Everything is Oll Korrect!

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Tag: Confucianism

A Confucian View of History: The Book of Documents

Note: This is another old Thermidor article, originally published on October 6, 2017. As with the other reposts I’ve only done some light editing.


When beginning a study of Confucianism, the most common starting-point is the Analects of Confucius, a reasonable choice since it’s the most easily available book of the Confucian canon as well as the book most that gives us the most material from Confucius himself. When reading it, though, one quickly realises that Confucius draws a great deal of his teaching from prior sources. “A transmitter and not a maker,” he describes himself in Book VII, Chapter I of that work, “believing in and loving the ancients.” Who, then, were the ancients whose teaching he transmitted?

The sage draws from a few sources; among the most prominent is the Book of Odes, which I’ve previously discussed, a collection of poems and folk songs that fits with the emphasis the Confucians place on literature and music. The Book of Changes and Spring and Autumn Annals, respectively covering divination and history, also come up often. Finally, there’s the Book of Historical Documents, another primarily historical work. Despite having the most generic title of any book besides Aristotle’s Topics, the Documents is invaluable because it collects imperial speeches, decrees, and charges to ministers, as well as counsels given by advisers to their sovereign, many of which do appear to be contemporaneous with the reigns they describe. Exactly how many are contemporaneous is uncertain, and the ancient editors themselves indicate that the first few were later compositions by beginning them with the formula “Inquiring into antiquity, we find that…” Traditionally, much as with the other classics previously mentioned, this editorial role has been attributed to Confucius himself, and though there’s little evidence for that besides this much later tradition, his endorsement of the collection has given it a prestigious place in Chinese scholarship ever since.

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Notes on Approaching the Confucian Canon

Let me begin with something of a disclaimer. Though I’ve read all but one of the Four Books and Five Classics, and even written about some of them, I don’t consider myself an expert on Confucianism by any means. So take this post with a grain of salt, and expect it to be revised in the future as I read and reflect on the subject more. I’m writing it simply because I am asked occasionally how to approach the Confucian canon, so I thought it would be helpful to have a single place to point these people to, where I lay out some basic advice based on my experience.

Much as with choosing a translation of the Analects, which I’ve addressed previously, the main questions are how deep you want to go, and how much guidance you’d like. What I’ll do here is lay out which books you should read in the order I’d recommend reading them, with a few comments on each covering their main topic, availability, a link to my reviews where available, and whatever else may be relevant. Keep in mind that the reading order is a bit loose; for the Four Books I’m drawing from Chu Hsi’s recommendations given on this page.

If you just want the bottom line, I’d say if you just read one book it should be the Analects. If you want one more add Mencius, then the Doctrine of the Mean and Great Learning together. Add An Introduction to Confucianism if you want the big picture, and The Everlasting Empire if you’re addicted to context. For the Five Classics, add the Odes if you’re interested in poetry, the Documents and Spring and Autumn Annals for history. Finally, add the Changes and Rites if you want to be a completionist.

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The Spring and Autumn Annals and the Gongyang Commentary

The Spring and Autumn Annals is one of Confucianism’s Five Classics, and like the Book of Documents is a work of history, in this case chronicling the history of the state of Lu, Confucius’ home state, from 722-481 B.C. However, whereas the Documents is, as the title indicates, a collection of speeches, decrees, and the like, the Annals is a chronology. It should take just one excerpt to give one an idea of the book, so from the very beginning, the first year of Duke Yin’s reign (722 B.C.):

It was the year one, in the spring, during the King’s first month.
During the third month, the Duke met up with Yifu of the state of Zhu Lou and made a pact with him at Mie.
In the summer, during the fifth month, the Earl of Zheng subdued Duan at Yan.
In the autumn, during the seventh month, the Heavenly King dispatched Zai Xuan to come bearing funerary offerings for Duke Hui’s wife, Zhongzi.
During the ninth month, a pact was made with men from the state of Song at Su.
In the winter, during the twelfth month, the Earl of Zhai arrived.
Prince Yishi died.

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A Confucian Notebook

At a glance, Edward Herbert’s short book A Confucian Notebook looks promising. I’d never heard of it until I ran across it in a used bookstore, but it’s intended to serve as an introduction to Confucianism through a series of thirty-three “notes,” each of them two, sometimes three pages long. Each offers a few brief observations or explanations on a given theme, varying from the Confucian use of prehistorical figures, Confucius’ favourite disciple, Mencius and Yang Chu, Mo Ti’s doctrine of universal love, etc. Unfortunately, it only partially succeeds.

First, I’ll give credit where it’s due. I do know a little more about Confucianism now than when I started, and someone new to the philosophy will find several helpful pieces of information that will make some aspects of the canon easier to understand. One of the most interesting notes, for example, was on Mo Ti. Mencius speaks of him and his doctrine of universal love scornfully, but doesn’t go into much detail. Herbert gives a summary of Mo Ti’s doctrine, and adds this observation:

But the principle [of universal love] is recommended, not so much on account of its goodness and naturalness, as on the ground that the exercise of it “pays.” The practitioner of filial piety, who extends this duty to include other people’s parents, is promised a dividend int he form of reciprocal attention by the latter to his own parents. It is further intimated that the social obligations generally, if universalized, will operate in this way, yielding a return to the community in benefits of greater safety, more creature comforts. “Master Mo,” who was a utilitarian at heart, seems not to have minded debasing his lofty ethic by linking it with the prospect of gain; nor to have realized that the effect of so doing was to encourage the self-love which he condemned. It escaped him, too, that it was incompatible with the high purposes of Universal Love to suggest imposing it by means of rewards and penalties.

That’s all good, but the book does have some shortcomings. One is that the book isn’t systematic, but tends to meander from topic to topic. That is implied by the title, of course, but it feels more like a series of short blog posts written for people who are already familiar with Confucianism. The preface sells this book as an introduction, but an introduction needs to be more systematic, like Xinzhong Yao’s. Also, much of the discussion on terms doesn’t provide any more information than is already found in the introductions or annotations to most editions of the AnalectsMencius, etc. So, even if you are new, why read this? Why not just read the introduction in the book you already have by Arthur Waley, James Legge, or whoever?

Worsening matters further, much of the book is strangely off-topic, since just over 1/3 of the notes spend most of their time discussing Taoism, usually (though not always!) in relation to Confucianism. Herbert, for what reason I don’t know, seems to assume that the reader is already familiar with Taoism and tries to use it to illuminate Confucianism. Some of that material is fine, and a note or two on the topic would be reasonable. Most of it, though, should’ve been cut and possibly used in a separate A Taoist Notebook.

So, is A Confucian Notebook bad? No, not really, but even at a mere eighty-four pages, it’s not worth the effort to track down and read. What Herbert set out to do has been accomplished much more successfully elsewhere, whether by Yao or even by many of the translators of the Confucian canon.…

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