Leadership lessons from Confucius: a common lexicon

common lexicon

Occasions when Confucius used standard pronunciation: when reciting the Book of Songs and the Book of Documents, and when carrying out ritual ceremonies. On all these occasions, he used standard pronunciation. (1) (2) 

Language provides a unifying force in the communities we live in, the institutions we learn in, and the organizations we work in. A common lexicon that everyone is fluent in is vital if we are to live harmoniously, learn effectively, and work efficiently with each other.

The misuse or abuse of language can all too easily lead to misunderstandings and conflicts that have the potential to shake the very foundations of our society. Think carefully about what you say and how you say it. The consequences of saying the wrong words in the wrong way can be a lot more devastating than a Twitter storm.


This article features a translation of Chapter 17 of Book 7 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 7 here.

(1) In Confucius’s time “standard pronunciation” was based on a court language that originated from the Western Zhou period (1046–771 BCE). Not surprisingly during the age he lived in virtually nobody understood it, and it was only used by a small elite when conducting ritual ceremonies and reciting ancient poems and texts in much the same way that the church carried out services in Latin during the Middle Ages. In everyday life, Confucius probably spoke in the local dialect of his home state of Lu, though his command of the more archaic standard pronunciation must have come in handy when he visited nearby states during his period of exile – all of which would have spoken vastly different and at times mutually unintelligible dialects. These days, the standard pronunciation of Chinese is of course Mandarin, which is almost universally understood and spoken (to varying degrees of fidelity) throughout the country. Thankfully, China’s numerous local dialects have also continued to thrive alongside it.

(2) The Book of Songs (詩經/shījīng) and the Book of Documents are two of the so-called Five Classics (五經/ wǔjīng) said to have been edited by Confucius, though there is no concrete evidence to prove this. The Book of Songs is the oldest collection of Chinese poetry and features 305 poems originating from the 11th to 7th centuries BCE. The Book of Documents (書經/shūjīng) features the records of speeches, announcements, and conversations of the mythical sage king Yu, as well as rulers from the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, and served as the basis of the thinking of many Chinese philosophers such as Confucius, Mencius, and Mozi.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.

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