Site Map
Confucian Concepts
Section › 7   Set    Search  Previous Next



Background information

Many culture-moulding doctrines from ancient China were compiled after the death of Confucius (551–479 BCE), the philosopher and teacher. In essence he taught something like, "Cling to your own principles, but be willing to subordinate your personal desires to the good of a group."

Confucius (Kongzi) became a centre of enormous influence, and his teaching served to make people commit to one another both in whole-hearted ways and through responsibilites. His teachings helped various forms of bonding.

Salient points from the introduction to The Sayings of Confucius - translated by Lionel Giles, and originally published in 1907 by John Murray, London - have been gathered, shuffled and made use of further down.

The translator Lionel Giles (1875-1958), son of the sinologist Herbert Giles, is most famous for his 1910 translation of The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Analects of Confucius. His translations of Chinese texts have had a deep impact on Western interpretation of Far Eastern philosophy. [WP "Lionel Giles"]

In Brief

Confucius is known as the first teacher in China who wanted to make education available to all men and who was instrumental in establishing the art of teaching as a vocation and a way of life.

He travelled around hoping to restore the glory of the Chou dynasty (ca. 1100-201 BC) with its system-fixed feudalism. That formed part of the crusader's strivings at a time where lots of people in ancient China cried out for a purpose.

Confucius looked to the classics. He also believed that massive schooling in the right way could make a complete (integrated) man. Moral parts of it were as important as those of book learning. And his rhetoric drew a growing band of followers.

Confucianism was to survive, grow and surpass other schools of thought in 140 BC, when it was officially recognised as the only philosophy. Belief in self-cultivation is deeply rooted in its ways of thinking.

Confucius - also:

(Pinyin:) Kongfuzi, or Kongzi,

(Wade-Giles:) K'ung-fu-tzu, or K'ung-Tzu.

Original name: K'ung Ch'iu,

Literary name Chung-ni

The Life of Confucius

Only the barest sketch can be given here. (p. 13, 14)

Confucius was born at a time when the feudal system, established several centuries earlier by the founder of the Chou dynasty, was showing unmistakable signs of disruption and decay.

A Wu Wang divided his realm into a large number of vassal states, which he bestowed upon his own kith and kin who had helped him to the throne . . . But the central government gradually lost all effective control over its unruly children . . . The state of things that ensued may be likened (though on a far larger scale) to several Wars of the Roses going on at the same time. (p. 14)

In the midst of . . . prevailing disorder, Confucius comported himself with . . . dignity, tact and outspoken courage (p. 15).

Knowing the futility of protests unbacked by force, he kept himself aloof for the most part, and devoted himself to a long course of study and teaching, gathering, it is said, as many as three thousand disciples around him. This is a palpable exaggeration, but there can be no doubt that he had become a marked man and gained great fame as a moralist and teacher many years before he actually took office.

In 501 BC at the age of fifty, he at last made his entry on the political stage by accepting the governorship of a small town in Lu. Here he is said to have been eminently successful in the work of reform, and he rapidly rose to be the most trusted adviser of Duke Ting . . . the weak and fickle character [who,] carefully manipulated by rivals to Confucius, [soon] brought about a catastrophe. (p. 16)

Confucius felt compelled to resign. Then began the weary years of wandering from state to state, (p. 17)

[Maybe] the ensuing period of homeless exile, hardships and danger, did more to spread the fame of the great reformer than either the few brilliant years of office or those spent as a teacher in the comparative seclusion of Lu. (p. 17)

The conception of a " higher type of man" was for him no empty ideal, but the worthy object of practical endeavour. (p. 17)

As an old man, worn out by years of travel, privation and anxiety, at a time of life when the physical frame begins to demand a certain measure of quiet and repose [he] returned to his native state with flying colours [and] devoted the rest of his life to literary labours . . . collecting and editing of certain old national ballads known to us as the Odes, and the penning of the Spring and Autumn Annals of Lu, which may be regarded as [a] record of authentic facts (p. 18)

How He Was

[Confucius] was uniformly cheerful in demeanour, and he evidently unbent to quite an unusual extent with his disciples, considering the respect and deference universally shown to age and learning in China. [He attracted] round him hundreds of disciples, with whom he was on terms of most intimate . . . living with them, eating, drinking, sleeping and conversing with them, until all their idiosyncrasies, good or bad, were better known to him to their own parents . . . (p. 23)

During the sage's short period of office as Minister of Crime, a father came to him bringing some serious charge against his son. Confucius kept them both in prison for three months, without making any difference in favour of the father, and then let them go. . . . Confucius' [view] was, that the father had never taught his son to be filial, and that therefore the guilt really rested with him (p. 30).

Moral teachings

Let a man be but thoroughly imbued with the altruistic spirit, and he may be termed "good" without qualification." - Lionel Giles (p. 28)

Over and over again [Confucius] gave proof of the highest and noblest moral courage in ignoring the narrow rules of conventional morality and etiquette when these conflicted with good feeling and common sense, and setting up in their stead the grand rule of conscience which, by asserting the right of the individual to judge such matters for himself, pushed liberty to a point which was quite beyond the comprehension of his age (p. 22).

The Way preached by the Chinese sage knows neither the sanction of punishment nor the stimulus of reward in an after-life (p. 27).

[Yet] he was not blind to the danger of liberty degenerating into license. The new fetters, therefore, that he forged for mankind were those of an iron self-discipline and self-control, unaccompanied, however, by anything in the shape of bodily mortification, a practice which he knew to be at once more showy and less troublesome than the discipline of the mind (p. 22).

"Virtue for virtue's sake" is the maxim which, if not enunciated by him in so many words, was evidently the corner-stone of his ethics and the mainspring of his own career (p. 26).

His whole system is based on . . . knowledge of human nature (p. 28).

The Sayings

The sayings . . . together with the invaluable biography by Ssû-ma Ch'ien, which is largely built upon them, form the only really reliable source of information about Confucius and his doctrines. The Chinese title Lun Yü may be rendered Conversations " or " Discussions " but neither work (p. 18). [Analects is often used instead.]

They are [largely elevated] replies to questions put by various disciples on subjects chiefly moral or personal. These sayings . . . Legge has shown sufficient reason to believe that they were transmitted orally at first . . . until at least two generations after the Master's death. [They give his thoughs in a] crisp, concise and epigrammatic style. (p. 19)

[Ah,] the glittering compactness of these sayings in the original [!] . . . They appear to have been repeatedly ground and polished, and shorn of every redundancy, until they shone like diamonds fresh from the hands of the cutter - (p. 19)

Expressing the essence of what the Master thought and the substance of what he said, it is with good reason that they are to be found inscribed on hundreds of thousands of scrolls and tablets in every corner of the Empire. These gems, however, are unsorted [and] there is very little attempt at orderly arrangement. (p. 19)

[There are, however,] connecting principles which serve to bind the Confucian teachings into one rounded system . . . It needed the penetration of Tsêng Tzû to tell . . . that the Master's Way was, after all, simple in its diversity, and might be summed up in two words: duty to oneself and charity to one's neighbour. Unhappily, owing to the misinterpretation of these important words, the beautiful simplicity of the Confucian doctrine has long passed unrecognised. (p. 20)

It pays to get warned

In the West, well over a hundred years ago, the teaching of Confucius "was found to be shallow, disjointed, unsatisfying. He was blamed for his rigid formalism, for his poverty of ideas, for his lack of spiritual elevation." (p 10) [1.1]

Thinkers stand up in their own time, and some of them reflect their periods and cultures. Others seem to modify and even change their times. Confucius was one of the latter sort.

The choicest pearls of his wisdom are still extant, after some thousand years. (cf p 9) [2.3]

A man's greatness may be measured by the consensus of opinion in his own country; the judgment of foreigners can be given second place. And then there is proverbial Arab wisdom: "To find out the truth of the man, reverse what his enemies say about him". (cf p 7)

In Europe there were enthusiastic reports too: Confucius was the prince of philosophers, the wisest and most consummate of sages, the loftiest moralist, the most subtle and penetrating intellect that the world had ever seen. He was a statesman, a bard, an historian and an antiquary rolled into one, writes Lionel Giles (p 9). ◇

The works and reputation of the ancient social reformer has suffered much and long from stupidity, misstatements and misrepresentations, and from lack of sympathy and generosity, and, in some points, from pure ignorance of critics (cf p 8). (5)

Anyway, he was often considered the greatest and noblest representative of the greatest, happiest, and most highly civilised people on the face of the earth, endorsing such as patience and discrimination. (p 9) - before the circumstances of his career had been studied, (p 10) and before the very book which contained his authentic sayings had been translated with understanding, - or with a faint realisation of its numerous difficulties and pitfalls (p 10).

On James Legge's translation

James Legge was found to be on firm ground when it came to hard facts. It was otherwise when he drew inferences from these facts, to sum up the salient principles of Confucian ethics, and to pass judgment on the character of Confucius himself. (p. 11) His opinion was based chiefly on his own interpretation of the more important sayings in the Analects, in translating which he had the oral help of native scholars etc. (cf p 11-12)

A certain inelasticity of mind showed itself in the way in which he approached the work of translation. He was too apt to look upon a Chinese word as something rigid and unchanging in its content. Delicate shades of meaning he often did not handle. (cf p 12)

It may seem strange that the great sinologue should have strayed and missed the very core and essence of the doctrines he wanted to elucidate, but according to Giles, Legge felt like being a Christian missionary with a creed superior to Confucius at every point in the first place, Giles considers. (cf p 12)

There is a certain number of Chinese terms which mirror Chinese ideas, that must be translated with the aid of circumlocution, and in such a way as to suit the context and the general spirit of the passage. "It is in such terms, unfortunately, that the very essence and inner significance of the Confucian teaching are contained," writes Lionel Giles (p 12-13).

Such an indispensable process is "doubly so when words have to be transplanted, as it were, from their native soil to one differing". (p 13)

Such an operation can only be successful if carried out with the utmost delicacy and care (p. 13).

James Legge's complete translation of the Analects is here: [Link>]

Li and Jen of Confucius

"Rotten wood cannot be carved." - Confucius (p. 34).

Propriety, says Legge, "was a a great stumbling-block in the way of Confucius. However, this is an amazing piece of misrepresentation, says Giles. (p. 21). The word "propriety" - that is, the Chinese word li has been a stumbling-block, not so much to Confucius as to Dr. Legge himself. "The whole tenor of the Master's teaching cries aloud against such wilful and outrageous distortion." (p. 21)

One thing more than another which distinguishes Confucius from the men of his day is the supreme unportance which he attached jên, the feeling in the heart, as the source of all right conduct, the stress which he laid on the internal as opposed to the external, and even on motives rather than outward acts, except in so far as these might be taken as an index to character (p. 21). Giles writes:

Jên, the term [often] translated "virtue," is perhaps the most important single word in the Analects, and the real corner-stone of Confucian ethics. Its primary meaning, in accordance with the etymology, is "humanity" in the larger sense, i.e. natural goodness of heart as shown in intercourse with one's fellow-men. Hence it is sometimes best translated "loving-kindness" or "charity" in the biblical sense, though in many cases a more convenient, if vaguer, rendering is "virtue", "moral virtue", or even, as in Legge, "perfect virtue. [52n]

Then there is the ideal to try for; it is "the superior man", as he is called in some translations:

[A princely man] is the much-discussed chün tzü, an expression of which the stereotyped English equivalent is "the superior man." But in this there is, unhappily, a tinge of blended superciliousness and irony absolutely foreign to the native phrase, which in my opinion makes it unsuitable. "Princely man" is as nearly as possible the literal translation, and sometimes, as we shall me, it actually means "prince". But in the majority of cases the connotation of rank or authority lis certainly not explicit, and as a general rendering I have preferred "the higher type of man", "the nobler sort of man", or sometimes more simply, "the good man" . . . [of] high mental and moral qualities ... [52n]

The Family Man Taken Further

"Like unto wind; like unto grass." . . . It is the nature of grass to bend when the wind blows upon it (p. 32).

Confucius saw that . . . principles which govern the family are applicable to that greatest of families, the State . . . The Emperor . . . functions exactly analogous to those of the father of a family [and also] identifies himself with the good of the people (p. 31).

The family, in Chinese eyes, is a microcosm of the Empire, or rather . . . it is the pattern on which the greater organism has moulded itself . . . The Emperor had, in theory at least, paternal authority over his feudal princes, who in turn, standing to one another in the relation of elder and younger brothers, were regarded as the fathers of their respective peoples . . .

The way to ensure that a machine as a whole may run smoothly and well, is to see that each part shall fulfil its own [resiprocal] function . . . How is this result achieved in the family? Obviously through the [wit and governing] will of the father, who has supreme authority over all the other members.

This authority [is not brute]. It is based firstly on natural order of things . . . [The parent is] the protector of his children. As a consequence of this, love and respect will normally spring up in the minds of the children for their protector (p. 29). Such is the genesis of filial poety, which plays so large a part in Chinese ethics. (see p 29)

For the harmonious working of a family, then, we need respect for authority on one side, and a certain amount of self-sacrifice on the other. And the father's object must be the good of his dear family (cf p. 30).

The . . . element which makes possible the working of the family machine, the lubricating oil . . . is not merely filial piety . . . but rather a certain subtle principle of harmony and self-control permeating every member of the family group, which restrains egoistic propensities and promotes the common good. This is the Chinese term li, in the sense of a quality of the soul . . . [The term] is certainly not to be rendered by any such atrocious phrase as "the rules of propriety" (p. 30-31).

Principal Disciples

Lionel Giles:

"One and the same person is often referred to in several different ways—by his surname and name, by his "style" or by a combination of the two, while among intimates the personal name only is employed . . . I give the name of the principal disciples as they appear in the Chinese . . . An asterisk denotes the name most frequently used."

Surname and personal name StyleMixed appellation
Yen Hui Tzü Yüan Yen Yüan*
Min Sun (Min Tzü) Tzü Ch'ien Min Tzü-ch'ien*
Jan Kêng Po Niu* Jan Po-niu
Jan Yung Chung Kung*  
Jan Ch'iu Tzü Yu Jan Yu*
Chung Yu Tzü Lu* - Chi Lu  
Tsai Yü Tzü Wo Tsai Wo*
Tuan-mu Tz'ü Tzü Kung*  
Yen Yen Tzü Yu* Yen Yu
Pu Shang Tzü Hsia*  
Chuang-sun Shih Tzü Chang*  
Tseng Shen (Tseng Tzü) Tzü Yü  
Fan Hsü Tzü Ch'ih Fan Ch'ih*
Ssü-ma Keng Tzü Niu Ssü-ma Niu*
Kung-hsi Ch'ih Tzü Hua Kung-hsi Hua*
Yu Jo (Yu Tzü) Tzü Jo  

Source: (Giles 1907, p. 37-38)



Chün tzü . . . is "the superior man". [Better:] "Princely man", . . . and sometimes . . . it actually means "prince". But in the majority of cases . . . as a general rendering I have preferred "the higher type of man", "the nobler sort of man", or sometimes more simply, "the good man" . . . because that implies high mental and moral qualities . . .

Jên, the term here translated "virtue," is perhaps the most important single word in the Analects, and the real corner-stone of Confucian ethics. [It suggests] "humanity" . . . i.e. natural goodness of heart [etc., ] "loving-kindness" or "charity" in the biblical sense, . . . in many cases a more convenient . . . rendering is "virtue", "moral virtue", or even . . . "perfect virtue."

Compare these translations of Analects, Book 4, Paragraph 3:

  • Lionel Giles: Only he who has the spirit of goodness within him is really able either to love or to hate.
  • James Legge: The Master said, 'It is only the virtuous man, who can love, or who can hate, others.'
  • Lin Yutang: Confucius said, "Only a true man knows how to love people and how to hate people."
  • Ezra Pound: He said: Only the complete man can love others, or hate them.
  • Arthur Waley: Of the adage 'Only a Good Man knows how to like people, knows how to dislike them,' the Master said, He whose heart is in the smallest degree set upon Goodness will dislike no one.

Confucian sayings, Confucian Concepts by Lionel Giles, Literature  

Giles, Lionel, tr. The Sayings of Confucius. London: John Murray, 1907. ⍽▢⍽ Reprint: Twickenham: Senate, 1998. Two more reprints are at Google Books.

Slingerland, Edward, tr. Confucius. Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003. ⍽▢⍽ The text is clear and fluent and the notes a boon.

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting

Confucian sayings, Confucian Concepts  by Lionel Giles, To top    Section     Set    Next

Confucian sayings, Confucian Concepts by Lionel Giles. User's Guide   ᴥ    Disclaimer 
© 2000–2019, Tormod Kinnes, MPhil [Email]