Lun Yu Introduction & 1.1

by Research Fellow C Trombley

Lun Yu Introduction & 1.1

As previously announced, I - the internationally beloved Chipmunk Account - will now be commenting on the Lun Yu (論語).

Our Old Friend, The Master

This really is the hardest part of beginning the series, so let’s get to it: Who Was Confucius And Who Should He Be? There are so many Confucii running around - a historical man, a legendary ancestor and even a philosopher or three - that I couldn’t possibly give even a flavor of them all.

I will only now talk a bit about the historical man, leaving the others for when they are relevant to specific sayings. The historical man who is called in English ‘Confucius’ was born Kong Qiu (孔丘), on 28 September 551 BC. Family histories remember this birth as having many signs and wonders. He was born in Zou, a province nominally controlled directly by King Ring of Zhou (周靈王), but in fact dominated by one of the three families of warrior-aristocrats that dominated China.

Qiu’s father, Kong He (孔紇), was an elderly soldier who had a difficult life. His first son, Kong Pi (孔皮), was born severely club footed, so he could not inherit his father’s warrior role and the boy’s mother couldn’t be raised above concubinage. Kong He died when Qiu was three years old (two by the American style). Young Qiu was raised by his mother, Yan Zhengzai (顏徵在), in what must have been dire poverty.

These early influences likely influenced several of Confucius’s quirks: his obsession with caring parent/child & brother/brother relationships, his emphasis on practical organization and his kind treatment of the disabled, just to name a few. In fact, this background explains suspiciously much of his philosophy. This “realistic” story must be read with as much salt as the fantastic ones. If the general convenience of it all isn’t enough, then recall that the first historian, Sima Qian (司马迁), was a partisan of Gold-Old (黄老), one of “Confucianism”’s rivals during the Han dynasty.

Whatever the truth of his background, Kong Qiu must have been capped at age 20. Back before electric razors and cheap steel, people grew their hair long. In the capping ceremony, a young man’s hair was tied up and put into a hat, signifying he was old enough that his mother wouldn’t be taking care of his hair any more.

At this point he received the style name Zhongni (仲尼), meaning simply ‘Second Son’, and would have been referred to by this name by peers for the remainder of his life. He was then, by all reports, simply enormous, with 1.9 meters being the lowest estimate of his height that I can find. A couple analecta play on his enormous height, such as 3.18 & 10.4. Certainly he was not afraid to taunt people who were not above physical intimidation. He seems to have been considered attractive: in the one and only appearance of a named woman in the Analects (6.28), they are accused of having an affair.

Going back to youth, Kong Zhongni (孔仲尼) put himself through school by working as a bookkeeper, presumably both studying and working at the garrison his father once commanded. After completing studies, Zhongni began a long and difficult political career which we will come back to when it is relevant.

By the present tense assumed in the Lun Yu, Kong Zhongni is older than 70. He has about 72 major disciples, but both his only son and several of his favorite disciples have died. His disciples refer to him as either Zi (子) - Master - or Kongzi (孔子) - Master Kong.

All this about The Master’s background is simply to illustrate that we are joining up with a man and a history midstream. Confucius’s philosophy was developed in the context of the Zhou Dynasty, which had been writing histories, philosophies and so forth for 500 years. This is enough temporal room to fit Columbus and you, the blog reader at home.

The Master is, in particular, repurposing, reinterpretating, “deconstructing”, and attacking/defending the language of the Zhou Dynasty Founding Myth: how The Warrior King Of Zhou - Zhou Wu Wang (周武王) and his brother The Duke Of Zhou - Zhou Gong (周公) - defeated the tyrant Di Xin Of Shang (商帝辛) by their marvelous power (德) and reopened the roads (道). These and related words and their alleged relations will come up over and over again.

I also intend to repurpose, reinterpret, “deconstruct”, and attack/defend the words passed down to me. My hope is to get a commentary that lands somewhere in between Wang Bi’s Dark Learning (玄学) and Hu Shih’s Doubting History School (疑古派) - whatever that means!

Let’s begin this commentary by actually looking at a saying. I hope this will give a flavor of what to expect in the future.

Chapter 1

Saying 1

Kongzi (孔子), i.e. Confucius

Words To Know:
子: Zi. Master.
曰: Yue. To say, to call, to mention
人: Ren. Human beings.
君子: Junzi. A gentleman.


This entire saying is strikingly similar to and perhaps an imitation of Lun Yu 2.4, which Legge translates:

“'At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.”

The parallels are: learning & practice, followed by personal & social harmony, followed by virtue. The reason 1.1 comes first is - rather than the biography of The Master’s life as a whole - it is just the part of his life dedicated to study, which you, the student, should imitate.

Another, more meta, lesson is that the Lun Yu is not necessarily written in temporal order. This will be more obvious later.

Going back to the analect itself, the first concentration is on practice: to learn is to be able to act. The second concentration is on teaching: to master is to be able to enable others to act. The final concentration is on virtue.

As shown, this emphasis on process and even this exact three part structure (action, society, virtue), will be seen throughout the Lun Yu, applied to everything from life (2.4), to music (3.23) and even to the economy (13.9). There will be more comments on the logic of the Lun Yu soon, as the next post has some colossi.

Focusing in on the language, notice that the synthesis step, this learned virtue, only makes one a Junzi (君子), not a Sheng (聖) - that is, a gentleman and not a sage. This is of great importance for the understanding of effort in the Lun Yu and we will cover it when we see the sage later.

In fact, with Junzi (君子) we have the first of The Master’s reinterpretations. In its original, nonphilosophical context, junzi (君子) is much more like Junker - the Prussian aristocrats - than Man Of Complete Virtue. In fact, the Lun Yu itself has a nonphilosophical use of junzi (11.1)

To illustrate, let’s look at Junzi (君子) character by character. The first character Jun (君) means something like Prince. The Japanese honorific Kun is descended from this word. The second character Zi (子) is, as mentioned, Master.

The Master’s source for this term as a philosophical concept is what he would have called the Zhou Yi (周易) and is now called the Yi Jing (易經) or “I Ching.” Western sources often state that this book was “originally a divination manual”, often without precisely defining ‘originally’, ‘divination’, ‘manual’ or even ‘a’. Mostly this seems to be said because Chinese sources insist that it is “not originally a divination manual”, a proposition exactly as ill defined.

For our purposes now, it is enough to note that, for The Master, the Yi Jing (易經) was a book between two and five hundred years old and widely accepted as both a style guide and philosophical text. To take one literally random example of how Junzi (君子) is used in the Yi Jing, let’s look Hexagram 15, Modesty or Qian (謙). The judgment is “君子有終”, which Legge translates “the superior man [i.e. the junzi] has good issue”. The comment on the first yin says “謙謙君子,用涉大川,吉” , which (highly paraphrasing Legge’s translation) says “The junzi adds humility to humility, thus may cross the great stream, good fortune”. This is obviously much closer to what The Master means than Junker!

By the use of this one word, The Master reaches as deeply into his own history as he can in order to understand the political, economic and social disintegration of his own time. We will soon see many parallels between his era and our own. Thus we will soon, in reading the Lun Yu, be talking to a living man. This man, Confucius, is the check which I am mailing you to cash.

Some Closing Formalities

I hope you enjoyed today’s analect. This post will end with some formalities, as you can’t bowl a 300 if the pins aren’t in place every time.

This series will cover approximately two sayings biweekly. This week we will only do one, because of the long intro. There will also be retrospectives at the end of each book and so forth. As you can see above, each saying will be quoted in Simplified Chinese, then in Pinyin (which I will not always very consistently use) and then in Legge’s translation. This will be easier to see in practice, I assure you. As a source, I am simply using this wikibook, which has enough info. Over the course of this project I’m attempting to improve my Chinese up from basically nothing, so feel free to clown on any misquotes or misunderstandings. I prefer learning by success, but learning by failure is always a back up.

My main goal in this reading is to provide an entertaining commentary. I won’t always have a lot to say, and what I say may not have much to do with The Master’s words. I will happily cite Albert Einstein, W. Arthur Lewis and dril if I find it insightful or at least funny. That said, I do want to learn and share some classical commentaries as well. These first few will by necessity have a good amount of introductory material as I dribble out the basic words of Chinese philosophy and my interpretations of them. Even with that, I have some real interpretive humdingers coming soon.

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