act contrary to the idea of propriety and the spirit of the rites. The man, Shen Sheng, was an heir apparent in the state of Jin. His father was infatuated with a consort, who coveted Shen Sheng’s position for her own son. And when this woman falsely accused him of intending treachery against his own father, Shen Sheng refused to clear his name because, he said, he did not want to castigate her, the only person who could bring comfort to his father in his old age. Finally, Shen Sheng took his own life. Of this man, Li Ao says that he “died out of his respect for his father” and his action was “contrary to the spirit of the rites”: “He would have understood the rites if he was able to be respectful to his father without having to die for it.”

1.14 The Master said, “A gentleman does not try to stuff himself when he eats and is not worried about the comfort of his dwelling. He is anxious about getting things done and careful about what he says. He gravitates toward those who possess moral integrity because he wants to put himself right. One could say that he is someone who loves learning.”

Confucius’ disciple Yan Hui exemplified the gentleman in this description. According to his teacher, Yan Hui was “the most eager to learn” and was content to be “living in a shabby neighborhood on a bowlful of millet and a ladleful of water.” Neither poverty nor any circumstances of life could have vexed him, because he was driven by a love for the good and a desire for learning.

1.15Zigong said, “‘Poor but not ingratiating, rich but not arrogant’—what do you think of this saying?”

The Master said, “That is all right, but better still is ‘poor but joyful, rich but loving the rites.’”

Zigong said, “The Odes says:

‘Like bone filed, like tusk smoothed,

Like jade carved, like stone polished.’

Is this what you mean?”

The Master said, “Si [Zigong], only with you can one discuss the Odes. Someone tells you something and you can see its relevance to what is not said.”

The conversation here is about refinement. Confucius takes what Zigong has said and makes it sharper and subtler. Men who are “poor but joyful” or “rich but loving the rites” are larger in mind and spirit than those who are merely holding on to their integrity by not being ingratiating when poor or arrogant when rich. Zigong grasps his teacher’s point right away, and in response he declaims a poem that compares the refinement of a gentleman (junzi) to “jade carved and stone polished.” Confucius must have been pleased with what he heard because Zigong not only could “see the relevance to what is not said” but also spoke his thought in the voice of the Odes. Confucius therefore remarks, “only with you can one discuss the Odes.”

1.16 The Master said, “Do not worry that other people do not know you. But be concerned that you do not know them.”

Most commentaries since the Song understand the second sentence to mean that because it is important to stay close to the worthy and to keep a distance from the unworthy it would be to a person’s disadvantage if he did not know how to judge others. Earlier commentaries, however, approach Confucius’ remark from the perspective of human nature. Huang Kan says, “Human beings have a tendency to make little effort to understand others but to blame others for not understanding them. This is the point Confucius was trying to make.”


2.1 The Master said, “To rule by virtue is like the way the North Star rules, standing in its place with all the other stars revolving around it and paying court to it.”

“To rule,” zheng (), is “to correct oneself,” zheng (), which means “to rule by virtue.” Confucius says in 12:17, “When you set an example by correcting your mistakes, who will dare not to correct his mistakes?” The Qing scholar Song Xiangfeng writes that a true king “takes as his example the working of heaven,” whose authority lies in its integrity or virtue, de (). But a king, unlike heaven, is human. And even someone who is born with a large measure of humanity has to make an effort to acquire his virtue “by correcting his own action.” Most scholars, following the explanation of the Han scholar Bao Xian, say that this way of governing is the same as to govern “by doing nothing.” Some scholars, however, argue that “to govern by virtue” is “doing something,” only that “the doing has a semblance of doing nothing”; therefore, even the sage emperor Shun, who, as Confucius says, “ruled by doing nothing,” did something—“by holding himself in a reverent position and facing south.”

2.2The Master said, “The three hundred poems from the Book of Poetry could be summed up in a single phrase: “They never swerve from the path [siwuxie].”

The phrase siwuxie (), which Confucius plucked from Ode 297, describes the act of driving a team of horses in the wild—the horses are “spurred on and reined in” but “never swerve from the path.” Scholars who understand siwuxie as “having no depravity in intention,” I feel, miss not only the resonance in the original poem but also an important aspect of Confucius’ teachings, which assumes that our nature is sinewy and that we, too, need to be spurred on and reined in as we race down the path of human life. Confucius in 3.20 illustrates the idea of never swerving from the path through his reading of a love poem, the guanju. The Confucian thinker Xunzi, from the third century BC, makes a similar point when he says, “there is sensuality in the guofeng section of the Book of Odes”: “These poems satisfy the yearnings [of the poet] but do not err by going too far.”

2.3 The Master said, “If you guide the people with ordinances and statutes and keep them in line with [threats of] punishment, they will try to stay out of trouble but will have no sense of shame. If you guide them with exemplary virtue [de] and keep them in line with the practice of the rites [li], they will have a sense of shame and will know to reform themselves.”

2.3 is an extension of 2.1, but here the ruler does more than just stand in one place, like the North Star, and conduct his government by way of his virtue: he also keeps the people “in line with the practice of the rites.” To Confucius, the fengjian enfeoffment system of the early Zhou dynasty came very close to being an ideal government because it was grounded in the integrity of the ruler and in the trust between the ruler and the relatives he sent elsewhere with vested power to create new colonies for the young empire. This government was further reinforced with the civilizing power of rites and music, and so it did not need complex laws and regulations to “keep [the people] in line.”

2.4The Master said, “At fifteen, I set my heart on learning. At thirty, I found my balance through the rites. At forty, I was free from doubts [about myself]. At fifty, I understood what Heaven intended me to do. At sixty, I was attuned to what I heard. At seventy, I followed what my heart desired without overstepping the line.”

This is Confucius’ description of his spiritual journey, which began with him setting his heart on learning and concluded with him letting his heart follow what it desired. In between, though, he found his balance through the rites and was able to relinquish whatever doubts he might have had about himself and to come to understand what Heaven intended him to do. Thus, at the end, when he simply followed his heart’s desire, he did not “swerve from the path.” And just as effortlessness is proof of a perfect rule, it suggests the culmination of a moral life.

2.5Meng Yizi asked about being filial. The Master responded, “Do not abandon [the rites] [wuwei].”

When Fan Chi was driving the chariot, the Master told him about this conversation, saying, “Mengsun asked me about filiality, and I replied, ‘Do not abandon [the rites].’”

Fan Chi asked, “What did you mean by that?”

The Master said, “When your parents are alive, observe the rites in serving them; when they die, observe the rites in burying them; observe the rites in sacrificing to them.”

Meng Yizi was a member of the Mengsun family, one of the three hereditary families in the state of Lu. Meng Yizi’s early ancestor, Qingfu, was a brother of the Lu ruler Duke Zhuang. Just what was Meng Yizi’s relationship to Confucius was a subject of much debate. Some scholars believe that he was a disciple; others, that he was an adversary, the man who managed to thwart Confucius’ plan to have the Three Families destroyed and who was therefore, in part, responsible for sending Confucius into exile. Fan Chi was a younger disciple of Confucius and a warrior known for his courage. According to the Zuo Commentary, in 484 BC, shortly before Confucius returned home from his exile, Fan Chi and another disciple, Ran Qiu, led the Lu army to victory in a battle against the Qi army.

The term wuwei () is problematic because as a command it has no object, and in the context of Meng Yizi’s question it could mean “Do not disobey your parents,” which, of course, is not what Confucius had in mind. What Confucius means by “filiality,” as he tells Fan Chi, is not to abandon the rites when you serve your parents, when you mourn their death, and when you sacrifice to them. One can get a clearer and more tangible idea of the relationship of rites to filiality in the next three passages, 2.6, 2.7, and 2.8.

2.6 Meng Wubo asked about being filial. The Master said, “Give your parents no cause for worry other than your illness.”

Meng Wubo was the son of the Meng Yizi in 2.5. My reading follows that of the first-century scholar Ma Rong, who explains, “A filial son will not act thoughtlessly and unduly to bring grief to his parents; he allows his illness to be the only cause for their worry.” Two other Han scholars propose a different reading, saying that a filial son “is someone who is always worried that his parents might fall ill.” Both readings are possible, but the idea of filiality in Ma Rong’s reading is more difficult to realize and is, therefore, more compelling.

2.7Ziyou asked about being filial. The Master said, “Nowadays this is taken to mean being able to feed your parents. But dogs and horses can do as much. If you are not respectful, how are you different?”

Ziyou was one of Confucius’ younger disciples. His appearance in Book Nineteen suggests that he was probably a compiler or an editor of the Analects. Confucius says that both “Ziyou and Zixia were good in the cultural arts and literary learning [wen],” yet 19.12 shows that the two did not get on after their teacher’s death. Ziyou describes Zixia’s teaching as one that ignores the roots and gives attention only to the tips. Zixia thinks that it is Ziyou who is confused about what should be taught first and what should be approached last.

The Han exegete Bao Xian points out that the third sentence here could mean either that dogs and horses are doing the providing (for humans or for their own parents) or that they are being provided for. Both readings make sense, but most Chinese commentaries follow the first (which is also my reading), while Zhu Xi’s commentary and most English translations follow the second. Of this sentence and the last sentence, Burton Watson’s rendering is “But we do as much for dogs and horses as well. If there is no reverence, how is it any different?”

2.8 Zixia asked about being filial. The Master said, “The difficult part is the facial expression. As for the youngsters taking on the burden when there is work to be done and the older ones being served first when there is food and wine, can this be called filial conduct?”

Bao Xian thinks that “the facial expression” refers to the expression on the parents’ faces—that it is difficult for a son to be constantly watchful of his parents’ expressions, looking for signs of pleasure and displeasure and of wishes waiting to be fulfilled. Another Han scholar, Zheng Xuan, however, feels that “the facial expression” refers to the son’s expression—that it is difficult for a son to always maintain a gentle and affectionate demeanor when he is serving his parents, and that only a truly filial son could achieve this.

2.9The Master said, “I can speak to Hui [Yan Hui] all day, and he does not disagree with me or question what I said. Thus it seems as though he were stupid. But afterward, when I observe what he does on his own, I realize that he is able to give full play to what he has learned. Hui is not stupid at all.”

Hui, or Yan Hui, was Confucius’ favorite disciple. He was so silent and diffident that even Confucius suspected at first that he might be slow and so could not think for himself. But when he looked further into it, Confucius discovered that Yan Hui preferred “to absorb quietly the knowledge that was presented to him” and then practice what he had learned when he was on his own. Yan Hui describes in 9.11 just how difficult his private quest for knowledge has been even with his teacher’s guidance and encouragement.

2.10 The Master said, “Observe [shi] what a person does. Look into [guan] what he has done [you]. Consider [cha] where he feels at home. How then can he hide his character?”

Even though Confucius was rarely categorical in his judgment of others, he believed that it was possible, and, in fact, instructive, to try to understand the truth of a given person. He also encouraged his own disciples to look into themselves (as he had into himself) and to compare their strengths against those of people they knew well.

Traditional commentaries point out the difference between shi (), “to observe,” and guan (), “to look into,” and Liu Baonan notes that cha (), according to the Han dictionary, means “to mull over or to consider something.” These commentaries also agree that you () refers to “experiences of the past” or “what one has done.”

2.11 The Master said, “A person is worthy of being a teacher if he is able to gain new insights from chewing over what he already knew.”

Wengu () means literally to “keep warm what one already knew.” And the “person [who] is worthy of being a teacher” refers either to a person who keeps in mind what he has learned while trying to learn something new or a person who gains new insights by “chewing over what he already knew.”

2.12 The Master said, “The gentleman [junzi] is not a vessel [qi].”

A gentleman, junzi (), is broad of spirit and intellectually agile; he can take on different problems and apply himself to many situations and so is not a vessel, a qi (), for a specific use. This is the explanation offered by most commentaries. The eighteenth-century intellectual historian Zhang Xuecheng, however, proposes another way of considering the idea of qi. Each of Confucius’ disciples, Zhang says, took something from their teacher and put it in a vessel, a qi, and what the disciple wanted to pass on to his own students was the stuff in the vessel. But this was only a specific understanding of what Confucius had taught, and if other disciples did not agree with it, it could become a source of feuding, which could last for generations. Zhang Xuecheng cites the disagreement between Zizhang and the disciples of Zixia in 19.3 as an early example and the animosity between the Zhu Xi school and the Lu Xiangshan school in the twelfth century as a later example. A gentleman, a junzi, however, would not have behaved this way: he would have welcomed a spirited debate, and he would not have perceived himself as a vessel—a receptacle of limited knowledge—in the first place.

2.13Zigong asked about the gentleman [junzi]. The Master said, “He first puts his words into action. He then lets his words follow his action.”

Some scholars suggest an alternative reading based on a different punctuation: “He acts first. Whatever he says will follow his action.” In either case, the point of Confucius’ remark is nicely summed up in the Book of Rites: “Because the gentleman is sparing of words and lets his action substantiate his trustworthiness, people will neither exaggerate his strengths nor downplay his weaknesses.”

2.14 Confucius said, “The gentleman [junzi] is fair-minded and generous; he is not partisan or divisive. A petty man [xiaoren] is partisan and divisive; he is not fair-minded or generous.”

This is the first time that the term xiaoren () is used to refer to someone who is the opposite of a junzi (). Liu Baonan points out that xiaoren could refer either to “a lowly person” or to “a person without any integrity,” and that here Confucius has the latter in mind. Most commentaries say that the gentleman, the junzi, is able “to glue people together” because he conducts affairs “by way of fairness [yi]” and “is trustworthy,” while the petty man, the xiaoren, “looks after his own benefit” and “likes to enlist you in his clique and separate his interest” from the public interest. 2.14, together with 2.12 and 2.13, gives us a description of some of the basic traits of a gentleman: he is broad-minded and fair; he is responsible and trustworthy; and he is not a “vessel.”

2.15 The Master said, “If you learn but do not think, you will be dazed. If you think but do not learn, you will be in danger.”

Liu Baonan explains the first sentence by way of the two early Confucian thinkers, Mencius and Xunzi. Mencius says, in 6A:15, “The function of the heart-and-mind [xin]” is to reflect and think. “If you reflect [on what you’ve learned], then you are getting something. But if you don’t think, then you won’t get anything.” Xunzi says, in “Encouraging Learning,” “The learning of the gentleman enters his ear, clings to his mind, spreads through his four limbs, and manifests itself through his body. His smallest word, his slightest movement can serve as a model. The learning of the petty man enters his ear and comes out his mouth. With only four inches between ear and mouth, how can he have possessed it long enough to ennoble a whole body?”

Of the second sentence, Liu Baonan lets Confucius offer his own gloss: “Once I spent a whole day without eating and a whole night without sleeping, in order to think. It was no use. It would have been better to use that time to learn.”

2.16 The Master said, “To pursue strange theories or to get sidetracked in your studies can only bring harm.”

What Confucius says here is difficult to interpret because the term yiduan from the fourth century BC onward refers to “heterodox teachings.” Mencius speaks of the teachings of Yang Zhu and Mo Di as yiduan, and the Song Confucians regard the teachings of the Buddhists and Daoists as yiduan. But it would be anachronistic to read 2.16 in that way. The Wei scholar He Yan says that Confucius did not think that there was only one way of pursuing learning. “The moral way has a unifying force,” he explains: “Thus different paths of learning [with the same moral drive] will converge at the same point. Yiduan refers to paths that will not converge at that point.” Other commentaries point to Zixia’s remark in 19.4, saying that yiduan could mean “byways of learning [xiaodao]” that have their worth but could get a person sidetracked or bogged down in his studies. The word gong poses another problem. Gong can mean either “to attack” or “to pursue one’s studies.” Those who understand gong to mean “attack” offer this reading: “The Master said, ‘To attack those with incorrect disquisitions is to put an end to harm.’” But scholars such as Jiao Xun take it to mean the opposite: “To attack those with a different point of view is to bring harm.”

2.17 The Master said, “You [Zilu], do you know what I have been trying to teach you? To say that you know something when you know it and to say that you do not know something when you do not know it—this is true knowing [zhi].”

Alternative readings of the first sentence are: “You, shall I tell you what it means to know something?” and “You, pay close attention to what I am going to teach you.” You, or Zilu, was a disciple and a political ally of Confucius before the latter was forced to leave Lu. Only nine years younger than his teacher, Zilu was known for his bravery and loyalty. But he was also quick to take offense and quick to act. Thus it seems appropriate that Confucius’ instruction here is directed to him. In his essay “On the Way of Sons” (Zidao), Xunzi gives a more elaborate version of 2.17. Yet his explanation in “The Accomplishments of the Ru” (Ruxiao) is more insightful. Speaking about the “cultivated ru,” men who were educated and with a vast knowledge of ritual practice, Xunzi says, “When they know something, they say that they know it. When they do not know something, they say that they do not know it. Within, they do not delude themselves about what they know or do not know. Without, they do not deceive others about what they know or do not know.” What Xunzi understands about Confucius’ instruction for Zilu in 2.17 is not just that Zilu should be honest about what he knew but that he had to be certain that what he thought he knew was not a delusion.

2.18 Zizhang was studying with the hope of obtaining an official position. The Master said, “Use your ears well and widely, and leave out what is suspect; speak with caution about the rest, and you will make few mistakes. Use your eyes well and widely, and stay away from potential perils; act with caution even after the perils are kept at bay, and you will have few regrets. To make few mistakes in your speech and to have few regrets in your action—these are the keys to securing a career as a salaried official.”

Zizhang was clever and articulate, the quickest among the younger group of disciples. His classmates thought him arrogant, but even they had to admit that he was “difficult to emulate.” Zizhang asked shrewd questions. In fact, some of the finest observations Confucius makes about human nature and moral refinement came out of his conversations with Zizhang. Here the subject seems to be something practical: Zizhang wants some advice about how to get a government job, and Confucius offers him a few professional secrets. Yet scholars over the centuries like to give Confucius’ response a moral tone. Zheng Xuan, for instance, says, “If a person in his speech and action follows Confucius’ advice, even though he might not secure an official position, he will have acquired the way of preparing for an official career.” Liu Baonan in his gloss of Zheng Xuan’s comment says, “In ancient times, the way of recommending men from the local villages and districts for office was to select those who were excellent in conduct and in learning. Thus ‘to make few mistakes in speech and to have few regrets in action’ implies that a person has acquired the way of preparing for an official career. But during the Spring and Autumn period [Confucius’ time], this way of recommendation was essentially abandoned. Members of the hereditary families had a monopoly over government offices. Worthy men lived in reclusion and most of them did not have an official career. Thus Zheng Xuan felt that ‘to make few mistakes and have few regrets’ and yet not to have gotten an official position was the same as what the ancients considered as having acquired the way of preparing for an official career.”

2.19 Duke Ai asked, “What should I do to make the common people come under my sway?” Confucius replied, “Promote the upright and place them above the crooked, and the people will be in awe of you and come under your sway [fu]. The opposite will happen if you promote the crooked and place them above the upright.”


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Table of Contents

The 36 Disciples
Note on the Conversations
Dramatis Personae
Volume I
Book I. Concerning Fundamental Principles
Book II. Concerning Government
Volume II
Book III. The Eight Dancers: Concerning Manners and Morals
Book IV. Concerning Virtue
Volume III
Book V. Concerning Certain Disciples and Others
Book VI. Concerning Certain Disciples and Other Subjects
Volume IV
Book VII. Concerning the Master Himself
Book VIII. Chiefly Concerning Certain Ancient Worthies
Volume V
Book IX. Chiefly Personal
Book X Concerning the Sage in His Daily Life
Volume VI
Book XI. Chiefly Concerning the Disciples
"Book XII. Concerning Virtue, Nobility, and Polity"
Volume VII
Book XIII. Chiefly Concerning Government
Book XIV. Chiefly Concerning Government and Certain Rulers
Volume VIII
Book XV. Chiefly on the Maintenance of Principles and Character
Book XVI. Concerning Ministerial Responsibility et Alia
Volume IX
Book XVII. Recording Unsuitable Calls and Sundry Maxims
Book XVIII. Concerning Ancient Worthies
Volume X
Book XIX. Recorded Sayings of Some Disciples
Book XX. Concerning Right Government

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