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.

Over the ensuing centuries numerous Chinese scholars commented on and glossed his work, and placed Confucius on record as being the compiler or editor of five other major books that were believed to contain much of the accrued wisdom of early Chinese civilization. These five compendia came to be honored as the “Five Classics,” and were made the center of China’s educational system, and the main component of China’s complicated web of competitive examinations. Selections from one of these Classics, that on ritual, were combined in a separate volume with the text of the Analects and that of Confucius’ brilliant later follower Mencius, and were given the separate title of the “Four Books.”

Confucius rose in the pantheon of Chinese values to be themythic Teacher, and acquired quasi-religious status as the central figure in Confucian shrines in every official school. Flanked on the altars by tablets bearing the names of his most prominent disciples and followers, he became a subject of veneration, to whom obeisance and offerings were made by aspiring students and administrative officers alike. At the same time his teachings were re-interpreted in ways that lent support to the ideology of loyalty, discipline, and hierarchy imposed on the Chinese people by centralized authoritarian states. Despite the abolition of the Confucian examinations within China itself in 1905, it is this mix of Confucian discipline, education, and authoritarianism that is invoked by many current states in Asia, and believed by some to be a main component in their domestic order and economic prosperity.

Because of the central role of the Analects in Chinese culture over more than two millennia, Western missionaries and scholars have frequently tried to translate the work. The brevity of many of the sections in the Analects, when combined with the concision of classical Chinese, have made this a formidable task. Multiple variants are possible, according to what approach the translators take, and what past commentaries or current amanuenses they use as their guides.


Simon Leys is the latest contender in the lists, and he is a subtle and elegant one.5 He clearly loves the task, and is drawn to Confucius as both man and thinker. His main advantage as a foreigner approaching this heart of the Chinese tradition, so he tells us in his introduction, is that he is not forced to see the Analects as a classical text, but can enjoy it as a modern work. It is this sense of delight that he hopes to share with the general reader. It is just because Leys is an outsider—albeit one who has devoted his life to the study of Chinese art and culture—he tells us, that he feels the “possibility to look with a kind of unbiased innocence at this book—as if it were all fresh and new.”

For Leys, Confucius often seems to be “directly addressing the very problems of our age and of our society.” Fragmented though the Analects may be, “the strong and complex individuality of the Master is the very backbone of the book, and defines its unity.” Confucius was also, to Leys, “a tragic figure,” who “was witnessing the collapse of civilization—he saw his world sinking into violence and barbarity.” Against this barbarism, Confucius could only in the end offer the force of his intellect, his personal integrity, and the strength of his censure.

How did Confucius teach? The Analects suggest that he taught mainly by focusing on moral questions, which he put to his students in the context of either historical anecdote, personal experience, or broader situational terms. No moral precision was conceivable, Confucius believed, without absolute concentration on language. As Leys renders the passage in which Confucius puts that idea to one of his brightest but most impetuous students, named Zilu,

If the names are not correct, language is without an object. When language is without an object, no affair can be effected. When no affair can be effected, rites and music wither. When rites and music wither, punishments and penalties miss their target. When punishments and penalties miss their target, the people do not know where they stand. Therefore, whatever a gentleman conceives of, he must be able to say; and whatever he says, he must be able to do. In the matter of language, a gentleman leaves nothing to chance.

In the very next section, Confucius adds a paragraph that shows how determined he was to separate himself out clearly from other mortals who merely know a specific skill, trade, or craft—and by implication are limited in their intellectual perceptions:

Fan Chi asked Confucius to teach him agronomy. The Master said: “Better ask an old farmer.” Fan Chi asked to be taught gardening. The Master said: “Better ask an old gardener.”

Fan Chi left. The Master said: “What a vulgar man! If their betters cultivate the rites, the people will not dare to be disrespectful. If their betters cultivate justice, the people will not dare to be disobedient. If their betters cultivate good faith, the people will not dare to be mendacious. To such a country, people would flock from everywhere with their babies strapped to their backs. What is the use of agronomy?”

Though wavering much of the time in his faith that all humans would pursue the right way—one of the few sentences that appears twice in the same words in different chapters of the Analects is Confucius’ pithy remark that he had “never seen a man who loved virtue as much as sex”—Confucius never lost his faith in the transforming and sustaining power of education. Indeed Confucius, as Leys emphasizes, “established an enduring and decisive link between education and political power”; though, as Leys also remarks, for those trying to draw solace from such an idea today, we cannot guarantee that the Analects would “actually yield a secret formula that would make it possible elsewhere to inject energy into flagging economies, and to mobilize and motivate a slovenly citizenry.”

To refute the current authoritarian regimes that use a version of what is alleged to be Confucianism to maintain obedience, hierarchy, law, and order, one has only to read some of the key sayings of Confucius in which he stood for something far closer to personal liberty than to unswerving obedience to the state, as in Analects 9/26. As Leys renders this passage, “One may rob an army of its commander-in-chief; one cannot deprive the humblest man of his free will.” A similar thought appears in Analects 12/7: “Without the trust of the people, no government can stand.” And even more pertinent to the idea of family solidarity in the face of state power is Analects 13/18. Here, when an administrator praises a son who has denounced his father to the authorities for stealing a sheep, Confucius responds with these sharp words: “Among my people, men of integrity do things differently: a father covers up for his son, a son covers up for his father—and there is integrity in what they do.”

In these passages we see that Leys’s translations are clear and elegant, and the same is true for his entire rendition of the Analects. But the elegance and clarity also reflect his point of view, his attempt to make the Analects not just timeless, but timely for ourselves in our current predicaments. It is here that the fascinating exercise of evaluating the political and emotional weight of words must be undertaken. In his version of the above passage of Analects 9/26, for instance, Leys talks of the humblest man’s “free will” as being inalienable. The word he translates as “free will” is, in Chinese, the commonly used word zhi. Legge in 1861 translated zhi simply as “will,” and rendered the clause “the will of even a common man cannot be taken from him.” The brilliant Arthur Waley, one of England’s greatest translators from both Chinese and Japanese, in his 1938 version of the Analects preferred to see zhi as “opinion,” which yielded the sentence “you cannot deprive the humblest peasant of his opinion.” D.C. Lau in 1979 decided to translate zhi as “purpose,” which gave him this rendering: “Even a common man cannot be deprived of his purpose.” Raymond Dawson, in 1993, chose to translate it as “an ordinary person cannot be robbed of his purpose.”

The phrase from the passage of the Analects 13/18 on the sheep-stealing father, also cited above, which Leys renders as “men of integrity,” has a parallel range of renderings. Legge chooses to translate the Chinese characters as “those who are upright,” in which Waley follows him. Lau prefers “those who are straight.” Dawson follows Legge and Waley. Leys’s word “integrity” is stronger than these others, and pushes the reader—gently, one admits—in the direction Leys would like him to go. Another nice example is from a rather baffling passage, Analects 12/10, which Leys renders as “Zizhang asked how to accumulate moral power and how to recognize emotional incoherence.” In this case, “emotional incoherence” makes excellent sense of the passage, but pushes the Chinese original more sharply than Legge’s “delusions,” Waley’s “being in two minds,” Lau’s “misguided judgement,” or Dawson’s “confusions.”

The 1687 reviewer of the Confucius Sinarum Philosophus shrewdly noted that the texts of Confucius’ own dialogues, and his responses to his students and friends, yielded a great deal of biographical information that could be used to supplement the rather meager account of Confucius’ life that could be found in the learned Jesuits’ own introduction to the study. Scholars during the last century have taken that injunction to heart, and have sifted the Analects thoroughly for clues to Confucius’ real nature and character. The most important of these is certainly contained in the brief few lines that comprise Analects 7/19, in which Confucius learns that one of his disciples has declined to respond to a question asking what kind of a person Confucius really is. Confucius’ reply, as Legge renders it, is as follows:

Why did you not say to him,—He is simply a man, who in his eager pursuit (of knowledge) forgets his food, who in the joy of its attainment forgets his sorrows, and who does not perceive that old age is coming on?

In this rendering, Legge’s uneasiness over the exact meaning is shown by the parenthesis and by the three italicized words, which he added to the words clearly in the Chinese. Waley shifts the passage away from Confucius as pursuer of knowledge to Confucius as purveyor of knowledge:

Why did you not say “This is the character of the man: so intent upon enlightening the eager that he forgets his hunger, and so happy in doing so, that he forgets the bitterness of his lot and does not realize that old age is at hand. That is what he is.”

Lau, without italics or parentheses, supplies some of the gaps that worried Legge and that Waley avoided, but the result is wordy and not very elegant:

Why did you not simply say something to this effect: he is the sort of man who forgets to eat when he tries to solve a problem that has been driving him to distraction, who is so full of joy that he forgets his worries and who does not notice the onset of old age?

To Dawson, Confucius’ response was,

Why did you not just say that he is the sort of person who gets so worked up that he forgets to eat, is so happy that he forgets anxieties, and is not aware that old age will come?

In contrast to all these, Leys’s version may well be the best stylistically, and it is still faithful to the sense of the original: “Why did you not say ‘He is the sort of man who, in his enthusiasm, forgets to eat, in his joy forgets to worry, and who ignores the approach of old age’?”

Every scholar attempting a translation of the Analects has a formidable challenge in the amount of annotations to include. Within the Chinese scholarly tradition itself, volumes have been written over every chapter, and sometimes over a few phrases. Legge, backed with Jardine’s money, gave the Chinese version on every page, along with elaborate footnotes (many also in Chinese) summarizing the key commentaries and variants. Few publishers now present the book in this way, especially since plenty of cheap Chinese versions are available, and most recent editions have kept notes to the elucidation of a few baffling terms and names.

Leys has reduced this process even further, by taking the wise decision to standardize the names of each disciple or interlocutor of Confucius, even when the original Confucian text had variant forms—this simple procedure gives the reader a much better sense for the more important of Confucius’ disciples, and lets us see their minds at work, and watch Confucius’ responses to them. Leys also has no notation numbers inserted in the text at all. Their absence lets the reader fairly skate along, and Leys admits, cheerfully, that he occasionally adds a word or a phrase here or there to keep the whole process pain-free. On the other hand, there are notes at the end of the book, lots of them, for the reader who wants to pursue them. What is novel in this edition, perhaps unique in the history of Analects’ translations, is the fact that Leys has made of his copious endnotes a kind of triple-layered commentary, one on the variants and glosses on the text itself, one on the history of our times, and one on the state of Leys’s own psyche. The result is a somewhat curious but fascinating amalgam of reading notes, cultural analysis, and the outline of a spiritual autobiography.

Take, for example, the notes on the section of Analects 13/4, cited above, in which Confucius says he is not about to instruct Fan Chi in agronomy—for that, Fan should go and consult any old peasant. After a brief summation of the passage in the notes, Leys sets off on his own:

As common sense clearly indicates, this passage merely underlines Fan Chi’s fatuousness, but modern critics have found in it damning evidence that Confucianism stifled the development of science and technology in China.

An examination of the cultural factors that may have inhibited scientific inquiry in China is obviously beyond the scope of this note. Let us merely point out here that the fashionable anti-Confucian prejudice evoked above is predicated upon what could be called “the Snow Fallacy”—i.e., a belief in the existence of “Two Cultures” which, competing for our minds and attention, are being separated by a widening gap across which bridges ought urgently to be built. C.P. Snow (whose mind was no less vulgar than Fan Chi’s) assumed, in his notorious Rede Lecture of 1961, an equivalence between cultural experience and scientific information—as if any meaningful equation could be drawn between, on the one hand, the understanding of Shakespeare, and, on the other, the awareness of the second law of thermodynamics. To advocate linking the development of human consciousness to the storage of technical knowledge seems as pertinent as to prescribe hearing aids for the soul, or reading glasses for the mind.

The anger Leys here expresses at Snow’s vulgarity of mind—so unConfucian, we have been primed to murmur—is echoed by a number of other passages in the notes. “The universal aim of Confucian humanism should have particular relevance for us today,” we are told at another point, “as our modern universities seem increasingly concerned with the mere training of ‘specialized brutes.”‘ In the note to a passage on neglect of the rules on ritual dancers, we are told “Confucius had a tragic awareness that he was witnessing the disintegration of civilization—and for us today, it is this very awareness that, at times, gives such a modern ring to his anguish.”

Leys himself, commenting on other scholars’ over-personal renderings, and finding Arthur Waley’s version “sometimes too clever by half,” remarks that “the final word should belong to philology and not to philosophy.” That counsel of perfection is not always easy to follow, though some cases are easier than others. When Confucius, in the Analects, comments that a poem from China’s ancient anthology the Book of Songs is “gay without lasciviousness,” Leys comments that he here restores the word “gay” to “the rightful meaning it always enjoyed in English before it was paradoxically hijacked by a rather grim lobby.”

Perhaps the most idiosyncratic of all Leys’s notes is the two-and-a-half-page note on stereotypes of China’s weakly informed scholars and inept navigators that accompanies the mysterious passage in Analects 5/7, which Leys renders: “The Master said: ‘The Way does not prevail. I shall take a raft and put out to sea…. Still, where would we get the timber for our craft?”‘ Not only is “timber for our craft” an unusual reading, followed by none of the other major translators, but Leys also quotes at length in his notes from Joseph Needham’s great study of Chinese technology so as to reinforce his interpretation of a more muscular Confucianism than we are used to, in which “the picture of the sage’s tall lug-sail breasting the waves of a stormy sea to bring the message of rational social order to men…has a real sublimity.”

These are just a few of the personal comments by which Leys in the notes seeks to persuade us to see Confucius as lively, strong, alert, and bold. His other device—not that prefigured here in the use of Needham, who is a China scholar commenting on China’s past—is to use writers Leys greatly admires to emphasize the same points of cultural richness and intellectual range. Without quoting from them here, one could just mention that Leys has ingenious parallels to find to Confucius in a pantheon of writers who testify undeniably to his own vigorous reading even if we may not always buy the parallels. Among the stars assembled in the notes to reinforce Leys’s message of Confucius’ richness one can find Pascal and Evelyn Waugh, Borges and Stendhal, E.M. Forster, A.E. Housman, Bernard Knox and Samuel Johnson, Nietzsche, Marcus Aurelius, Simone Weil, Paul Veyne, Thomas More, G.K. Chesterton and La Bruy̬re, Kant, Canetti, Yeats, Raymond Carver, C.S. Lewis, Cardinal Newman, and Heraclitus. Never, I think we can safely say, has Confucius kept such eclectic and illuminating company. One likes to think that the sage would have been both puzzled and amused.

This Issue

April 10, 1997