Purple praise


Yan Hui said with a heavy sigh: “The more I contemplate it, the higher it seems; the deeper I probe it, the harder it becomes; when I catch a glimpse of it in front of me, it is suddenly behind me. Our master knows how to lure people skillfully and methodically. He broadens my mind with literature and culture and restrains me with the rites. Even if I wanted to stop, I could not. Just as all my talents are exhausted, there seems to be something new towering above me. But although I long to follow it, I cannot find it.”

Confucius’s favorite disciple Yan Hui is being a tad, shall we say, sycophantic with his praise of the sage here. Continue reading Purple praise

Common courtesies


Whenever Confucius saw someone in mourning dress, or a grandee in ceremonial robes, or a blind person, even if they were younger than him he would always rise to his feet or quicken his step if he had to pass by them.

Rising to your feet and quickening your step if already walking were regarded as signs of respect. Such was the strength of his observance of the rites, Confucius observed these courtesies spontaneously whenever appropriate.

Keep on hammering away


Confucius said: “Do I possess knowledge? No, I don’t. Even when a humble peasant asks me a question, my mind goes blank; but I keep on hammering away at the two sides of the question until I work out the answer.”

It’s difficult to determine the exact meaning of this passage without any additional context. Presumably Confucius is saying that you should give careful thought to any question that someone poses to you, no matter how lowly their social station. Such an interpretation would fit in with the description of him in Chapter IV of Book 9: “Confucius avoided four things: preconceptions, arbitrariness, stubbornness, and egoism.” Continue reading Keep on hammering away

Hacked off?


Lao stated: “Confucius said: ‘Since I was never tested in high public office I became skilled in the arts.’”

Lao (牢) is usually identified as a disciple of Confucius called Yuan Xian (原憲). Although Confucius is trying to be self-deprecating, he is unable to conceal his bitterness at his failure to be appointed as a senior official. Continue reading Hacked off?

Real world experience


The Grand Steward asked Zigong: “Your master is a true sage, isn’t he? He is skilled in so many things.” Zigong replied: “Heaven indeed made him a sage, but he also happens to have many different skills.” When he heard of this, Confucius said: “What does the Grand Steward know about me? In my youth, I was poor; so I had to learn a number of lowly skills. Does a leader need to have so many different skills? No, he does not.”

As a young man, Confucius had to take on a number of minor clerical and book keeping posts in order to support his family. Continue reading Real world experience

Nothing to fear


When Confucius was trapped in Kuang, he said: “King Wen is dead, but the civilization he created lives on with me, doesn’t it? If Heaven wished civilization to be destroyed, why was it entrusted to me? If Heaven doesn’t wish civilization to be destroyed, what do I have to fear from the people of Kuang?”

Confucius is said to have fled along with his disciples to Kuang, a rough border town located in the modern-day Changyuan County (長垣縣) in Henan province (河南省), in 496 BC from the state of Song where he had been threatened by a minister called Huan Tui (桓魋). Continue reading Nothing to fear

Hemp caps and bowing rituals


Confucius said: “According to the rites, the ceremonial cap should be made of hemp; these days it is made of silk. This is more economical and I follow the general practice. According to the rites, you should make your bow at the bottom of the steps; nowadays people make their bow on top of the steps. This is arrogant, and even though it goes against the general practice I make my bow at that bottom of the steps.”

Although Confucius was pragmatic enough to accept minor changes to the external forms of ritual ceremonies, he was strongly opposed to ones that he believed that violated their underlying principles. Continue reading Hemp caps and bowing rituals

A man from Daxiang


A man from Daxiang said: “What a great man Confucius is! Despite his vast learning, he has still not managed to make a name for himself in any particular field.” When Confucius heard of this, he said to his disciples: “Which skill should I master? Should I master charioteering? Should I master archery? I think I’ll master charioteering.”

The irony is somewhat leaden, but Confucius just about manages to make his point. For him the purpose of learning is not to cultivate a specific skill, but to develop your knowledge and character so that you are able make the right judgments in any situation. Continue reading A man from Daxiang