Intensive Reading of 《Lún Yǔ》

You certainly know what Lún Yǔ(论语)is. That’s what you are here for. This course is intended to those who wish to know in great detail about this great work. So much the better if you have a fundamental grasp of the Chinese language. But, if you haven’t, it does not really matter. You would get a firm and basic understanding of the work. I wish now to seek out a few to tell us what they know about Lún Yǔ.

There are at lease three versions of translation of the title: namely—Analects of Confucius, Discourses of Confucius and Sayings of Confucius. I personally think any one of them is good. But, what does the original mean?

Both Dong Zhongshu (董仲舒179-104BC, a thinker and statesman of Han who proposed to regard Confucianism as the only doctrine while discarding a hundred others) and Sima Qian (司马迁145-87BC,historian) quoted from Lún Yǔ,yet they didn’t mention the title.

Based on the bamboo slips of the State of Chu, Lún Yǔmight have been compiled by the disciples of Confucius or the students of these disciples in the middle period of the Warring States. Lún means discussion or exposition; “Yǔ” does not only mean a language, but rather a type of writing of the time onto the bamboo slips after being passed down verbally. We can now see the above translations of the title fail to convey what it means in the original. Yet, we could not find anything identical to it in English.



A few words about the Warring States Period: there were seven powers, namely:

The State of Qi, Capital, Linzi, today’s Zibo of Shandong

The State of Chu, Capital:Yanying, today’s Jiangling of Hubei

The State of Yan, Capital: Ji, today’s Beijing

The State of Han, Capital: Xinzheng, today’s Xinzheng of Henan

The State of Wei, Capital: Daliang, today’s Kaifeng of Henan

The State of Zhao, Capital: Handan, today’s Handan of Hebei

The State of Qin, Xianyang, today’s Xianyang of Shaanxi.

This period started from 475 BC and ended in 221 BC when Qinshihuang wiped out the other six states and unified the entire country.

We should now discuss a little bit about Confucius himself. Who can tell us something about this philosopher?

说明: 孔子

说明: 孔子                    



First of all, Confucius in Chinese is: 孔夫子, in Pinyin is Kǒng Fūzī. So we can see Confucius is a transliteration of Kǒng Fūzī.

说明: 孔子But, Confucius’ name is Kǒng Qiū (孔丘), his formal name is Zhòngnī (仲尼) fūzī” in Chinese means “tutor”, so Kǒng Fūzī is really “Tutor Kǒng”. He was born on September 28, 551 BC in Qufu city of Shandong, where the State of Lǔ was. The State of Lǔ was the fiefdom of Duke Zhou, who assisted King Cheng of Zhou so well that got as much ritual wares, musical instruments and other relics as the capital area. The culture of Zhou influenced the young Confucius. The ancestor of Confucius was a nobility of the State of Song. Kong of the sixth generation—Kǒng Fùjiā孔父嘉was killed in a power struggle, his son—Mùjīn—木金had to flee to the State of Lǔ. During the time of Confucius’ father—Shūliáng—叔梁,the status of the family downgraded a great deal. His father was an ordinary warrior, who, however, was given, because of his meritorious deeds in war, a title of “Dà Fū”—a social stratum below ministers, yet above the literati. Kǒng Shūliáng’s two wives gave birth to nine daughters and one son with a lame foot. Hoping to get an ideal successor, when he was sixty years old, he married his third wife—Yán Zhēngzài, who was not yet 20. The couple prayed on Mount Nīqiū. It so happened that Confucius was born in a cave near that mountain. That’s why his name was Qiū—in Chinese it means a hill. Some people say that he was so named because his head, which hollows a little bit in the center and the edge, was higher like a hill.

Kǒng Shūliáng passed away when Confucius was only three years old. Under the guidance of his mother, he began to learn how to read and write. The games he played were how to set up and conduct a ritual ceremony. As he was growing up, his knowledge of the Zhou Dynasty culture deepened. He said he became determined to study at the age of fifteen (“On Politics”, “Analects of Confucius”). Unfortunately, he lost his mother when he was only sixteen. He had to make a living all by himself. He was a Shepard, a warehouse keeper, and even a petty official for sometime. No matter what jobs he did, he never forgot to learn. He said there ought to be a teacher in a group of three. When he got into the ancestral temple, he asked about everything he didn’t know (“Eight Dancing Rows” in “Analects of Confucius”). Confucius had a particular interest in music. He was once in the State of Qi, while there, he listened to the “Shao” music played by a master, and became so captivated that for three consecutive months he didn’t notice the taste of meat he ate (“On Transmitting”, “Analects of Confucius”). He learned how to play Qín () from a master musician of the State of Lǔ—Shī Xiāng (师襄). Once when he had practiced a piece for over 10 days, the master asked him to learn a new piece. Confucius said he would still go on practicing it because he had not fully comprehended the music. He told the master that the piece must be composed by King Wen of Zhou when he felt he had a firm grasp of the essence of the music. The master was taken aback and remarked, “You’re right, my tutor told me this piece is called ‘Exercise of King Wen’.”

When Confucius was traveling from state to state, Duke Ye of the State of Chu asked Zǐ Lù (子路), a disciple of Confucius what kind of a person Kǒng Qiū was. Zǐ Lù didn’t know how to answer. Confucius told him later that he should have told the duke thus:” He is never bored of learning, never tired of instructing others. He was so determined to learning that he often forgot taking his meals and his pleasure in learning drove away all his worries. He never realized that old age was approaching.”

Confucius said “he established himself at the age of thirty.” This is very true. When he was thirty, he had a firm grasp of rites, music, archery, driving of carts, language and mathematics. He could work and live independently by himself. At this time, some people came to him for studies, for he now became famous for his broad knowledge. Seeing that the ritual system was being undermined and the use of music being damaged, in order to bring up virtuous people who would be good at running state affairs, Confucius set up a kind of private school, accepted students and began to teach. He tried to stimulate his students and his instructions were given in the course of discussions, and his thinking took shape and was developed during his teaching.

Confucius was appointed a magistrate of a county when he was fifty-one. Later, he was Minister of Security for three years. He was acting Prime Minister of the State of Lǔ very briefly. However, he was strongly opposed to by some high ranking officials who tried hard to look after their personal gains and made things difficult for Confucius. Thus, at the age of fifty-five, he had to leave the State of Lǔ and began his fourteen years of traveling to other states. During the traveling, aside from advocating his political views to the states he went to, he gained tremendously in his studies and teaching, and his students who went with him also learned a great deal from him. When he finally returned to his own country, he was already sixty-eight, yet his political attitude was unchanged. He did not try to seek official positions again after his return. He devoted all his energy to teaching and sorting of classic works. It is said that all together he taught 3,000 students, and seventy-two of them were most outstanding.

The following books were edited and sorted by Confucius personally: “The Book of Documents”, “The Book of Rites”, “The Book of Songs”, “The Book of Music”, “The Book of Changes” and “Spring and Autumn” (《书》、《礼》、《诗》、《乐》、《易》、《春秋》). All of them are classics of Confucianism.  The Book of Documents” consisted of documents of the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties. What we see them now are categorized and compiled by Confucius. He lectured on “The Rites of the Zhou Dynasty”, “The Records of Rites”, and he edited “Etiquette”, a book that dealt with personal manners. “The Book of Songs” contains verses of songs. Much to our regret, “The Book of Music” has got lost, but Confucius did polished it, as he said so in the “Zǐ Hán” part of “Analects of Confucius”. Even though “The Book of Change” talks about divination, it contains much political and philosophical wisdom. Confucius read it for so many times that the leather string that bounded the bamboo strips broke several times. “Spring and Autumn” was the first chronicle historic book of China that recorded the history of the State of Lǔ. Confucius took the writing of it very personal; he castigated those kings who intended to become emperors. Mencious said, “All treacherous officials and traitors are afraid of the completion of ‘Spring and Autumn’ by Confucius.” Yet, after a kylin, a strange but nice animal was captured, Confucius thought the animal made its appearance at a wrong time, its appearance suggested that his ideal would not be realized. He then lamented,” Such is the end of my way!” He stopped his work with “Spring and Autumn”.

Confucius got old. One year before his return to Lǔ, his wife dead. In three to four years after his return, his son, his favorite students Yán Yuān and Zǐ Lù all passed away one after another. He became sick and said to his disciple Zǐ Gòng who came to see him, “Mount Tai is getting worse, the pillar is rotten and the philosopher is being reduced to nothing!” Seven days after he said so, he passed away. He was buried by the side of the Sishui River. Many of his students stayed by and looked after his tomb for three years. Zǐ Gòng did that for six years. For generations, the State of Lǔ offered sacrifice to Confucius every year. Confucian scholars exercised ritual ceremonies by his tomb for many years until the Han Dynasty.

From a common folk, Confucius became a great thinker, scholar and educator. He cherished lofty values. He was straight forward and easy to get along with. All his students admired him from the bottom of their hearts and were sincerely convinced of his thoughts.

Zǐ Gòng said, “Confucius is not to be denigrated. Other sages are hills that can be surmounted, yet Confucius is the sun and moon, that are impossible for anyone to surmount.” “Analects of Confucius” recorded sayings and deeds of the master and his students. It has been regarded as a classic of Confucianism, read by almost every literate in China before 1919 when “down with the Confucian Shop” was shouted. Having withstood the drastic castigation in the Cultural Revolution, his basic ideas are still alive today.

We shall discuss what we should learn from this classic after we go through in some detail of each of the twenty parts.