Confucius Analects Essay - Critical Essays

Analects, Confucius


Analects Confucius

Chinese philosophy.

The following entry contains criticism on Confucius's Analects. For additional information on Confucius's life and works, see CMLC, Vol. 19.

Widely acknowledged by scholars as a work of the utmost importance and influence in Eastern civilization, the Lun Yü (c. 400 b.c.; Analects), a collection of Confucius's sayings compiled after his death, encapsulates the great teacher's philosophy. The work contains Confucius's thoughts on a wide variety of subjects, including proper personal conduct, family relations, education, and government.

Plot and Major Characters

The Analects were recorded by Confucius's disciples, probably at the end of the fourth century or beginning of the fifth century b.c., during the Warring States period. It is composed of twenty chapters, each made up of aphorisms, questions, and notes attributed to Confucius and twenty of his disciples, most notably Master Tseng, who wrote twelve sayings of his own; Jan Ch'iu, who became a lieutenant in the powerful Chi family; and Tzu-Kung, who became a prominent diplomat. Though scholars generally agree that the Analects cannot be regarded as a direct transcription of Confucius's sayings, they acknowledge that the work provides an excellent summary of his main philosophical ideas.

Major Themes

Central to the Analects is the virtue of Jen, often translated as humanity, good, or reciprocity. Tao, another key concept in the work, refers to the way that individuals, families, and governments should conduct themselves in the world, while Li involves the performance of rites, ceremonies, and group activities that foster a connection with the world beyond the everyday. Confucius's teaching method stressed independent thinking on the part of his students and he strove to define concepts in an abstract, universal manner that could be applied to different cultures. As a result, his philosophical principles in the Analects are not precisely defined, evoking diverse and sometimes conflicting interpretations. For example, the Analects's emphasis on discipline, duty, and etiquette has been used by some political leaders at times to justify dictatorial rule, whereas Confucius's view of the state was that is should serve the people.

Critical Reception

The understanding of Confucian thought in the West was initially marred by Confucius's legendary status among Asian scholars and the exaggerated claims of his devotees. James Legge, at the end of the nineteenth century, debunked many apocryphal tales and provided all future scholars of Confucius with a classic translation of the Analects. Legge theorized, for instance, that the Analects could not have been written by Confucius's disciples upon the event of his death. Lionel Giles, another important translator from the early twentieth century, praises Legge's historical work but criticizes his interpretative ventures. In a foreword to another classic translation, rendered by her father, William Edward Soothill, Dorothea Hosie recounts Confucius's life, including fanciful tales of his birth, and explains why he became an idol to millions of Chinese. Poet Ezra Pound was also much influenced by Confucius and created what is considered by many scholars the most unorthodox version of his writings. Pound did not feel compelled to attempt a literal translation but instead strove to find the essence of Confucius's thought, noting that it allowed him to be inspired to compose poetry that conveyed similar emotional content.

Critics have often remarked on the unusually high number and variances in translations of Confucius's works. Philip J. Ivanhoe explains that this is not an issue only for modern scholars, but also for traditional Confucians through the centuries. Such a state of disagreement prevails that Ivanhoe urges that “before we begin to read a text like the Analects we would do well to ask ourselves, Which Analects and Whose Confucius are we trying to understand?” Lee H. Yearley suggests that the Analects should be approached as we might approach the New Testament: recognized as an historical text but at the same time read for the difference it can make in our approach to life.

H. G. Creel notes that it was during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that Confucianism became “effectively known” in Europe, a time that coincided with the development of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Creel explains how the accounts of Confucianism by Jesuit missionaries held sway over many of the best minds in Europe and ultimately played a part in both the American and French revolutions. O. B. van der Sprenkel describes the ways in which Confucianism has changed from one historical period to the next and how Confucius's biographers have profiled him in radically different ways. Confucius has alternately been described as a master who expressed a love of learning, the molder of Chinese civilization, an intrepid government reformer, or, in modern times under the Chinese People's Republic, “the advocate of an effete slave-owning aristocracy whose crumbling authority he is concerned to revive and restore.” Lionel M. Jensen also studies how the conception of Confucius has radically changed as “the consequence of centuries of relationship between China and the West.” Jensen traces how the back and forth interpretations of East and West led to a figure far different from the historical Confucius. The reinvention, or at least reapplication, of Confucianism continues to the present day. For example, Sandra A. Wawrytko proposes that Confucius's writing should be decoded so that its underlying message can be discovered. Wawrytko argues for a feminist interpretation of Confucian philosophy, contending “the necessary elements for a positive perception of feminism lie within existing Confucian doctrines.” Qianfan Zhang explores in what way Confucius is relevant today in the area of human dignity, while acknowledging that the notion of human dignity does not appear in ancient Chinese works. The critic then goes on to explore a similar concept in “moral personality,” and considers how Confucius's thought may relate to Western ideas of rights and duties.

Principal Works

*Li Chi [Record of Rites] (philosophy) c. 500 b.c..

Chun Chiu [Spring and Autumn] (history) 479 b.c.

Lun Yü [Analects] (philosophy) c. 400 b.c.

The Chinese Classics [translated by James Legge] 1893

The Sayings of Confucius [translated by Lionel Giles] 1907

The Analects, or, The Conversations of Confucius with His Disciples and Certain Others [translated by William Edward Soothill] 1910

The Great Digest, The Unwobbling Pivot, The Analects [translated by Ezra Pound] 1928

The Analects of Confucius [translated by Arthur Waley] 1938

The Analects of Confucius: Translation and Notes [translated by Simon Leys] 1997

The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation [translated by Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr.] 1998

The Original Analects [translated by E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks] 1998

The Analects of Confucius [David H. Li] 1999

*This work contains The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean.


James Legge (essay date 1893)

SOURCE: Legge, James. “Of the Confucian Analects.” In The Chinese Classics: I: Confucian Analects, The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, pp. 12-20. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1893, Legge discusses the formation of the text of the Analects, provides evidence that it was written by disciples of Confucius, and gives an overview of commentaries on the work.]


1. When the work of collecting and editing the remains of the Classical Books was undertaken by the scholars...

(The entire section is 3628 words.)

Lionel Giles (essay date 1907)

SOURCE: Giles, Lionel. Introduction to The Sayings of Confucius, pp. 7-36. London: John Murray, 1907.

[In the following essay, Giles provides a character sketch of Confucius and discusses his reputation in the West.]

Confucius is one of the few supremely great figures in the world's history. A man's greatness must always be measured, in the first place, by the consensus of opinion in his own country; the judgment of foreigners can only be allowed to have a secondary value. Especially is this true when the critics are not only foreigners, but belong to a totally different order of civilisation from the men whose greatness they would appraise. For even if they can keep...

(The entire section is 7062 words.)

Ezra Pound (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: Pound, Ezra. “Translator's Note.” In The Great Digest, The Unwobbling Pivot, The Analects, by Confucius, translated by Ezra Pound, p. 19. New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1951.

[In the following essay, first published in 1928, Pound notes that Confucius exhibits a concern, unparalleled by any other philosopher, for government.]

Starting at the bottom as market inspector, having risen to be Prime Minister, Confucius is more concerned with the necessities of government, and of governmental administration than any other philosopher. He had two thousand years of documented history behind him which he condensed so as to render it useful to men in high...

(The entire section is 199 words.)

Dorothea Hosie (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: Hosie, Dorothea. “Confucius.” In The Analects or The Conversations of Confucius with His Disciples and Certain Others, by Confucius, translated by William Edward Soothill, pp. v-xlvii. London: Oxford University Press, 1937.

[In the following essay, Hosie offers a biographical sketch of Confucius.]

In the year 551 b.c. Confucius was born in the city of Ch‘ü Fu, which lies in the hilly part of that province of north-east China which we know to-day as Shantung. The Empire was divided into many warring States, some little more than a township with its suburbs: tradition has it that these ‘states’ numbered 124 shortly before the Sage's birth and a...

(The entire section is 6870 words.)

H. G. Creel (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: Creel, H. G. “Confucianism and Western Democracy.” In Confucius: The Man and the Myth, pp. 254-78. New York: The John Day Company, 1949.

[In the following essay, Creel traces Thomas Jefferson's ideas and the ideals of the French Revolution to the writings of Confucius.]

In the Western world democratic institutions made their most rapid and dramatic gains in connection with the American and French Revolutions. It is no doubt true that these revolutions were not “caused” by the philosophic movement known as the Enlightenment; but it is true that this new pattern of thought determined, in very considerable measure, the direction in which men moved once the...

(The entire section is 10522 words.)

D. Howard Smith (essay date winter 1963)

SOURCE: Smith, D. Howard. “The Significance of Confucius for Religion.” History of Religions 2, no. 2 (winter 1963): 242-55.

[In the following essay, Smith discusses whether Confucianism should be treated as a religion or as a philosophy with religious ethics.]

What is known in the West as Confucianism has its roots in pre-Confucian times in the teaching of the Ju, a scholar class, the origin of which has been hotly debated by Chinese scholars in recent years.1 These Ju seem to have been experts in the performance and interpretation of religious rites, and were the holders and transmitters of traditional learning. Confucius acknowledged his indebtedness...

(The entire section is 6146 words.)

O. B. van der Sprenkel (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Van der Sprenkel, O. B. “Confucius: Six Variations.” In Self and Biography: Essays on the Individual and Society in Asia, edited by Wang Gungwu, pp. 79-98. Sydney, Australia: Sydney University Press, 1975.

[In the following excerpt, Sprenkel describes six distinct interpretations of Confucianism and discusses how each has been used to bolster particular notions of social behavior.]

Very little is known about Confucius the man. There has never been, in China, a ‘quest for the historical Confucius’. It is generally agreed that he lived from 551 to 479 bc. He is believed to have travelled about China in middle life, and then to have returned to his native...

(The entire section is 9250 words.)

Donald Holzman (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Holzman, Donald. “Confucius and Ancient Chinese Literary Criticism.” In Chinese Approaches to Literature from Confucius to Liang Ch'i-ch'ao, edited by Adele Austin Rickett, pp. 21-41. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Holzman presents an analysis of Confucius as a literary critic.]


Surely there is no more bookish civilization than China's, no civilization more prone to revere its ancient writings and to seek for guidance in its daily affairs within the pages of its traditional and even modern literature. And yet when we look into ancient Chinese writings to seek for general remarks about...

(The entire section is 7351 words.)

Lionel M. Jensen (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Jensen, Lionel M. “Introduction: Confucius, Kongzi, and the Modern Imagination.” In Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions & Universal Civilization, pp. 3-28. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Jensen traces the evolution of scholars's understanding of Confucian concepts over the centuries.]

A little more than four centuries ago, a detachment of seamen in service to Philip II of Spain (r. 1556-1598) and a few missionaries of a new order of the Catholic Church, the Society of Jesus, sailed by Portuguese carrack to the south coast of China. We have lived the consequences of this passage ever since. Portuguese...

(The entire section is 13149 words.)

Tu Weiming (essay date November 1999)

SOURCE: Weiming, Tu. “Confucius: The Embodiment of Faith in Humanity.” The World and I 14, no. 11 (November 1999): 292-305.

[In the following essay, Weiming identifies what he considers the fundamentals of Confucianism and examines Confucius as a spiritual leader and teacher.]

Writing in the 1950s, Karl Jaspers, the German philosopher noted for his idea of the “axial age” civilizations, chose Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus as the most significant shapers of the human form of life.1 In supporting his claim, he offered the following justification:

These four paradigmatic individuals have exerted a historical...

(The entire section is 5256 words.)

Sandra A. Wawrytko (essay date June 2000)

SOURCE: Wawrytko, Sandra A. “Kongzi as Feminist: Confucian Self-Cultivation in a Contemporary Context.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 27, no. 2 (June 2000): 171-86.

[In the following essay, Wawrytko contends that Confucian philosophy epitomizes the feminist agenda.]

If Chinese philosophy is to be revitalized and reconstructed, it is essential that we consider the fate of a dominant force in traditional Chinese thought—Kongzi. Some scholars have argued that Confucianism constitutes “an ideological obstacle” to modernization throughout East Asia, albeit in varying degrees.1 Even those who grudgingly admit the manifest wisdom of Kongzi have charged...

(The entire section is 6277 words.)

Qianfan Zhang (essay date September 2000)

SOURCE: Zhang, Qianfan. “The Idea of Human Dignity in Classical Chinese Philosophy: A Reconstruction of Confucianism.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 27, no. 3 (September 2000): 299-330.

[In the following essay, Zhang explores the place of rights and duties in the Confucian view of human dignity.]

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

—Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

About fifty years ago, the United Nations appealed to the “recognition of...

(The entire section is 14539 words.)

Philip J. Ivanhoe (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Ivanhoe, Philip J. “Whose Confucius? Which Analects?” In Confucius and the Analects: New Essays, edited by Bryan W. Van Norden, pp. 119-33. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Ivanhoe uses Analects 5.13 to illustrate some profound philosophical differences in the tradition of Confucian interpretation.]

For over two thousand years, Confucian scholars have sought to explicate the meaning of their sacred texts, producing an extensive, rich, and sophisticated commentarial tradition that is an indispensable aid to the modern interpreter.1 In addition to writing formal commentaries, Confucian...

(The entire section is 7477 words.)

Lee H. Yearley (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Yearley, Lee H. “An Existentialist Reading of Book 4 of the Analects.” In Confucius and the Analects: New Essays, edited by Bryan W. Van Norden, pp. 237-74. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Yearley advocates applying to the Analects the same modern scholarship methods that are used in studying the New Testament.]


Among the more haunting of the many haunting passages in the Analects is the one that begins “The more I strain my gaze towards it, the higher it soars. The deeper I bore down into it, the harder it becomes. I see it in front; but suddenly it is...

(The entire section is 20080 words.)

Further Reading


Boodberg, Peter A. “The Semasiology of Some Primary Confucian Concepts.” Philosophy East and West 2, no. 4 (January 1953): 317-32.

Focuses on several Chinese idioms to demonstrate the difficulties in anglicizing Confucius's work adequately.

Chong, Kim-Chong. “The Practice of Jen.” Philosophy East and West 43, no. 3 (July 1999): 298-16.

Argues that jen is more elusive and complex in the Analects than a reading of the Mencius would suggest.

Fingarette, Herbert. “A Way without a Crossroads.” In Confucius—The Secular as Sacred, pp. 18-36. New York:...

(The entire section is 385 words.)