Emblem of patterns

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子貢曰:「夫子之文章,可得而聞也;夫子之言性與天道,不可得而聞也。」
Zigong said: “We get to hear our master’s cultural brilliance, but not his views on the nature of things and the Way of Heaven.”

The character文 (wén) originally meant “patterns” and may have initially referred to tattoos on the bodies of ancient shamans and warriors signifying their wisdom and accomplishments. The character 章 (zhāng) meant “sign” or “emblem”.

In the context of this passage, the “emblem of patterns” probably refers to Confucius’s knowledge and practices of traditional Chinese philosophies, customs, and rituals – which, as Zigong points out, he never missed an opportunity to expound upon.

When it came to spiritual matters, however, Confucius was notoriously silent. Hence Zigong’s complaint that he never gets to hear his views about “the nature of things and the Way of Heaven.”

Some commentators see this as a sign that Confucius didn’t have a religious or spiritual side to his character. Perhaps this was the case, or perhaps he just preferred to focus his energy on human affairs that he had a chance of influencing rather than matters beyond his understanding and control.

Or perhaps he decided that when it came to the spiritual realm it was much better to let Heaven speak for itself:

子曰:「予欲無言!」子貢曰:「子如不言,則小子何述焉?」子曰:「天何言哉!四時行焉,百物生焉,天何言哉?」
Confucius said: “I prefer to speak no more. Zigong said: “Master, if you don’t speak, how will your disciples be able to record any of your teachings? Confucius said: “Does Heaven speak? Yet the four seasons follow their course and all the creatures continue to flourish, but does Heaven say anything?”

Book 17, Chapter 19.

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