Confucius Analects Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.