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Ancient China

Confucius, 551-479 BCE

Translated by David Hinton


Brief background from wikipedia.com

Confucius was a famous Chinese thinker and social philosopher, whose teachings and philosophy have deeply influenced East Asian life and thought.

His philosophy emphasised personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. These values gained prominence in China over other doctrines, such as Legalism or Daoism during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - CE 220). Confucius' thoughts have been developed into a system of philosophy known as Confucianism. It was introduced to Europe by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who was the first to Latinise the name as "Confucius".

His teachings are known primarily through the Analects of Confucius, a short collection of his discussions with his disciples, which was compiled posthumously.

According to tradition, Confucius was born in 551 BCE in the city of Qufu, which was located in the Chinese State of Lu (now part of present-day Shandong Province and culturally and geographically close to the royal mansion of Zhou). He was born into a deposed noble family which had recently fled from the State of Song.

The Records of the Grand Historian, compiled some 400 years later, indicate that Confucius was conceived out of wedlock. His father was seventy, and his mother only fifteen at his birth. His father died when he was three, and he was brought up in poverty by his mother. His social ascendancy links him to the growing class of Shi, a class between the old nobility and the common people. This class later became the prominent class of literati because of the cultural and intellectual skills they shared.

As a child, Confucius was said to have enjoyed putting ritual vases on the sacrifice table. As a young man, he was a minor administrative manager in the State of Lu and rose to the position of Justice Minister. After several years he resigned because he disapproved of the politics of his Prince. Around age fifty, seeing no way to improve the government, he gave up his political career in Lu, and began a 12-year journey around China. He sought the "Way" and tried unsuccessfully to convince many different rulers of his political beliefs and to push them into reality. When he was about 60, he returned home and spent the last years of his life teaching an increasing number of disciples by sharing his experiences with them and transmitting the old wisdom via a set of books called the Five Classics.


Key Terms

An Outline of Confucian Thought, from David Hinton


Li:          Ritual


A religious concept associated with the worship of gods and spirits prior to Confucius, Ritual was reconfigured by Confucius to mean the web of social responsibilities that bind a society together. These include the proprieties in virtually all social interactions, and are determined by the individual's position within the structure of society. By calling these secular acts "Ritual," Confucius makes everyday experience itself a sacred realm. This Ritual structure of society is part of a vast cosmological weave: the Ritual structure of natural process as the ten thousand things emerge from the primal emptiness.


Jen:                       Humanity (Humane)


The character for jen is formed by a combination of the characters for "human being" and "two," and it means all of the moral qualities expressed in the behavior of ideal human beings toward one another. Jen is the internalization of li, and li is the codified external expression of jen. So, to be Humane means to master a kind of selflessness by which we dwell as an integral part of the Ritual weave. Or, more simply, practicing jen means to act with a selfless and reverent concern for the well-being of others. Jen is the touch-stone of Confucian sagehood, a kind of enlightenment that Confucius claimed was beyond even him.


Yi:                         Duty


The prescriptions of Ritual are general in nature. The ability to apply them in specific situations is Duty, and so Duty is the particular ethical expression of Humanity.


Tao:                      Way


The effortless process of human society functioning according to its natural Ritual structure. It can be expanded to cover Ritual's cosmological dimensions, making it comparable to the concept of Tao. Hence: the effortless process of the cosmos functioning according to its natural Ritual structure. The cosmos always abides by the Tao, with the frequent exception of human societies.


Te:                         Integrity


The ability to act according to the Way. Or, more precisely, the embodiment of the Tao in the sage, where it becomes a kind of power through which the sage can transform others "by example."


T'ien:                    Heaven


Natural process. Or, more descriptively, the inevitable unfolding of things in the cosmological process. Hence, Heaven appears as a kind of immanent fate in the human realm - and as Ritual is its organizing principle, it becomes a kind of moral force encouraging societies to abide by Ritual and the Tao.



According to Confucius, to "never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself" (XV24). In a word, it might be defined as "reciprocity," for its etymological meaning is something like: "as if heart," hence "treat others as if their hearts were your own." So the definition of this word is often spoken of as Confucius' "Golden Rule." In any case, when Confucius speaks of the "single thread stringing my Way together," it is identified as chung shu: literally "loyalty to shu" or "loyalty and shu" (IV 15). Chung's etymological meaning is "centered in heart," so this complex little phrase is translated here as "Be loyal to the principles of your heart, and treat others with that same loyalty."



The Analects


The Master said: "To learn, and then, in its due season, put what you have learned into practice - isn't that still a great pleasure? And to have a friend visit from somewhere far away - isn't that still a great joy? When you're ignored by the world like this, and yet bear no resentment isn't that great nobility?"


Master Yu said: "It's honoring parents and elders that makes people human. Then they rarely turn against authority. And if people don't turn against authority, they never rise up and pitch the country into chaos.


"The noble-minded cultivate roots. When roots are secure, the Way is born. To honor parents and elders - isn't that the root of Humanity?"


The Master said: "To show the Way for a nation of a thousand war-chariots, a ruler pays reverent attention to the country's affairs and always stands by his words. He maintains economy and simplicity, always loving the people, and so employs the people only in due season."


The Master said: "In youth, respect your parents when home and your elders when away. Think carefully before you speak, and stand by your words. Love the whole expanse of things, and make an intimate of Humanity. Then, if you have any energy left, begin cultivating yourself."


Adept Hsia said: "Cherishing wisdom as if it were a beautiful woman, devoting their strength to serving parents and their lives to serving a ruler, standing by their words in dealing with friends - such people may say they've never studied, but I would call them learned indeed."


The Master said: "If you're grave and thoughtful, people look to you with the veneration due a noble. And if you're learned, too, you're never inflexible.

"Above all else, be loyal and stand by your words. Never befriend those who are not kindred spirits. And when you're wrong, don't be afraid to change."


Master Tseng said: "Be thorough in mourning parents, and meticulous in the ancestral sacrifices, then the people's Integrity will return to its original fullness."


The Master said: "In government, the secret is Integrity. Use it, and you'll be like the polestar: always dwelling in its proper place, the other stars turning reverently about it."


The Master said: "If you use government to show them the Way and punishment to keep them true, the people will grow evasive and lose all remorse. But if you use Integrity to show them the Way and Ritual to keep them true, they'll cultivate remorse and always see deeply into things."


When Lord Meng Yi asked about honoring parents, the Master said: "Never disobey"

Later, when Fan Ch'ih was driving his carriage, the Master said: "Meng asked me about honoring parents, and I said Never disobey."

"What did you mean by that?" asked Fan Ch'ih.

"In life, serve them according to Ritual," replied the Master. "In death, bury them according to Ritual. And then, make offerings to them according to Ritual."


When Lord Meng Yi's son, Wu-po, asked about honoring parents, the Master replied: "The only time you should cause your mother and father to worry is when you are sick."


When Adept Yu asked about honoring parents, the Master said: "These days, being a worthy child just means keeping parents well-fed. That's what we do for dogs and horses. Everyone can feed their parents - but without reverence, they may as well be feeding animals."


The Master said: "I can talk with Yen Hui all day, and he never disagrees. He seems like a fool. But thinking about how he is when alone, I realize that he reveals my most essential principles. Hui is no fool."


The Master said: "If you can revive the ancient and use it to understand the modern, then you're worthy to be a teacher."


Adept Hsia asked about the noble-minded, and the Master said: "Such people act before they speak, then they speak according to their actions."


The Master said: "The noble-minded are all-encompassing, not stuck in doctrines. Little people are stuck in doctrines."


The Master said: "To learn and never think - that's delusion. But to think and never learn - that is perilous indeed!"


The Master said: "Devote yourself to strange doctrines and principles, and there's sure to be pain and suffering.


The Master said: "Shall I explain understanding for you, Lu? When you understand something, know that you understand it. When you don't understand something, know that you don't understand it. That's understanding."


Adept Chang asked if we can know what will come ten generations from now. The Master replied: "The first of our dynasties was the Hsia. Although changes were made, the Hsia rituals were continued in the Shang, and so the Shang could be known. Although changes were made, the Shang rituals were continued in the Chou, and so the Chou could be known. Whatever follows our own Chou Dynasty, even if it comes a hundred generations from now, we can know it in the same way."


Someone asked Confucius: "Why aren't you in government?"

The Master replied: "The Book of History says: Honor your parents, simply honor your parents and make your brothers friends - this too is good government. That's really being in government, so why govern by serving in government?"


The Master said: "Of villages, Humanity is the most beautiful. If you choose to dwell anywhere else, how can you be called wise?"


The Master said: "Without Humanity, you can't dwell in adversity for long, and you can't dwell in prosperity for long. If you're Humane, Humanity is your repose. And if you're wise, Humanity is your reward."


The Master said: "Don't worry if you have no position: worry about making yourself worthy of one. Don't worry if you aren't known and admired: devote yourself to a life that deserves admiration."


The Master said: "Tseng! There's a single thread stringing my Way together."

"There is indeed," replied Master Tseng.

When the Master left, some disciples asked: "What did he mean?"

"Be loyal to the principles of your heart, and treat others with that same loyalty," answered Master Tseng. "That is the Master's Way. There is nothing more."


The Master said: "The noble-minded are clear about Duty. Little people are clear about profit."


The Master said: "In serving your mother and father, admonish them gently. If they understand, and yet choose not to follow your advice, deepen your reverence without losing faith. And however exhausting this may be, avoid resentment."


The Master said: "While your mother and father are alive, never travel to far-off places. Or if you must, always follow a definite plan."


The Master said: "If you leave your father's Way unchanged for all three years of mourning, you are indeed a worthy child."


The Master said: "Never forget your parents' age. Though it fills you with dread, it also fills you with joy"


The Master said: "The ancients spoke little. They were too ashamed when their actions fell short of their words."


The Master said: "To lose by caution is rare indeed."


The Master said: "This is what the noble-minded aspire to: slow to speak and quick to act."


Adept Yu said: "If you scold your sovereign too often, you'll end up disgraced. If you scold your friend too often, you'll end up alone."


If he'd already wept that day, the Master wouldn't sing.


The Master said: "I never refuse to teach anyone, not even those so lowly they come offering nothing but a few strips of dried meat."


The Master said: "I never instruct those who aren't full of passion, and I never enlighten those who aren't struggling to explain themselves.

"If I show you one corner and you can't show me the other three, I'll say nothing more."


If he was seated next to someone in mourning, the Master never ate his fill.


Speaking to Yen Hui, the Master said:

"A leader when appointed to office

  and a recluse when sent away.

Only you and I have perfected this."


"If you were leading the Three Armies," asked Adept Lu, "who would you take with you?"

"A man who attacks tigers unarmed and crosses rivers without boats, willing to die without the least regret - that's a man I'd never take with me. The man I'd take always approaches difficulties with due caution and always succeeds by planning carefully."

The Master said: "If there were an honorable way to get rich, I'd do it, even if it meant being a stooge standing around with a whip. But there isn't an honorable way, so I just do what I like."


The Master said: "Transmitting insight, but never creating insight, standing by my words and devoted to the ancients: perhaps I'm a little like that old sage, P'eng."


The Master said: "These are the kinds of things I find troubling:

possessing Integrity without cultivating it

and possessing knowledge without deepening it,


knowing Duties without following them

and knowing failings without changing them."


The master said: "I am not one who was born with great wisdom. I love the ancients and diligently seek wisdom among them."


The Master never spoke of the supernatural, violence, disorder, or gods and spirits.


The Master said: "Out walking with two companions, I'm sure to be in my teacher's company. The good in one I adopt in myself; the evil in the other I change in myself."


The Master taught four things: culture, conduct, loyalty, and standing by your words.


The Master fished with hooks, not nets, and he never shot roosting birds.


The Master said: "I suppose there are some who don't need wisdom to live wisely. I am not so lucky. I've heard countless things, choosing what is good and adopting it in myself. I've seen countless things and remembered them well. This is a lesser form of wisdom."


In his native village, Confucius was simple and sincere, as if he couldn't speak. But at court or ancestral temple, though always cautious and reverent, he spoke openly and easily.

At court, speaking with lower officials, he was forthright. Speaking with high officials, he was diplomatic. And speaking with the sovereign, he was wary - wary and self-assured.


During purification for the sacrifice, he changed what he ate and where he sat. Polished rice was fine, and minced meat. He didn't eat sour rice or rancid fish or spoiled meat. He didn't eat anything that looked or smelled bad. He didn't eat food that wasn't well-cooked and in season, or food that wasn't properly sliced and served with the proper sauce. Even when there was plenty of meat, he only ate enough to balance the ch'i of rice. Only in wine did he set no limits, but he never drank himself into confusion. He wouldn't drink wine from a wineshop or eat meat from a market. And though he didn't refuse ginger, he ate it only sparingly.


After the state sacrifice, he never kept the meat overnight. And he never kept meat more than three days after the family sacrifice. After three days, he wouldn't eat it.


He didn't speak at meals, and he didn't talk in bed.


He made an offering of even the simplest rice and vegetable, broth and melon - and he did so with the greatest solemnity


If the mat wasn't laid straight, he wouldn't sit.


When the people of his village were drinking wine, he left only after the elders with walking-sticks had left.


When Lord Chi K'ang sent a certain medicine to him as a gift, Confucius bowed twice, then accepted it, saying: "I'm not familiar with this, so I dare not try it."


One day the stables burned down. When he returned from court, the Master asked: "Was anyone hurt?" He didn't ask about the horses.


The Master said: "I can hear a court case as well as anyone. But we need to make a world where there's no reason for a court case."


Adept Chang asked about governing, and the Master said: "Contemplate an issue tirelessly at home, then act on it loyally."


The Master said: "Well-versed in culture and well-grounded in Ritual - how could you ever go wrong?"


The Master said: "The noble-minded encourage what is beautiful in people and discourage what is ugly in them. Little people do just the opposite."


Lord Chi K'ang asked Confucius about governing, and Confucius said: "Utter rectitude is utter government. If you let rectitude lead the people, how could anyone fail to be rectified?"


Lord Chi K'ang was having trouble with bandits. When he asked Confucius for advice, Confucius said: "If you weren't so full of desire yourself, you couldn't pay people to steal from you."


Asking Confucius about governing, Lord Chi K'ang said: "What if I secure those who abide in the Way by killing those who ignore the Way - will that work?"

"How can you govern by killing?" replied Confucius. "Just set your heart on what is virtuous and benevolent, and the people will be virtuous and benevolent. The noble-minded have the Integrity of wind, and little people the Integrity of grass. When the wind sweeps over grass, it bends."




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