A storm in a wine cup


Confucius said: “A cornered chalice without any corners. How can that be called a cornered chalice? How can that be called a cornered chalice?”

A 觚 () was originally a vessel or container with a square base and a round cup on top that was used for wine offerings in ancient Shang Dynasty ritual ceremonies – though obviously the one that Confucius is ranting about here was of a different shape.
The sentence literally means “Gu not gu, gu oh! Gu oh!” I suppose that this could potentially be stretched to mean “to be a gu, or not to be a gu, that is the question”, but have opted for a more conservative and clunky rendering given that only a handful of people actually know or care what a gu is.

Confucius did care very much, however. To him, using the wrong-shaped chalice was a major violation of the rituals and hence tantamount to sacrilege. Although his attitude may seem, shall we say, a tad pedantic, he was making a very important point about the need for precision in the words people use to describe or name something.

This is a subject that Confucius expounds on in much greater depth in Book 13, Chapter 3 of the Analects, when he tells his disciple Zilu why his first priority would be the “rectification of the names” if he were ever to gain power:


“If the names are not correct, language does not accord with the truth of things. When language does not accord with the truth of things, nothing can be carried out successfully. When nothing can be carried out successfully, the rites and music will not flourish. When the rites and music don’t flourish, punishments and penalties miss their mark. When punishments and penalties miss their mark, the people do not know where to place their hands and feet. Therefore, a leader must be able to give the appropriate name to whatever they want to talk about, and must also make sure they do exactly as they say.”

The need for precision in language has never been more critical than today as we deal with ever more complex problems on an ever greater scale as a result of our massive global population and increasingly connected and volatile global economy and supply chains.

Take a seemingly innocuous phrase like “quantitative easing” as an example. It makes it sound as if printing money is like a simple laxative that frees up blockages in an otherwise healthy financial system, when in reality it actually exacerbates serious problems in the system itself that will mutate into even more virulent forms at a later date if they are left untreated with even more disastrous consequences.

As I’m sure Confucius would agree, it’s time to start calling a spade a spade or a chalice a chalice.

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