Analects Book 2: on culture

Culture

Confucius quotes from two of the so-called Five Classics of ancient Chinese literature in Book 2 of the Analects: namely, the Book of Songs and the Book of Documents.

In Chapter II, he remarks that there are three hundred poems in the Book of Songs, before summing up the overall meaning of the tome with a clever piece of word play that has caused controversy surrounding the true meaning of the phrase “思無邪” (sī wú xié) among Confucian scholars for millennia.

According to the language used during his own lifetime, 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 思() still hadn’t become a verb and was used as an exclamatory particle similar to 吧 (ba) in modern Chinese, while 邪(xié) was used to describe a horse-drawn chariot deviating from its path. As a result, the literal translation is: “Hey > don’t > go off course”.

The irony is, of course, that both phrases have essentially the same meaning, which makes the dispute rather academic. However, it does give us a glimpse of Confucius’s talents as a wordsmith – though it doesn’t showcase his mathematics abilities so effectively because there are actually 305 poems in the Book of Songs rather than 300.

Just like the Book of Songs, the Book of Documents is said to have been edited by Confucius, though again there is no concrete evidence to prove this. It features the records of speeches, announcements, and conversations of mythical sage-king Yu, as well as rulers from the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, and served as the basis of the thinking of many Chinese philosophers such as Confucius, Mencius, and Mozi.

In Chapter XXI, Confucius draws on a quotation from the book to justify not taking an official position: “Simply by acting as a good son and being kind to your brothers, you will be contributing to the smooth running of the government.”

Given the zealousness with which he pursued employment in government service with a myriad of rulers during the course of his lifetime, Confucius is perhaps being a tad disingenuous with his response. But he does also make the very important that everyone has role to play in the smooth running of a state – not just the ruling class and supporting bureaucracy.

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