Key Passages in
the Analects of Confucius

The title of the Analects, Lun-yü, (論語), of Confucius, we can translate as something like "Discourses and Dialogues" -- Analects, Ἀνάλεκτα, would be "Digest" or "Collection" from Greek, a title apparently introduced by James Legge himself. Here we have sayings and stories from or about Confucius, or sometimes just about his students. It was clearly not written by Confucius or during his lifetime.

This page is not a commentary on the Analects. It merely identifies passages that are famous, often quoted, discussed in books about Chinese Philosophy, or that I consider to be especially expressive for the principles of the thought of Confucius. The translation originally used here was that of Arthur Waley, and there were occasional criticisms [The Analects of Confucius, 1938, Vintage Books, 1989]. Other translations consulted have been those of James Legge [Confucius, Confucian Analects, The Great Learning & The Doctrine of the Mean, from Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1893, Dover, 1971], D.C. Lau [Confucius, The Analects (Lun yü), Penguin, 1979, 1988], and Joanna C. Lee & Ken Smith [The Pocket Confucius, Museworks, Hong Kong, 2010]. The Chinese text used is that of Legge. Dictionary references are mainly to the classic Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary [R.H. Mathews, 1931, Harvard U. Press, 1943, 1972], with occasional help, for modern usage, from the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, by John DeFrancis [U. of Hawai'i Press, 2003]. And then there is the tendentious The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, by Roger T. Ames & Henry Rosemont, Jr. [note].

Originally, passages in the Analects were often referred to here without being quoted because this page was compiled for use in my Ethics or Asian Philosophy classes, where students had the text (Waley's) at hand. Full quotations, with the text in Chinese, have gradually been added, with that task now complete. The last place where the Chinese text was not given, at III:9, is now finished. And treatments of many new passages have meanwhile been added.

The translations of Lee & Smith, which, as here, do not include the whole Analects, are modern, accurate, and succinct, with Chinese text and, uniquely, a valuable transcription in Pinyin. However, the Lee & Smith quotes seem to have been selected mainly for their brief and aphoristic character (not even including, surprisingly, the famous II:4), and the (politically correct) scold might complain that this reduces Confucius to fortune cookie size, or to a script reference for a Charlie Chan movie. Nevertheless, their work is useful and the translations often seem very well informed. Also, the transcriptions of Lee & Smith take into account euphonic changes in tone that occur because of phonetic context. Cases of this are discussed where appropriate, especially with the extended discussion at XVII:25. Otherwise tones are used as given in dictionary entries. My recent work of updating this page was set in motion by the delightful and useful nature of Lee & Smith's treatment, which also brought to my attention several aphorisms of interest that I had not previously addressed.

Wade-Giles and Pinyin writings are both used here a little carelessly, which may be a confusing -- the way to identify each is discussed elsewhere. The pronunciation given with the characters themselves is always in Pinyin, and the use of images to supply both character and reading is the reason why unicode characters are not used here. The ability to read transcriptions in Wade-Giles should be learned for the sake of using older sources. Also, readers should be aware that the Pinyin system, despite its elegance and cleverness, is phonetically redundant (the retroflex and palatal series are allophones) and is thus less impressive than the ancient Devanâgarî syllabary for Sanskrit.

A full exposition of the Chinese terminology of Confucius may be found at the main Confucius page. It is hard to know the proper term for the subdivisions of the Books of the Analects. "Chapters" seems like too much for passages that may be only a sentence long, while "verses" implies too little for those that are substantial paragraphs, while "aphorisms" does not always apply to what is given. Perhaps "paragraph" itself would be the right word, although it does not seem like enough for such a text. The numbering of the "chapters" often differs slightly in different sources, so I have given both versions where that happens.

Book I

Book II

Book III

Book IV

Book V

Book VI

Book VII


Book IX

Book XI

Book XII


Book XIV

Book XV

Book XVI


Book XIX

Book XX

Psychological Types, Typology of Chinese Virtues

Confucius [K'ung-fu-tzu or Kongfuzi]

The Six Relationships and the Mandate of Heaven

Chinese Virtues

The Confucian Chinese Classics

Sangoku Index

History of Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy

History of Philosophy


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Copyright (c) 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2023, 2024 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Key Passages in the Analects of Confucius; Note

The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, by Roger T. Ames & Henry Rosemont, Jr. [Ballantine Books, Random House, 1998, 1999], includes the Chinese text but not a phonetic transcription. I have previously encountered such a treatment by Ames with another collaborator (David L. Hall) on the Tao Te Ching [Ballantine, 2003]. The translation there seems to display all the tortured obscurantism of academic philosophy, totally subverting the simplicity of the original. Given the ambiguities of Taoism, one rather expects some overwrought readings, trying to explain what the text itself does not explain. That's what we got, and Ames & Hall are not alone in this failing.

With Confucius, there are also ambiguities, and we are favored with the theories of Ames & Rosemont about what it all means. Since Ames & Rosemont decide that the thought of Confucius is "relational" rather than "essentialistic," unlike "essentialistic" Indo-European languages(!) -- which by the happiest coincidence matches ideological fads of current academic philosophy, such as Relativism and the Wittgensteinian rejection of "essentialism" -- one might be forgiven some suspicion that this is all a little too convenient. The agenda becomes more explicit when Ames & Rosemont decide they are not going to employ "sexist language," like English gendered pronouns, "gentleman," or "superior man," in translating Confucius. This presupposes, of course, that there is such a thing as "sexist language," where perhaps we really cannot expect skepticism from politically correct academic philosophers who are happy with Orwellian Newspeak. That the society of Confucius, and that of all traditional China, was fiercely patriarchal and even misogynistic, can hardly be denied by Ames & Rosemont. They say:

In translating the Analects without the usual appeal to sexist language, we are not concealing and thus excusing a gender discrimination that has been an integral aspect of Chinese culture predating and certainly reinforced by the Confucian tradtion. [p.40]

Well, they are; but not to worry, they are going to fix it up. The "Confucian text" has a "didactic and programmatic function" that can now be "reinterpreted to serve the needs and enhance the possibilities of succeeding generations" [ibid.], by grafting on the popular political ideology of the present to make Confucius more acceptable to the Leftist culture warriors who dominate Western universities.

This is ahistorical and, perhaps worse, involves an "appropriation" of Confucius for purposes that were alien to him, or to anything in ancient or traditional China. That is a positive distortion of the text and does "conceal" the nature of the ancient social tradition. And, in any case, isn't it "imperialism" to impose Western feminist mores on a non-Western civilization? Feminists these days are falling all over themselves not to engage in "Islamophobia" by criticizing the treatment of women (include mutilation, enslavement, and sex slavery) in Islam. They may as well avoid imposing Western values on China too.

Avoiding language that embodies "gender discrimination" is easier with Confucius than with, say, the Bible, because Chinese, like Persian, does not have grammatical gender, not even in pronouns. So Ames & Rosemont are free to avoid pronouns like "he" and "she" and remain faithful to the text. They do not observe, however, the device in Chinese of using semantic gender by the addition of , "woman," to otherwise neutral expressions. I don't think we actually see that done in the Analects, but Confucian scholars are typically embarrassed by the disparaging reference to women at XVII:25 -- where Ames & Rosement themselves do not attempt the more limited, and less embarrassing, interpretation already suggested by James Legge, or discuss the text or the translation of it at all. At least they could have taken Confucius to task for not being as enlightened as they are.

Apart from "sexist language," Ames & Rosemont have difficulty dealing with the vocabulary of Confucius with any simplicity. Thus, the key term , "benevolence, kindness, humanity," etc., they translate "authoritative conduct," which is way off the map in terms of the translation tradition or even common sense, especially when we have the definition of Confucius himself at XII:22 as "love others." Translations like "benevolence, kindness" and "humanity" all capture some of that, while "authoritative conduct" sounds like something else entirely, with any sense of feeling removed. Translations that involve something like love apparently "psychologize" a tradition "that does not rely upon the notion of psyche as a way of defining the human experience" [p.49]. Perhaps someone should have clued Confucius in about this before he said that is to "love others." Worrying about the "psyche" here is completely irrelevant.

Another strange translation is of as "making good on one's word," which seems to rely entirely on an analysis of the form of the character -- a "person" standing by "words" -- which is a very unreliable method for meaning in any ancient ideographic language, including Chinese. While as "good faith" can indeed mean "making good on one's word," it is absurd to act as though so narrow a definition captures the full meaning. Ames & Rosemont are otherwise well aware of the broad semantic scope of much of the vocabulary of Confucius -- they say "semantic overload" [p.42] -- which for translation often involves choices of which meaning is the best in the context. But, despite Ames & Rosemont thinking that "this ambiguity and lack of precision" is a "distinctive linguistic liability" [ibid.], ancient Chinese is not alone in having words whose meaning could be rendered into Modern English as several words. And its meaning(s) are not something that can be deduced from the pictographic glyphs. The Egyptians had one famous word, , "Maat" or Muꜣꜥe, that can be translated "truth" or "justice," or the name of a goddess In turn, the Greek word δίκαιος, basically meaning "just" (Latin justus), is often better translated "right" (Latin rectus, although jus retains this sense also). The Greek word λόγος has a range of meanings from "word" (Latin verbum) to "reason" (Latin ratio), such as to deceive David Bellos into thinking that Greek didn't have a word for "word." Indeed, I'm not sure that Greek actually has a word that just means "good will," Latin benevolentia. Modern French, at the same time, has a word, droit, that can be a "right" or a "duty," which morally and legally are actually opposites. So Classical Chinese is not alone in posing the challenges of interpretation and translation that it does, especially as an ancient language.

The character , which stands out as the preemininent Confucian term for "righteousness," gets translated by Ames & Rosemont as "appropriate" or "fitting," which takes all the moral force out of it. White shoes after Memorial Day are "approriate" or "fitting," but they are not something to sacrifice one's life on a matter of principle, as the Confucian conscientious minister, , is expected to do. Such a translation for leaves me wondering how morally serious people like Ames & Rosemont are. The combination is the moral foundation of Confucianism, and they've have pretty much removed the moral strength from both of them, although they graciously allow for "aesthetic and moral connotations" [p.55].

Ames & Rosemont translate as "excellence," rejecting "virtue" or "power." It is hard to believe that Ames, at least, as an actual philosophy professor, is not aware that the Greek word ἀρετή actually has all of those meanings already, posing the same challenges to the translator of Greek as does to the translator of Chinese. Fashion in Classics involves changing preferences for "excellence" or "virtue," in turn -- but to understand Greek texts we need to be aware of the range of meaning. But "virtue" itself, in English (Latin virtus) can also be found with all those meanings. If the virtue of a knife is its sharpness, that is its excellence and its power. And the idea of Ames & Rosemont that is to be translated "in the sense of excelling at becoming one's own person" [p.57], this sounds more like the pop psychology ("psychologizing"!) of self-realization and Jungian "individuation" than its does the ethos of an ancient society of the "Six Relations." In other words, it's silly. And the move of Ames & Rosemont to link with dharma, , in India is remarkable. They say, "the Chinese term more nearly approprimates dharma in signifying what can we can do and be if we 'realize (zhì)' the most from our personal qualities and careers as contextualized members of a specific community" [p.57]. So, from doing whatever they are doing to Confucius, Ames & Rosemont move on to "concealing and thus excusing" the hideous evils of the caste system, which is what traditional dharma, as social duty, was originally all about. We can even detect the terms of a caste apologetic there, since the word is "signifying what we can do and be" if we "realize" our "personal qualities and careers" as "contextualized members of a specific community," i.e. the caste into which we were born, where our "personal qualities and careers" are closely defined by the traditional . So we might infer that the revolting scavenging of traditional Untouchables realized their "personal qualities and careers." Fortunately, has nothing to do with this, except that it involves moral qualities of the person, but the implications, the "situational" meaning, is quite different.

What Ames & Rosemont refer to as "realize (zhì)" above relates to their translation of , "wisdom." While they cite the character as ("wisdom"), and explain that it may not have the "sun" radical () underneath, this form of the character actually does not occur in the oldest text, or even their text, of the Analects. With the characters that do occur in the Analects, and , Ames & Rosemont do not describe or discuss the variation in tones, which distinguishes the verb ("to know") from the noun ("wisdom"). I have discussed these variations above at IV:2. Their preferred translation of these terms as "to realize," although they also say "wisdom" and "know" in the text, is as idiosyncratic as their other treatments. To be sure, we do not know about how the characters were read in the time of Confucius, but there is a tradition of reading the text and a question of which readings to use now.

Other matters arise, but I will leave this all for the moment. Of significant general interest are the arguments that Ames & Rosemont cite for the remarkable thesis that Classical written Chinese was never a spoken language. This is better treated where I aleady address this issue in the relation between Classical and Modern Chinese.

The Denial by Ames and Rosemont that Classical Chinese Was a Spoken Language

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