Like carving and polishing stones

子貢曰:「貧而無諂,富而無驕,何如?」子曰:「可也,未若貧而樂,富而好禮者也。」子貢曰:「詩云:『如切如磋,如琢如磨』,其斯之謂與?」子曰:「賜也,始可與言詩已矣,告諸往而知來者。」
Zigong said: “’Poor but not subservient; wealthy but not arrogant.’ What do you think of that?” Confucius said: “Not bad, but this would be better still: ‘Poor but content; wealthy but loves ritual.’” Zigong said: “In the Book of Songs it is said: ‘Like carving and polishing stones, like cutting and grinding gems.’ Is this not the same idea?” Confucius said: “Wonderful, Zigong! At last I can discuss the Book of Songs with you! I only have to tell you what came before, and you can work out what comes next!”

“Like carving and polishing stones, like cutting and grinding gems.” I can’t think of a better metaphor for the process of self-cultivation than this line from the Book of Songs that Zigong quotes to Confucius during their bout of poetic banter. I suppose that the modern day equivalent would be “sharpening the saw”.

With this subtle rejoinder, Zigong is acknowledging that he recognizes that he has plenty of room to improve himself. In addition, he is also signaling that he understands the previous point made by Confucius that people shouldn’t allow their external circumstances to drag them too far from the proper path.

In the case of the poor, this means maintaining their dignity and remaining at ease with themselves despite their poverty. In the case of the rich, it means embracing the values embodied in the rites and not getting above themselves because of their wealth.

The Book of Songs (詩經/shījīng) is the oldest existing collection of ancient Chinese ceremonial hymns and folk songs, and features a total of 305 works dating back to the 11th to the 7th centuries BC. Also known as the Classic of Poetry and Book of Odes, it is one of the Five Classics that form a significant part of the traditional Confucian canon. Indeed, the texts are believed by some to have been edited by Confucius himself, though it is impossible to prove this.

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