Analects of Confucius Book 1: Confucius on deference


Deference (讓/ràng) literally means “to yield”. Although the term is rarely mentioned in the Analects, the principles that govern it play an important role in ensuring smooth and courteous interactions between people of different walks of life.

Deference is a two-way process that requires people at all levels of society, from the ruler on high to the humblest peasant, to show mutual respect for each other. If members of the ruling class ignore this principle and adopt a more dictatorial approach to people from the lower classes, they risk unraveling the bonds that tie society together and creating disorder and chaos.

Deference provides a graceful way for people to show humility when receiving a compliment or when turning down an official position that they either don’t want or feel that someone else is better qualified for. Naturally, in many such cases such a response could be formulaic rather than genuine, but even if that were the case it would help remove the awkwardness from potentially embarrassing or contentious situations.

As is shown in the example given in Chapter 10 of Book 1 in which Zigong tells his fellow-disciple Ziqin that Confucius can easily obtain all the information he needs to know about the political situation pertaining in a particular country simply “by being warm, kind, courteous, unassuming, and deferential”, deference can also be a very effective tool when deployed sincerely. People are so much more willing to help you when you treat them politely!

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