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…

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