The Analects, written and compiled by some of the world’s greatest ancient thinkers is the basis of Chinese and East Asian intellectual thought. The writing is a collection of Confucius’ teachings and concepts later rectified by his pupils shortly after his death. These teachings later established themselves to be one of the most historically influential and long-standing quotes of all time. It is said that, “Half of the teachings in The Analects would suffice to effectively rule a nation.”[1] With the later introduction of the scholar’s test held to recognize talent and intelligence on the basis of one’s understanding of the Confucius’ classics, it goes to show how greatly valued The Analects was for the education of the newer generation. The underlying main themes throughout the book are the presence of a hierarchical society with rigid class structure, the encircling theme of self-cultivating benevolence and the eternal search for wisdom. As these themes continually make their presences in The Analects, much can be revealed about the Chinese society and mainstream culture during Confucius’ time.

A society prescribed in The Analects is the epitome of order, and structure. The moral value that was deeply ingrained into the minds of the Chinese was the hierarchical difference that separated one class from the other. Born during China’s Warring States period, when the civil system collapsed with any sense of political stability was shattered, Confucius never lived to see a unified or peace-filled China. The importance of reinforcing hierarchy is so important to him because it was the last strand of order that the Chinese society was capable of potentially achieving at the time. He believed that order in society was the first step into ending political strife, and outbreak of warfare, a society where everyone knew their part and played their role made it possible for the ruler of the state to divert his attention to the external threats and not worry about internal struggles.

In a Confucianism society, three main types of relationships were evidently hierarchical: ruler and servant, between brothers, and husband and wife. With the first type of hierarchical relationship in mind, China’s social system constituted a pyramid. At the tip of the social pyramid was the authoritative monarch. Second to him were the governor officials, aristocrats and the rest of the royal family, who were highly educated and thought to have had the knowledge and wits to assist in governing the nation. The rest of the population were considered peasants and they consisted of merchants, farmers, craftsmen and other workers. The political system of absolute monarchy in ancient China meant that the master ruler was only the king himself. Every other class of citizen whether it may be the wealthy aristocrats or illiterate farmers served His Majesty and were all servants in that respect. “If the death of the servant is ordered by the ruler, the servant must die.”[2] It is clear that dominance and control of the ruler is exercised absolutely over his servants and both parties acknowledge their status.

The second type of hierarchical relationship exists within the family. Within the household, “The eldest brother is to be respected as one’s father upon his death.”[3] In an ancient Chinese home, the father was known as the head of the house, and all the decision-making power up to him. Upon his death, according to Chinese hereditary, the eldest son in the family not only inherits his father’s wealth and properties but also his responsibilities and powers. The eldest son would assume the role as head of the household and all members of the family, including his younger brothers would all be expected to respect and obey him as they would their own father.

Lastly, the Confucian ideal illustrated the inferiority of women to men. The absence of women references in The Analects makes it plain to see that Confucius did not consider women as an integral part of societal or political affairs. “Women and people of low birth are hard to deal with.”[4] This quote goes to show that Confucius did not believe women could become great and virtuous like men but were inferior and needed to be controlled and dealt with. Hence, they were generally not highly educated if literate at all and were confined to the household. Women were expected to obey their fathers prior to marriage, attend to their husbands upon marriage and respect their son as the new head of the household after the death of their husband.

Every nation needed to have a ruler who held power over the state, every family needed a head of the household and every marriage required the power of men to be exercised over women. This central belief of hierarchy present in the dynastical system of having an absolute ruler became the foundation of Chinese government and maintained its influence for more than 2500 years after it was first emphasized by Confucius.

The teachings of The Analects inarguably share one central theme: benevolence. The mastering of this virtue paves the way to being the superior gentleman who is well educated and respected in society. Benevolence inspired men of the time to be great, to be accomplished as a gentleman, to be fit to cultivate oneself morally, and positively impact those around them to govern a state effectively.

To Confucius, “Benevolence is more vital to the common people than even fire and water.”[5] The Analects’ tireless reiteration of the importance of benevolence only goes to show how deprived of morality and righteousness China was at a time of power struggle and instability. Everyone lived in constant fear for their lives; all standards of morality broke down as the chief concern became mere survival. Confucius dreamed to morally educate the war infested Chinese society, to one day see an end to the slaughtering and bloodbath. His vision was a peaceful country ruled in benevolence by gentlemen of virtue.

There are three levels of benevolence: personal, social and political, with each progressive level requiring more of this virtue. The first step is self-cultivation, becoming benevolent on a personal level.

Every day I examine myself on three counts. In what I have undertaken on another’s behalf, have I failed to do my best? In my dealings with my friends have I failed to be trustworthy in what I say? Have I passed on to others anything that I have not tried out myself?[6]

By reflecting on one’s faults and words can one bring themselves to eventual improvement and make the development of character and virtue possible. The second milestone in becoming a gentleman is to be socially benevolent, to be benevolent within their family, towards friends, allowing others to benefit from their personal benevolence.

This would mean that the remaining ultimate goal is to perfect the way of becoming benevolent on a political level, in turn making one worthy of governing a nation.  “Advance the upright and set aside the crooked, then the people will submit.”[7] Exemplifying benevolence in mind and in actions will win the hearts of others.

This was the vision Confucius had for Chinese society, a vision that was attempted to be put into reality for centuries after his time for all men studied and practiced the way of the gentlemen and all rulers worked to be one of benevolence. A man who fails to be benevolent is morally unworthy, similarly anything attained malevolently should feel worthless, “Wealth and rank attained through immoral means have as much to do with me as passing clouds.”[8] A man could be benevolent but not great but not be great without being benevolent. This virtue became the single greatest moral value in Chinese culture.

If benevolence was the way Confucius believed one ought to behave and act, then the seeking of wisdom is the way one ought to live. “There is nothing I can do with a man who is not constantly saying, ‘What am I to do? What am I to do?’”[9] A man should at all times be asking questions, searching for answers, and attempting to unlock the chest of life’s mysteries. The pursuit of wisdom is so significant to Confucius because he believed it was the way to recoup Chinese society. He hoped that China would one day achieve cultural refinement and social order through the devotion to wisdom, bringing it out of civil chaos and disorder. China was a country that was experiencing political and social breakdown of order, intellectual thought and cultural flourishing was certainly not the state’s chief concern. Confucius attempted to divert the minds of people from only fearing for their life, of only living to survive, to living for intellectual pursuits, and the acquiring of wisdom instead. This value of intellectualism became very prominent in Chinese society later as the Confucian scholars such as Confucius himself and his disciples later received much reverence and praise for their understanding of wisdom.

To Confucius, wisdom started first with understanding oneself followed with the gradual comprehension of the rest of the world. To be able to wholly grasp onto the concept of wisdom, it really is necessary to devote a lifetime to learning and exploring.

At fifteen I set my heart on learning; at thirty I took my stand; at forty I came to be free from doubts; at fifty I understood the Decree of Heaven; at sixty my ear was atuned; at seventy I followed my heart’s desire without overstepping the line.[10]

To be wise is to recognize what you do know and what you do not know. To think that you know more than you do is delusion, likewise failing to acknowledge what you do not have an understanding of is again delusion.[11] “Every time three people walk together, there must be one that can be my teacher.”[12] Another important component of wisdom is never failing to identify one’s own shortcoming while be able to appreciate others’ strengths for everyone is someone worth learning from.

The Analects is undoubtedly an influential masterpiece put together by some of the most educated scholars of Confucius’ time. Confucianism has been the root of Chinese tradition, thought and cultural value for years. The Analects depicts not only a universal moral standard but illustrates the war infested and conflict ridden Chinese society at the time. Social order was obstructed by civil obedience and constant outbreak of war. Therefore, it is fair to say a nation described in The Analects is too ideal especially given the political and social state of China during the Warring States period. The central themes of a structured hierarchal society, the way of benevolence and pursuit of wisdom were Confucian ideals that Confucius envisioned would bring an end to the civil chaos. These ideals would later be adopted in mainstream society as the Chinese later attempted to live his dreams.

Works Cited

  • Zhao, History of Song Dynasty. Shanghai: 上海人民出版社, 2003, 645.
  • Wong, The Influence of The Analects. Taipei: 臺灣大學出版中心, 2009, 140.
  • Wong, The Influence of The Analects (Taipei: 臺灣大學出版中心, 2009, 85.
  • Confucius, The Analects. London: Penguin Books, 1979, 148.
  • Confucius, The Analects. London: Penguin Books, 1979, 136.
  • Confucius, The Analects. London: Penguin Books, 1979, 59.
  • Confucius, The Analects. London: Penguin Books, 1979, 65.
  • Confucius, The Analects. London: Penguin Books, 1979, 88.
  • Confucius, The Analects. London: Penguin Books, 1979, 134.
  • Confucius, The Analects. London: Penguin Books, 1979, 64.
  • Confucius, The Analects. London: Penguin Books, 1979, 65.
  • Confucius, The Analects. London: Penguin Books, 1979, 147
  • [1] Zhao, History of Song Dynasty (Shanghai: 上海人民出版社, 2003), 645.
  • [2] Wong, The Influence of The Analects (Taipei: 臺灣大學出版中心, 2009), 140.
  • [3] Ibid,. p. 85.
  • [4] Confucius, The Analects (London: Penguin Books, 1979), 148.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 136.
  • [6] Confucius, The Analects (London: Penguin Books, 1979), 59.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 65.
  • [8] Confucius, The Analects (London: Penguin Books, 1979), 88.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 134.
  • [10] Confucius, The Analects (London: Penguin Books, 1979), 64.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 65.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 147.

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