Analects of Confucius Book 1: Confucius on culture

The character 文 (wén) originally meant “patterns”, though it is more often translated as “culture” or “civilization” as it refers to arts such as literature, calligraphy, music, ritual, mathematics, and even archery and charioteering.

Although Confucius regarded mastery of these arts as essential for the cultivation of a young man’s character, he deemed the development of the correct behavior to be even more important. Thus, in 1.6 he says that a young man should only study the cultural arts “if he still has energy to spare” after showing respect to his parents and elders.

In other words, he saw no value in extensive academic study if the lessons learned from it were not implemented in everyday conduct. Practice was far more important than theory.

The Book of Songs (詩經/shījīng) is the oldest existing collection of ancient Chinese ceremonial hymns and folk songs and was the core text that a young man would study during Confucius’s time. It features a total of 305 works dating back to the 11th to the 7th centuries BCE, many of which were performed as part of ritual ceremonies held by the ruler and aristocratic families.

Much in the same way as Latin was used as the lingua franca by the educated elite in Europe countries during the Middle Ages, lines from the Book of Songs were also regularly quoted during diplomatic exchanges between representatives of the various different states that existed during the Spring and Autumn period to avoid potential misunderstandings between participants (not to mention showcase their wit and learning).

Confucius was fond of quoting from the text when the appropriate situation arose. A number of exchanges like the one that takes place between him and Zigong in 1.15 around the phrase “‘Like carving and polishing stones, like cutting and grinding gems’” can be found in the Analects.

Confucius is also believed by some to have edited the Book of Songs before his death, though there is no concrete evidence to back up this claim.



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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.