Confused about Confucius? A short guide to the Analects

Oftentimes, people make assumptions about Chinese culture without addressing what it actually entails. Jite Gu, an undergraduate from Cambridge University, provides us with insights and his own translations from texts from ancient China alongside clear explanations and potent discussions of their meaning.


By Jite Gu

The Family Unit and the State

To a modern British Chinese reader, what is Confucius talking about when he discusses “politics” within the context of the family unit? What has the governance of a country or region got to do with family relationships? What follows is an exploration of the relationship between the family unit and the state itself.

Passage 2.21:或謂孔子曰:“子奚不為政?”子曰:“書云:‘孝乎唯孝,友於兄弟。’施於有政,是亦為政,奚其為為政?”

Meaning: The Master was asked, ‘Master, why don’t you participate in government and political affairs?’ The Master said, ‘Shang Shu says, “Treat your parents with love and respect, treat your brothers with sincerity and goodwill”. Handle such affairs with propriety and righteousness, and this is politics. What does it really mean to engage in politics?’

Families were well-structured social units in ancient China. Normally, a family would live together in one place (a village in the countryside or a street or courtyard in town) permanently and would be under the leadership of a senior family member. What this passage alludes to is that Confucians draw a natural connection between the management of the family unit and the management of the state. This is an inherent and underlying assumption of Confucian theory, that interpersonal relationship prototypes and management skills are transferrable. The pattern of ritual and etiquette associated with ancestor-descendant relationships are seen as forming a key part of the overall Confucian hierarchical system. Politics is an art or science which relates to an operating of a state of affairs, which, according to Confucius, could be developed from and applied to the management of a family. On the other hand, since a family was traditionally seen as a unit or microcosm of the state, a prosperous and happy family was perceived to lead to local prosperity, which would in turn contribute positively to political life overall.

Note: Interestingly, it seems that in the use of the word ‘politics’ by the questioner, the questioner has presupposed a special meaning of government affairs. Confucius, instead, replaces the concept with a broader meaning of state affairs or society management. This shows that Confucius himself might have avoided the original concept deliberately, which might be associated with his unpleasant experience as an official.

 Organising Society, Companies and Individuals

Passage 2.22:子曰:“人而無信,不知其可也。大車無轅,小車無輗,其何以行之哉?”

Meaning: The Master said, ‘It is unthinkable to trust a person without credibility. Similarly, it is impossible to ride a cart or carriage without both shaft and tenon’.

Should people be restricted in order to behave “properly” in society? The passage certainly implies this. Unlike the physical links and constraints existent in mechanics, humans are controlled through less tangible methods. What sort of control is required is another question. In a Confucian’s eyes, the control mechanisms comprise of both faith and responsibility. Such are created and maintained by educating people with ethical principles and deterrence through the rule of law.

What is the practical significance of this passage for a modern reader of Confucius? In a highly cooperative organisation (like a modern company, for example) the effective functioning of a task-chain depends on substantial contributions from each link. An individual’s contribution is measured by credence and guaranteed by responsibility. Therefore a person without credibility cannot guarantee his contribution to a group, and thus cannot take part in the collaboration. One can obviously draw allusions to the turn of phrase “put your money where your mouth is”.

Note: As observed in this passage, the shaft and tenon of a carriage act as restraints on the shape and constraint of the structure. Analogous with human ethics, reliability and responsibility act as constraints on a person’s behaviour. This method of analogy was carried forward by Zhu Xi (朱熹) who developed the Li Xue (理學) ideology. Li Xue scholars believe that non-human objects can enlighten people about the “heavenly-principles” (天理). These heavenly-principles embody the idea of an inherent course of nature in which human beings are supposedly born with but are then lost through interactions with society (a bit like being “corrupted”). The scholars therefore encourage people to observe natural objects and comprehend the underlying principle that dominates their development, in order to do justice to these heavenly-principles.

Predicting the future 

Passage 2.23:子張問曰:“十世之可知焉?”子曰:“殷因於夏禮,所損益可知也;周因於殷禮,所損益可知也。其或繼周者,雖百世可知也。”

Meaning: Zizhang asked, ‘Is it possible to predict the future in ten generations?’ The Master said: ‘Comparing rituals of Yin and Xia shows the inherited and the overthrown; comparing rituals of Xia and Zhou shows the inherited and the overthrown. For the dynasties after Zhou, even a hundred generations are predictable’.

(One generation is 30 years)

By introducing a feasible way of predicting the future, Confucius identified what he thought was the fundamental objective of the study of history: to find what defines change. The question was answered from a perspective of reviewing ritual conventions, but the methodology is applicable to all areas, including to the review of political systems, social structure and economic development. Confucius himself was a historian, who was believed to be the compiler of Shang Shu (尚書), the first history book of China and the only complete record of ancient Chinese history till Western Zhou (西周) Dynasty (about 1 century BC).

Although the political system today has been totally reformed, some ritual conventions still remain. For example, the strict social estate system is still applied in the extensive Party-controlled government agencies and public sectors. The standards of housing, canteen dining, company car and attendants are all determined by the Tier of Jurisdiction (行政级别), and some of these privileges are even regulated by official documents.


Although the study of Confucianism provides only a tiny piece in the puzzle in deciphering what “Chinese”-ness actually means, we can learn much about the history and about the early foundations of cultural attitudes that have developed up until the present.

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