Think no evil

子曰:「詩三百,一言以蔽之,曰:思無邪。」
Confucius said: “There are three hundred poems in the Book of Songs, but the meaning of them can be summed up in a single phrase: ‘Hey, do not stray from the right path’.”

The next time you are sat in a meeting being baffled by buzzwords and jargon, just be grateful that you’re not attending a ceremonial function at the court of a ruler in Ancient China. Rather than voice their opinions directly, etiquette required that officials and ministers had to quote from the classical cannon when giving the ruler the benefit of their wisdom.

Apart from making for some rather strange conversations, this must have been terribly demanding for the participants who had to totally rely on their memory not just to understand what others were saying and referring to, but also to come up with their own responses. And to think that these days we don’t even have to remember our own phone numbers thanks to the wonders of smart phones and tablets.

Confucius was reputedly a master of this art, deriving much of his expertise from his deep knowledge of the Book of Songs (which some believe he edited), and like any good debater and raconteur enjoyed twisting the meanings of the original words to suit whatever purpose he had in his mind at the time.

Hence in the second chapter of Book 2 of the Analects we come across a delicious little dispute over the true meaning of the phrase “思無邪” (siwuxie) that has exercised the brains of scholars for thousands of years.

According to the language used in the time of Confucius, the meaning of the three characters in the phrase is: “think > no > evil”. However, according to the language that was current when the Book of Songs was compiled (between the tenth and seventh centuries BC), the first character si still hadn’t become a verb and was used as an exclamatory particle similar to 吧 (ba) in modern Chinese, while xie was used to describe a horse-drawn chariot deviating from its path. As a result, the literal translation would be: “Hey>do not>stray>[right] path.”

The irony is, of course, that both phrases have essentially the same meaning, which makes the dispute rather academic. But his double-entendre does give us a glimpse of how clever Confucius was as a wordsmith, and why he was at least given a hearing by the various rulers he visited.

It also goes to show that when it comes to language, simple beats clever any day if you want people to actually understand what you are saying. But that’s a subject for another day.

On another note, I have translated詩三百 (shisanbai), which literally means “the poems 300” as the Book of Songs. This is what Confucius is referring to even though there are actually 305 poems in the book. Yet another subject for another day.

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