Review #3: The Analects of Confucius

In which Ancient Chinese Secrets remain secret

The Analects

China has been a source of human ingenuity and development for all of recorded history. The Middle Kingdom developed fireworks, writing paper, playing cards, and Chinese food, all of them vastly successful. So what went wrong with Confucius?

This review contains no spoilers, not because I didn’t want to give away the plot of the book, but because I think I lost the plot somewhere between the first few paragraphs and the end of the book. There, I said it.

The Analects of Confucius, the third book in the Well-Read Man Project, is a relatively short philosophical work that for the most part uses a Socratic-style question-and-answer format. But whereas Plato’s version of Socrates engages in dialogues that slowly build to a philosophical zenith, Confucius’ interactions with his students are all over the place. One minute he is telling you how to be a superior man, and the next minute he is refusing to eat his meat if it isn’t cut up properly.

One thing that is clear from the text is that Confucius is wise. In addition to his disciples, members of the royal court come to question him on the meaning and duties of life. “The Master” answers them with common-sense responses about “filial piety” and the “rules of propriety,” two of his favorite topics. The Golden Rule appears twice, including this version from Book V: “What I do not wish men to do to me, I also wish not to do to men.” He also spends a lot of time speaking of “perfect virtue,” especially for the “superior man.”

What he doesn’t do is say wise things in any coherent order. Confucius did not write down his own words. Instead, his students organized and edited his words after his death. It’s too bad that he didn’t offer Library Science or Journalism classes to them, because the text really needs some structure. The Master moves from one high idea to another in rapid succession, with some content repeated in different books (chapters) of the writings. In addition to statements on virtue and piety, Confucius spends a lot of time talking about other people, some that appear to be historically famous, and others that are known only within the circle of his students. There is no background given on any of these names. For instance, in Book XI, there is a quick review of four such personages: “Ch’ai is simple. Shan is dull. Shih is specious. Yu is coarse.” Personally, I always thought Shan was kind of bright.

Other statements by the Master are completely out of context. In Book XVII, Confucius comes to Wu-ch’ang and hears some music. After Confucius compares the music to a fowl being killed with an ox-knife, Tsze-yu chides his master by saying that “a man of high station…loves men.” Confucius responds: “My disciples, Yen’s words are right. What I said was only in sport.” Who is Yen? His name doesn’t show up at all in Book XVII before this point. Is it Tsze-yu? Is it a famous sage from history? This type of name banter appears constantly.

There is some political intrigue that invades the sayings of Confucius: a leader is killed here, someone replaces all members of the court there. The Master seems to have been someone of import in the royal court, but falls in and out of favor from book to book. He doesn’t appear in Book XIX at all.

I didn’t get much out of The Analects. There are many pious proverbs that are good for anyone to follow, but much of the text is random, confusing, and tedious. James Legge’s 1910 translation may be part of the problem. He is a well-established Chinese language scholar, even having one of the main systems of writing Chinese script in the Roman alphabet named after him. But he probably got a C- or D+ in his English Composition classes, because the text is riddled with grammar errors and double negatives.

Yet beyond the issue of translation, The Analects is a difficult text. It’s not that it is unworthy of being read; you should read it. But more than being read, it is the kind of text that can only be understood through years of study and immersion in its content. Perhaps this was the intent of Confucius’ disciples all along.

The Well-Read Man Project

For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.


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