The Analects, containing the sayings of the philosopher Confucius and his followers, is one of the most influential texts in Chinese philosophy. Until 1905 mastery of the Analects was required for the imperial civil service examination.

The sayings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE) and his disciples are recorded in the Analects, a text that influenced government service and education in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan for more than two thousand years.

The Analects (Chinese Lunyu) is one of the most influential texts in Chinese philosophy. The disciples of Confucius and their followers compiled it, although historians debate exactly when, as shown by the following opinions of Confucian scholars. D. C. Lau maintains the traditional view that the first fifteen books were written shortly after Confucius’s death and that the remaining five books were written by the second generation of disciples. John Makeham argues that the changing textual material did not settle into its present form until 150 BCE, while A. Taeko Brooks and E. Bruce Brooks suggest that books 4 through 11 are the oldest, that books 9 through 11 were written by second-generation disciples, and what remains was written at different times. By 55 BCE the Analects was basically in its present form, the fragments excavated at Dingzhou indicate.

The Analects is the first of the so-called Four Books, the Confucian texts whose mastery was required for imperial civil service examinations until they were abolished in1905. The Four Books are the Analects, the Mencius, the Great Learning, and Centrality and Commonality, which is often mistranslated as the Golden Mean.

The Analects is made up of brief statements attributed mostly to Confucius; some are attributed to his disciples or to rulers. Modern readers generally are struck by the brevity of the statements and by the apparent lack of sustained prose or argument, which may well have been Confucius’s method of teaching. He expected his students to be eager to learn: He gave them only one corner of the square, and if they did not return with the other three corners, he would not review their lesson (Analects 7:8).

The general goal of the text is to guide the reader in self-cultivation so that the reader can become a moral example for others. For example, a reader might find the proper way to live and behave by practicing various virtues (de), thereby becoming a humane person (ren zhe) or a prince of virtue (junzi, usually translated as “gentleman”). In the Analects humanity or benevolence (ren) is the most important virtue; it is mentioned more than one hundred times. Ren is an achievement concept: A person is not born humane but rather must learn to become humane. Ren means to love others (Analects 12:22). The best way to express human kindness is the practice of ritual action (li). Ritual action is not restricted to state and religious functions but rather covers the spectrum of human behavior. Pragmatically speaking, children first must learn filial piety (xiao) and brotherly love (di) at home; then, as they grow up, they can extend their family love to others in the form of ren.

Confucius stressed literacy, study, and learning to develop moral wisdom. Rote memorization is not sufficient; one also must be thoughtful. He also expected his disciples to be loyal and to do what was proper, especially in government service. When the disciple Zigong asked if there is a single word that a person can use as guidance, Confucius replied that perhaps it would be empathy (shu): to “never do to another what you do not desire” (Analects 15:24, 12:2).

Further Reading

Ames, R. T., & Rosemont, H., Jr. (Trans.). (1998). The Analects of Confucius: A philosophical translation. New York: Ballantine Books.

Brooks, E. B., & Brooks, A. T. (1998). The original Analects. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chan Wing-tsit. (1963). A source book in Chinese philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dawson, R. (Trans.). (1993). Confucius: The Analects. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Graham, A. C. (1989). Disputers of the Tao. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Hsiao Kung-chuan. (1979). A history of Chinese political thought (F. Mote, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jensen, L. M. (1997). Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese traditions and universal civilization. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.

Lau, D. C. (Trans.). (1979). The Analects (Lun Yü). London: Penguin Books.

Leys, S. (Trans.). (1997). The Analects of Confucius. New York: Norton.

Makeham, J. (1996). The formation of Lunyu as a book. Monumenta Serica, 44, 1–24.

Munro, D. J. (1969). Concept of man in early China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Is it not a great joy to have friends coming from afar?


Yǒu péng zì yuǎn fāng lái, bú yì lè hū?

Source: Sellmann, James D. (2009). Analects. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 53–54. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Analects (Lúnyǔ 论语)|Lúnyǔ 论语 (Analects)

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