Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

The Analects


First published:
Current version finalised around 200 BCE and 220 CE

Found: Syllabus of a Literature Course at Peking University

Pages/read time: 160, three hours (deadline = anything is possible)



[Edited version of a class summary]


When first I flicked through Confucius’ Analects I was delighted to discover that the ubiquitous ‘Confucius say…’ jokes of Western school yards and chain-emails was grounded in some truth. This stunning one-liner for instance:

The Master said, ‘To attach a task from the wrong end can do nothing but harm.’ (Book 2: 15)

Though this text at times seems like a string of these snappy, often deeply satirical one-liners, when read in bulk (and several times over), clear patterns of Confucian thought begin to rise to the surface. Or perhaps a simile likening the distilling of knowledge in the novice reader to the gradual stepping of a pot of jasmine tea would be more appropriate. The tone and beguiling simplicity of the Analects yanked me back to the feeling of learning ‘lessons’ in primary school. My ten year old self was strong within me during this reading.


Allegory and whimsy aside (though difficult to avoid in this translation), three elements harmonised with my twenty-first century sensibilities. 1) Confucius’ sense of the unwavering importance of trustworthiness, 2) the definition of reverence, and 3), the pithy explanation of ‘what music is’. First, trustworthiness. As a person raised in a predominantly White, rural area in the Southern Hemisphere, notions of trustworthiness were taught via the parable of Moses and the Ten Commandments: thou shalt not steal, adult(er), kill, covet asses, etc.. Pretty straightforward. But not as succinct as the Analects puts it – be trustworthy.

To be trustworthy in word is close to being moral in that it enables one’s words to be repeated.

(Book 1: 13)

Furthermore, unlike my country-bumpkin bible classes, The Master seems to take into account the repeated actions of one’s behaviour as a sign of character, rather than absolving a sin every time one apologises and promises to do better. A sentiment my wary, school-bullied younger self felt very strongly about my enemies:

I do not see how a man can be acceptable who is untrustworthy in word? When a pin is missing in the yoke-bar of a large cart or in the collar-bar of a small cart, how can the cart be expected to go?

(Book 2. 22)


Second, reverence. As I am running out of space in this A4 summary [I prepared this for a class], I shall simply quote Confucius’ definition of a sentiment not often defined in my working vocabulary.

Nowadays for a man to be filial means no more than that he is able to provide his parents with food. Even hounds and horses are, in some way, provided with food. If a man shows no reverence, where is the difference?

(Book 2: 7)

And follow this with his clarification of how one should inspire reverence in one’s subjects (or, indeed, in one’s children):

[W]ith dignity and they will be reverent; treat them with kindness and they will do their best[.]

(Book 2. 20)


Finally, don’t you wish someone would tell beginner musicians (plastic recorders poised aloft tufty heads, wrapped in sticky fingers and about to thwack down upon their sheet-music partners’ heads), the purpose of music in such a manner as this:

This much can be known about music. It begins with playing in unison. When it gets into full swing, it is harmonious, clear and unbroken. In this way it reaches the conclusion.

(Book 3. 23)


Reading suggestions:

Try to source some jasmine tea and let it steep while your brain does.

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This entry was posted on March 7, 2018 by in Bit of Both, bragging points, China, Classics, philosophy and tagged , , , .


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