Lun Yu 1.6 & 1.7

When I Hear The Word ‘Culture’, I Try To Learn It

Lun Yu 1.6 & 1.7

Chapter 1

Saying 6


Kongzi (孔子), i.e. Confucius

Words to know:

弟: Di - A younger brother, a youth, a disciple or follower.

孝: Xiao - Filial piety.

仁: Ren - good action, the good.

学: Xue - Studies, learning

文: Wen - culture, writing, law, tattoo.


This week’s sayings genuinely form a pair. They are about a pair of related concepts: Wen (文) and Xue (学).

As you can see, both Wen (文) and Xue (学) are used in this saying, so I will focus on Wen (文) here, leaving Xue (学) for the next saying.

Wen (文) is another case where etymology is helpful for understanding. Yes, there are cases where it does not: Qiu (求) comes to mind. The character 文 is a little man with a large chest with a nonpermanent ink soot tattoo. The tattoo itself is now only implicit, because it was removed by Li Si (李斯) to prevent regional variation, but in the bronze script version was sufficiently detailed that you can tell the tattoo is of the character 首, for head. All this is to say, 文 is a “head-man”, a man of importance and distinction, a man of office, a man whose speech acts matter. This idea conveyed is that of of a man who is marked as one whose speech acts matter will prove important in structuring discourse that can guide a state.

It’s possible that all Chinese writing originated in this kind of tattooing. 文 was read in Old Chinese “myun”, meaning “little soot”. After millenia of semantic drift, the word could refer to anything marked in any manner, including coinage: Japanese “mon” and Korean “mun” descend from this usage.

This saying then is The Master describing the method by which one becomes a marked person, a person whose speech acts matter. In one way, the point is almost rustic: to be a person who others rely on, simply be reliable.

The true depth of this saying comes from Confucius’s conception of man as continuous with his environment. To be marked, Wen (文), is not a matter of having one’s inner light respected - the problem of Prince Bolkonsky or The Underground Man. In seeing the moral actor as continuous with the acted upon, Confucius is like Spinoza or Bergson. As Bergson put it: “Tout est obscur dans l'idée de création si l'on pense à des choses qui seraient créées et à une chose qui crée,”. To tie it together, for Confucius, growing into a person of mark - Xue Wen (学文) - is not a matter of an act of unilaterally creating a weighty person but one of growing into the world and the world growing into one.

It should not be thought that this saying is in any way abstract. In fact, it refers to the competitions for state position, which revolved around the Six Arts. As a state elder - a Yuan Lao (元老) - one of Confucius’s jobs would be administering and evaluating these contests. Thus one can see that he is here explaining the proper role of the exam: to judge among equally qualified applicants. If one is wildly unqualified - for instance, if one is known to be unreliable - then the contest itself is not decisive. We will come back to these when they are discussed more directly, chiefly in Book 3.

According to the Yue Ji (樂記) these contests were established by Zhou Wu Wang (周武王). This story is not very believable. But consider this: the Yi Jing (易經) was supposedly compiled his father, who was called King Wen - Zhou Wen Wang (周文王). Looking at how Wen (文) is used by King Wen (文王) is a temptation that cannot be missed.

To take - as before - a literally random example, let’s see how Wen (文) is used in Lesser Domestication - Xiaoxu (小畜) -


Which Legge translates “The sky, and that representing wind moving above it, form Xiao Xu; the superior man, in accordance with this, adorns the outward manifestation of his virtue.”. You can recognize Junzi (君子) at this point, hopefully. Wang Bi adds (in Richard John Lynn’s translation) “Here one finds that he [the Junzi] cannot yet exercise his power, and this is why he can do nothing more than cultivate his virtues.”.

To understand this, we can go back to the first analect. To learn is to be able to act, but action is proscribed by situation. When exercise of power is not yet appropriate, the correct action is to gather power together.

In fact. Wang Bi’s comment goes right to the heart of the continuity thesis of this analect: if the gentleman - Junzi (君子) - is not decisive how can the young master - Dizi (弟子) - be? The whole situation must be considered. The exercise of power is not a discontinuous leap, but begins already in the laying of plans. This gathering of power is what Dr Martin Luther King called “spiritual purification”.

Coming back to the Chinese, it is also worth mentioning a little about the character Di (弟), because it also appears here. Di (弟) - a younger brother - and Dizi (弟子) - are very common recurring concepts. As mentioned before, whenever Di (弟) comes up one should think of the Zhou Dynasty Founding Myth, with the same King Wen as above. Confucius’s personal hero was Ji Dan (姬旦), a son of the aforementioned Zhou Wen Wang (周文王) and a younger brother of the founder of the Zhao dynasty. Ji Dan (姬旦) was as responsible as any other single person for it becoming a dynasty at all. We will return to this history at a later time, because there’s some real characters in it.

Saying 7


Bu Shang (卜商), here called by his courtesy name Zi Shia (子夏). Said to be the most skilled at textual criticism of Confucius' major followers. Bu Shang was also a mentor to the most powerful politician of his lifetime.

Words to know:

贤: Xian - permanent value, permanent ability

色: Se - beauty, lust, color, variety, theatrical role

曰: Yue - To say

谓: Wei - To say, to tell, to call

学: Xue - studies, learning


For the previous saying, I mostly talked about Wen (文), now I will mostly talk about Xue (学).

The character 学 is a pictogram, a child underneath a thatched roof. The bronze script character makes the story more clear. Below we have, as the modern character, a child in a building with a thatched roof. Above, we see two hands surrounding four scratches in two x shapes. These are the child’s hands holding a tortoise plastron to interpret the implicit hexagram.

There is a very nice example of Xue (学) in the Way Power Classic but the source I’ve been using - a Chinese Text Project - has Xue (学) as a traditional character, Xue (學). Let’s do it anyway.


Which Legge translates “If they were careful at the end, as (they should be) at the beginning, they would not so ruin them. Therefore the sage desires what (other men) do not desire, and does not prize things difficult to get; he learns what (other men) do not learn…”.

We see that both Zishia (子夏) & Laozi are emphasizing that learning, Xue (学), is not merely an outcome but a whole process. Laozi’s Sage - Sheng Ren (聖人) - is learning as much at the “end” of the process as at the beginning.

This can be illustrated by a modern example. In an interview with Marian McPartland, Donald Fagen mentions that his passion for touring was reignited by listening to Duke Ellington & Fletcher Henderson. He got really interested in the possibilities of rearrangement. He continued to learn from those records he listened to throughout his life.

Zishia’s ideal student is demonstrating “care at the beginning”, rather than the end but the full cycle is praiseworthy.

There is a nice distinction here in this saying which is erased by Legge’s translation. The words used for the two uses of “say” are distinct, “men say” is Yue (曰) but “I … say” is Wei (谓). Obviously, Yue (曰) is weaker than Wei (谓) is but let’s see how.

First of all, the character 曰 is simply a mouth with a breath emerging. It’s remained essentially unchanged throughout Chinese history.

Meanwhile, the character 谓 is a semantic-phonetic compound made up of two radicals, a semantic radical 讠and a phonetic radical 胃. The semantic radical 讠 is a simplification of 言, which is a pictogram of wagging forked tongue. This can be seen clearly in the bronze inscription. The top part of the phonetic radical 胃 is a closed curve around rice particles - a full stomach while the lower part is a stylized piece of meat, so the full effect is “the stomach as an organ”.

The poetic difference between Yue (曰) and Wei (谓), then, is similar to the difference between a head voice and a chest voice. The promise made in this analect is “If you show care at the beginning, then Zishia will roar against those who belittle you.”

And who, just beginning their learning, wouldn’t want that?

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