Gentlemen and role models

Superior man; man of superior order; man of virtue; ideal man; gentleman: ever since they first started translating the Analects, scholars have struggled mightily to find the right term to encapsulate the meaning of “君子”.

There is a very good reason for this, for just as Confucius was genuinely radical in espousing the principle of universal education for men, he also sought to promote a political philosophy that challenged the feudal order that existed during his times. Thus for him a “君子”was not a “gentleman”, “aristocrat”, or “nobleman” by birth, as was the original meaning of the term, but someone who achieved that status through his strong personal ethics and outstanding intellectual abilities.

In other words, a dissolute and illiterate hereditary nobleman could not be considered as a gentleman by this measure, whereas any common man had the chance to become one if he achieved the right levels of morality and learning.

The intense moral tone of Confucius’s definition of “君子”sits uncomfortably in today’s more egalitarian political and social discourse. As a result, translations such as “superior man” or “man of virtue” sound very strange to the modern ear. That is why I settled on the more neutral term of “leader” for my translation, though I still do wonder whether “role model” might be better.

Which one do you prefer? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter.

Note: This is an updated version of a post from a previous incantation of this blog. My number one goal for the Year of the Goat is to publish my final translation of the Analects of Confucius as a book. 

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