Rectification of the names

Zilu asked: “If the Duke of Wei were to entrust you with the government of his state, what would be your first priority? Confucius said: “It most definitely would be to rectify the names.” Zilu said: “Really? Isn’t that a little strange? How would that make things right?” Confucius said: “How dense can you get! If a leader doesn’t understand what he is talking about, he should remain silent. 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 he wants to talk about, and must also make sure he does exactly as he says. When it comes to speaking, a leader doesn’t allow any carelessness.”

Just as history is written by the winners so is the language controlled by them. Confucius shows he clearly understands this point when he tells Zilu that if he were to assume a position of power, his top priority would be to “rectify the names” for “if the names are not correct, language does not accord with the truth of things.”

Confucius’s version of “the truth” harked back to China’s mythical golden age under the Duke of Zhou (周公) over a thousand years before he was born. By restoring what he saw as the original meanings of the words embodying the values of his hero, Confucius hoped to bring back higher ethical and moral standards and reestablish social order.

Unable to secure a high-level position in government during his lifetime, Confucius died without achieving his dream – though of course it could be argued that the subsequent publication and popularization of the Analects meant that he ended up having a far far greater influence on the enduring debate about social values than he could have ever possibly achieved as a senior official of the state of Wei.

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