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What Confucius Said

The Analects of Confucius

translation and notes by Simon Leys
Norton, 224 pp., $23.00


The first Western-language version of Confucius’ sayings—later known as the Analects—was published in Paris in 1687, in Latin, under the title Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, with a brief dedication to King Louis XIV, thanking him for supporting the publication. One of the Jesuit editors of the book, Philippe Couplet, recently returned from China, had brought a young Chinese convert named Michael Shen back to Europe with him. Couplet took Shen to visit the Sun King at Versailles in 1684, and there is no doubt that this shrewd gesture increased the royal beneficence. King Louis was most intrigued by the Chinese visitor, invited the dauphin and dauphinesse to come and see him, and requested a chopstick demonstration (the food for which was served on golden plates).

The King also asked to see a sample of Shen’s Chinese calligraphy, and asked Shen to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Chinese. In return, the King ordered all the newly completed fountains in the Versailles gardens turned at full volume, so that the Chinese visitor could enjoy the display. When Shen embarked on a lengthy sequence of kowtows in gratitude—Chinese ritual etiquette called for nine full prostrations in the presence of the ruling monarch—Louis gently checked him in the middle, remarking that enough was enough. (Shen, it might be added parenthetically, was good at charming monarchs. On a follow-up visit to London in 1687, he was well received by King James II, who ordered Shen’s full-length portrait in Chinese robes painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller, and hung it near the royal bedchambers.)1

Though Confucius Sinarum Philosophus was signed with the name of Couplet and three other Jesuit translator-compilers, the publication was just the last stage of a long and complex process. The attempt to provide a reliable version of the basic Chinese classics in translation began a century earlier, when the Jesuit Matteo Ricci first entered China. Ricci saw that the education of the Chinese elite began with the so-called “Four Books,” of which the Analects was one, and he realized that without mastering these basic texts the Jesuit missionaries would never be taken seriously as intellectuals by the Chinese scholars they hoped to convert. Accordingly, Ricci began a draft Latin translation, which was subsequently reworked and studied by many of the missionaries in the Jesuit order who succeeded him, at least seventeen in all. They were a talented and varied group, whose ranks numbered French, Portuguese, Genoese, Sicilians, Belgians, and Austrians, and most of them knew Chinese fluently, as well as the Latin in which they had been educated.2

Unfortunately their pioneering work was embroiled in controversy from the beginning, because the translation of Confucius was part of a growing polemical battle. Some—including the translators and editors—favored a position that sought to interpret classical Chinese texts in a way that was not antithetical to Christian dogma; their opponents in the Church bitterly attacked such casuistry, and argued that the Jesuits were abandoning fundamental articles of their faith in a futile effort to reach an accommodation with Chinese superstitions.

It was probably the bitterness of this polemic that prevented the Analects from being at once translated from Latin into other European languages, and achieving wide circulation, as Ricci’s own account of China had done in the 1620s. What purported to be versions of the Analects and other Confucian books appeared in French (1688) as La Morale de Confucius, Philosophe de la Chine, and in English in 1691 with the resounding title: The Morals of Confucius, A Chinese Philosopher, who flourished above Five hundred Years before the Coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Being one of the Choicest Pieces of Learning Remaining of that Nation. But these two books were not in fact translations of Confucius at all. They were merely brief summaries of the Latin version, and though they gave a fairly full account of two of the texts that dealt with ritual and government, those known as “The Doctrine of the Mean” and the “Great Learning,” they gave only cursory treatment to the Analects. In these summaries the Analects were presented as a series of moral truisms, without clear direction or any sense of the personality of Confucius himself, and presented in the form of eighty brief and uninteresting “Maxims” that could have stimulated no one to seek to read further.3

The only way that those who did not see the full Latin version of 1687 could have known something of the subtlety and range of the Analects would have been if they were subscribers to the Biblioth̬que Universelle et Historique, the monthly periodical published in French in Amsterdam. The December 1687 issue of that journal carried a remarkable sixty-eight-page review of Confucius Sinarum Philosophus by the Protestant scholar Jean Le Clerc. Le Clerc gave a meticulous summary of the book’s contents, and near the end of his review included sixteen passages of the Analects that he translated from the Latin into French, taking care to include passages from each of the ten subdivisions into which the classic was then divided and meticulously documenting each passage to the Latin source.4 Though deeply impressed by the range of thought and the richness of biographical information on Confucius contained in the Analects, Le Clerc expressed his grave reservations over the way the Jesuit compilers had blurred the distinction between the Confucian text itself and the apparatus of later commentaries that were included in the same passages. Le Clerc also regretted the absence of the Chinese characters which would have aided in distinguishing the true text and its key terms from the commentaries.

Le Clerc’s analysis does not seem to have attracted any attention in England, and after one further edition of the distorted and truncated Morals of Confucius (in 1724) knowledge of Confucius’ own words lapsed into the kind of paraphrase or parody found in Oliver Goldsmith and Horace Walpole. In the early nineteenth century, Protestant missionaries returned to the task of translating the Analects and their works were picked up by Emerson and passed on by him to Thoreau. But from a scholarly standpoint, these early nineteenth-century versions were partial, marred by poor knowledge of Chinese, or else blurred by the religious intentions of their compilers. In one ingenious variant by the missionary scholar W.H. Medhurst completed in 1840, Old and New Testament passages were inserted between lines of the Analects to draw out appropriate moral and religious lessons.

Only in 1861 did the formidable Scottish missionary-scholar James Legge publish in Hong Kong what can be considered the archetype of all later translated scholarly editions of the Analects, a word-by-word translation, keyed to the accompanying Chinese text, with copious notes drawn from two millennia of Chinese commentaries, and voluminous indices. It was also Legge who coined the title “Analects,” which he believed would best express in succinct form the true nature of the book’s contents as “selected passages of discussion and commentary.”

The publication of this magnificent piece of scholarship was made possible by Joseph Jardine, a member of Britain’s most energetic and influential China trading firm, known for its dealings in opium as well as the more conventional trades in tea and silks. As Legge paraphrased the words of Jardine in his introduction, “We make our money in China, and we should be glad to assist in whatever promises to be of benefit to it.” From Legge’s time down to our own there has been a steady stream of reworked English translations, each striving in its own way to express the subtlety, complexity, and moral force of the original. It is as the latest contributor to this grand tradition of endeavor and exegesis that the accomplished Belgian-Australian Sinologist, novelist, and cultural critic Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans) has now staked his claim.

The reason why there have been so many attempts to translate the Analects—and why Simon Leys has been willing to expend great labors to add yet one more—is not only that it is a subtle and beautiful book in its own right, but also that despite the brevity of the Analects it is hard to arrive at a version that catches all the nuances and gives a perfect rendition. Like many things that enrich the texture of life, the Analects of Confucius are not at first easy to appreciate. The five hundred and twelve sections that make up the twenty chapters into which the book is now customarily divided by Chinese and Western scholars are mostly brief, containing no more than a sentence or two; in only a handful of cases do they exceed a medium-sized paragraph in English translation. There is no perceptible narrative line, no clear analytical progression or even sequence, and many of the sections do not contain Confucius’ own words, but those of his students, or comments by his contemporaries. Yet if read and reread, the fragments start to assume a kind of coherence, and the parts of the message that we come to understand make us all the more eager to understand the rest. We learn that in reading Confucius we are in the company of a thinker of wit, power, and charm, a man whose very evasions point to the heart of human truth.


Confucius lived between 551 and 479 BC, though the exact years of his birth and death are still occasionally debated. His birthplace was the north Chinese state of Lu, in present-day Shandong province, one of the many principalities into which China had subdivided as the Zhou dynasty began to fall apart, principalities whose constant feuding gave the period that followed the well-earned name of “the warring states.” Confucius seems to have been born to a not very well-off family, though he received a thorough education in written characters, which enabled him to study the histories, the music, and the rules of ritual deportment of the day, and to read such collections of epic and folk verse as were available, along with texts on divination. He seems to have known something about archery and charioteering, the main current modes of warfare for the elite, and perhaps also something about sailing and navigation, as one might expect in a coastal area of China.

For most of his adult life Confucius sought work in the government of his own principality of Lu, or in one of the neighboring states—there was much wandering in this period, and scholars frequently traveled widely as they sought to trade their literary and their historical and ritual expertise for a position in administration or diplomacy. Confucius was unsuccessful in obtaining high office, and came to accept the role of teacher in his native Lu, drawing around him a substantial number of students—from whom he requested only nominal payment—and to whom he taught his views on morality in personal, family, and social life. Though he himself did not compose a book of his teachings, his words were remembered or partially remembered by his students, and passed on to their own followers. By the first century BC the first collection of these sayings appeared, and by the beginning of the first century AD one of these collections attained the status of a canonical work.

  1. 1

    See the entertaining and detailed account by Theodore Foss, “The European Sojourn of Philippe Couplet and Michael Shen Fuzong, 1683-1692,” in Jerome Heyndrickx, editor, Philippe Couplet, S.J. (1623-1693), The Man who Brought China to Europe (Nettetal, 1990).

  2. 2

    See David E. Mungello, Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1985), especially Chapter 8.

  3. 3

    See the 1691 edition of The Morals of Confucius, p. 90, on the Analects as “a Contexture of several Sentences, pronounc’d at divers times, and at several places,” which merely “contains the same morality” as the two preceding books.

  4. 4

    The citations from the Analects are in pp. 441-450 of the lead review of the December 1687 issue—the review itself filling pp. 387-455.

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