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Teaching/Learning Through Confucius: Navigating Our Way Through the Analects

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Understanding Chinese thought and its cultural context is one of the greatest challenges for Western students. Many students, and perhaps even those of us who teach them, tend to think that we need to develop a command of the complexities of Chinese thinking, culture, history, and language before we can adequately approach the study of the longest continuous civilization on the planet. Although such an in-depth understanding is crucial for the development and articulation of scholarly work on China, it is not a prerequisite for the importation of Chinese ideas into our creative philosophizing and living in the Western world. By lifting ideas from the Chinese tradition vis à vis our own, we can gain a greater understanding of ourselves by looking at “the other.”

The Chinese philosophical and religious tradition offers Westerners, especially Americans, an opportunity to better understand themselves and seek possible prescriptions for many of our social maladies. Likewise, a dialogue with the West is instructive for the Chinese. The philosophy of Confucius is central to the project of understanding Chinese thought and culture, and offers different ways, which are often novel to our students, of thinking about our individual lives and their relation to the communities in which we participate.

NOTES

1. I have benefited greatly from the example of my exemplary teachers’ model and approach in the undergraduate and graduate classroom, especially Graham Parkes and Roger Ames of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I am also indebted to Henry Rosemont, Jr. who directed a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute on Chinese Religion and Philosophy at the East-West Center where I was a participant. Throughout this article, I have borrowed heavily from their examples and present unabashedly a reading of the Analectsthat is deeply influenced and often similar to theirs. It is in the spirit of Confucius and his communitarian ethic that I share my valuable classroom experience as a student and my experience as a teacher of Confucius that has been so informed by my teachers. The title of this article itself reflects Roger Ames and David Hall’s Thinking Through Confucius (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987). Earlier drafts of this article were presented at the Southeast Conference of the Association of Asian Studies at the University of Georgia and the National Conference of the Asian Studies Development Program at Middlesex College in Massachusetts. Bust of Confucius from the Confucian Tai Shing School, Hong Kong. Source: The Confucius Publishing Co. Ltd. Web site, www.confucius.org.

2. All translations from the Analects are from the Ames and Rosemont translation. I have begun using this translation in both introductory and advanced courses and have found it to be a very useful and easy text from which to teach. I highly recommend this particular translation because students find it very readable, an excellent introduction and bibliography accompanies the translation, and the translators are very sensitive to the nuances of Confucius’s thinking and to philosophical issues in general. The degree of ease one experiences in teaching from The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation by Ames and Rosemont surpasses other notable translations. This translation is a contemporary one that can be appreciated by students because it avoids the tone of earlier translations that make Confucius an old “fuddy-duddy” who often appears as nothing more than an apologist for the aristocracy. After teaching from the Ames and Rosemont translation, both students and teachers will realize that Confucius’s thinking has much to contribute to our contemporary creative philosophizing and realizing democratic ideals. It is important to note that verse numbering in the Analects may be slightly different in other translations because of the manner in which the text is parsed. This difference is sometimes seen especially in Legge and Waley’s translations. For example, Book 5 Verse 11 (5.11) in Ames and Rosemont (and Lau) is 5.10 in Legge and Waley.

3. Herbert Fingarette, Confucius—The Secular as Sacred, 6. Fingarette has a good discussion on the sacred dimension of li. Although Fingarette has come under some attack by Chinese scholars for some of his interpretations, I still find this book pedagogically useful and accessible to students.

4. For a more developed discussion of this aspect of Confucius’s thinking, see David Jones and John L. Culliney, “Confucian Order at the Edge of Chaos: The Science of Complexity and Ancient Wisdom,” in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, September 1998, Volume 33, Number 3, 395–404.

5. See Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 48 for a discussion on two possible etymologies of ren.

6. David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames, Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture, 259.

7. Arthur Waley, The Analects of Confucius, 27.

8. Ibid.

9. A. C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, 19.

10. Arthur Waley, The Analects of Confucius, 28.

11. A. C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, 19.

12. David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames, Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture, 171.

13. I am indebted especially to Graham Parkes for these ideas.

14. D. C. Lau suggests this type of reading when he says “Chung [Zhong] is the doing of one’s best and it is through chung that one puts into effect what one had found out by the method of shu.” D. C. Lau, Confucius: The Analects16. See also Analects 1.4.

15. I have intentionally left out the various degrees or levels of ren achievement such as daren (persons in high station), shanren (truly adept persons), chengren (consummate persons), renzhe or renren (authoritative persons), shi (scholar-apprentices), junzi (exemplary persons), and shen or shengren (sages) for purposes of simplification. See Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 60 for further discussion of the last three categories of renlisted above.

16. Arthur Waley, The Analects of Confucius, 27.

17. Yi is often considered a central term for the ethical dimension of Confucius’s thought in the following ways. (1) When applied to a particular act, yi will usually mean “right” as in “that was the right action to take” or “that was the right thing to do.” (2) In discussions about kinds of actions, yimeans duty, the act that one ought to perform in a given particular situation. (3) When yi is applied to agents who perform a right act, yi means righteous, dutiful, or moral person. Further, given Confucius’s relational sense of self, yiis usually used in reference to acts, while ren is used to characterize persons. These distinctions of yi, however, fall under the governance of yi as appropriateness or fittingness and harmony (he)—one ought to find his or her proper place within a broader context. Lialways provides this wider context. See Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 53, for demarcating yi from a Western ethical understanding. See the following passages in the Analects for yi: 1.13; 2.24; 4.5, 4.10, 4.12; 7.3, 7.16; 12.10, 12.20; 13. 4; 14.12, 14.13; 15.17, 15.18; 16.10, 16.11; 17.23; 18.7; 19.1.

18. See also 14.1, 1.15, and 4.9.

19. David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames, Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture, 271. See also 1.12, 2.14, and 15.22.

20. Jacques Derrida and Barbara Johnson, translator, Dissemination (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 63.

REFERENCES

Ames, Roger T., and Henry Rosemont, Jr. The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballentine Books, 1998.

Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius—The Secular as Sacred. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1989.

Hall, David L., and Roger T. Ames. Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Lau, D. C. Confucius: The Analects. New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

Waley, Arthur. The Analects of Confucius. New York: Vintage Books, 1938.

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