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The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History, Second Edition
Richard W. Bulliet, Pamela Kyle Crossley, Daniel R. Headrick, Steven W. Hirsch, Lyman L. Johnson, David Northrup
Primary Sources

Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source

"The Analects"
(c. 500 B.C.E.)

Confucius was born in 551 B.C.E.  A philosopher of life and government, he hoped that his moral Way would essentially restore to Chinese society the values and practices of the age of the duke of Zhou, a twelfth-century B.C.E. leader whom Confucius deeply admired. For his efforts, posterity accorded him the elegant title Kong Fuzi (Kong the Philosopher), which Western scholars have Latinized into Confucius. He died in 479.

Confucius claimed to possess no special genius or knowledge. He simply saw himself as someone who revered the old ways and followed them zealously. As far as we know, nothing he wrote or edited survives. Early Confucian disciples, however, managed to preserve several sayings ascribed to Confucius and his immediate pupils. In time these were gathered into a book known as The Analects (Lun Yu). We do not know which of these maxims Confucius actually uttered, but collectively they provide us with the best available view of Kong Fuzi's teachings as remembered by those who knew and followed him.

There is no question that much of what Confucius taught was already part of Chinese culture. However, he took such traditional values as filial piety (respect for ones parents and ancestors) and propriety (regard for proper decorum) and turned them into moral principles. He insisted that human beings are moral creatures with social obligations. He also believed that humans, or at least men, are capable of perfecting themselves as upright individuals. His ideal moral agent was the superior man (zhunzi) who cultivated virtue through study and imitation of the moral Way of the past. As you study the following selections, note the role that propriety (li) plays in Confucius's system. For him propriety meant much more than good manners or proper etiquette. It was the primary interior quality that set the superior man apart from all other humans.

Questions to Consider
  • What did Confucius mean by the word "propriety?" How is this related to the idea of restraint?

  • According to Confucius, what is the relationship between private and public conduct? What is the relationship between good order in the family and good order in society?


Zi, you asked what filial piety was. The Master said, "The filial piety of nowadays means the support of one's parents. But dogs and horses likewise are able to do something in the way of support; -- without reverence, what is there to distinguish the one support given from the other?"

The Master said, "In serving his parents, a son may remonstrate with them, but gently; when he sees that they do not incline to follow his advice, he shows an increased degree of reverence, but does not abandon his purpose; and should they punish him, he does not allow himself to murmur."

Mang I asked what filial piety was. The Master said, "It is not being disobedient."

Soon after, as Fan Chih was driving him, the Master told him, saying, "Mang Sun asked me what filial piety was, and I answered him, 'not being disobedient.'"

Fan Chih said, "What did you mean?" The Master replied, "That parents, when alive, should be served according to propriety; that, when dead, they should be buried according to propriety; and that they should be sacrificed to according to propriety."


The Master said, "Respectfulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes laborious bustle; carefulness, without the rules of propriety, becomes timidity; boldness, without the rules of propriety, becomes insubordination; straightforwardness, without the rules of propriety, becomes rudeness."


The Master said, "When rulers love to observe the rules of propriety, the people respond readily to the calls on them for service."

The Master said, "If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. "If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good."

The Master said, "He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it."

The duke Ai asked, saying, "What should be done in order to secure the submission of the people?" Confucius replied, "Advance the upright and set aside the crooked, then the people will submit. Advance the crooked and set aside the upright, then the people will not submit."

Ji Kang asked how to cause the people to reverence their ruler, to be faithful to him, and to go on to nerve themselves to virtue. The Master said, "Let him preside over them with gravity; -- then they will reverence him. Let him be filial and kind to all; -- then they will be faithful to him. Let him advance the good and teach the incompetent; -- then they will eagerly seek to be virtuous."

Ji Kang asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, "To govern means to rectify. If you lead on the people with correctness, who will dare not to be correct?"

The Master said, "If a minister make his own conduct correct, what difficulty will he have in assisting in government? If he cannot rectify himself, what has he to do with rectifying others?"

The Master said, "If good men were to govern a country in succession for a hundred years, they would be able to transform the violently bad, and dispense with capital punishments. True indeed is this saying!"


Confucius said, "There are three things of which the superior man stands in awe. He stands in awe of the ordinances of Heaven. He stands in awe of great men. He stands in awe of the words of sages.

"The mean man does not know the ordinances of Heaven, and consequently does not stand in awe of them. He is disrespectful to great men. He makes sport of the words of sages."

Zi Gong asked what constituted the superior man. The Master said, "He acts before he speaks, and afterward speaks according to his actions."

The Master said, "The mind of the superior man is conversant with righteousness; the mind of the mean man is conversant with gain."

The Master said, "If the will be set on virtue, there will be no practice of wickedness."

The Master said, "Riches and honors are what men desire. If it cannot be obtained in the proper way, they should not be held. Poverty and meanness are what men dislike. If it cannot be obtained in the proper way, they should not be avoided.

If a superior man abandon virtue, how can he fulfill the requirements of that name?

The superior man does not, even for the space of a single meal, act contrary to virtue. In moments of haste, he cleaves to it. In seasons of danger, he cleaves to it."

The Master said, "By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart."

The Master said, "By extensively studying all learning, and keeping himself under the restraint of the rules of propriety, one may thus likewise not err from what is right."

The Master said, "The accomplished scholar is not a utensil."


The subjects on which the Master did not talk, were extraordinary things, feats of strength, disorder, and spiritual beings.

Ji Lu asked about serving the spirits of the dead. The Master said, "While you are not able to serve men, how can you serve their spirits?" Ji Lu added, "I venture to ask about death?" He was answered, "While you do not know life, how can you know about death?"

Source: Confucius, "The Analects," in Alfred Andrea and James Overfield, eds. The Human Record: Sources in Global History, Volume I, 3rd Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998): 96-99.