Teaching Confucius

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:26 pm

Tomorrow I get to teach Confucius to my Rice Paddies class. This used to be a fairly easy thing to do, until the unspeakably annoying E. Bruce and A. Taeko Brooks published The Original Analects It is a very good book, but unfortunately it is based on the (correct) view that Analects as we have it is not the words of Confucius, a man who died in 479 BC, but rather the ideas of a school of thought that were written down over a long period of time and attributed to a semi-mythical founder.

This is to some extent not news. It has long been accepted that at least some bits of Analects are much later than Confucius, and that some classical texts were created through accretion over a period of time (Guanzi, the outer chapters of Zhuangzi, etc.) Applying this model to the Analects is of course going to ruffle feathers, but there is nothing revolutionary about the idea itself. It does present problems, however, for those who want to teach the period. While we are in the process of deconstructing and reconstructing Confucius what do you do in class? There are two poles to this debate. One is the E. Bruce Brooks position, which seems to be that until you have the philology 100% down you don’t say anything Another pole is the Charles Hayford position. Long ago, after reading Luke Kwong’s Mosaic of the Hundred Days in a graduate seminar I asked him how the book would change his teaching of 1898. He said in effect that at least for this semester he would not change anything, since he was not sure what to make of things.

I tend towards the later pole. Part of teaching is presenting (in various ways) a somewhat coherent narrative, and if you really wanted to you could immobilize yourself as a teacher by pointing out all the problems with your views and the general fraudulence of your existence. On some topics and in some types of classes that is what you should do, but then in other circumstances you have to come up with something.((Frankly if some students come away with anything that is fine. If some of them leave my class thinking that the Dong Zhongshu or Zhuxi version of Confucius is the timeless truth of the Sage, well, that is something. I can use a pretty broad brush when I want to.)) Just ignoring recent work is a fine solution for a while, but it becomes increasingly embarrassing. When you buy a new house you can blame awful interior decorating decisions on the previous owners for a couple of years, but after a while you need to make some changes or admit this is the best you can do.

In the case of Confucius the accretion theory actually helps. You need to get into Confucius somehow, and one of the few lines that Brooks and Brooks identify as being from Hillock himself is Analects 4.1

The Master said. It is best to dwell in ren. If he choose not to abide in ren how will he get to be known? 子曰:「里仁為美。擇不處仁,焉得知?」


Others translate this differently, but I like the Brooks translation best one because it seems to be a better reading of the text (quaint, I know) but also because it works well to tie Confucius to the earlier, supposedly simpler age of the Western Zhou that he was trying to revive. Here the early, ‘real’ Confucius finds the meaning of ren1 unproblematic. You either abide in it or you don’t, all the later Mozi stuff on proving things to be true is later, as is all the Mencius and Xunzi stuff on human nature (where you start from). He also has a pretty straightforward idea -why- you should do this. If you behave well this will be noted by those around you and be rewarded. Heaven and man have not yet parted ways, and virtue will be rewarded. This will very much not be the position of the later Confucius, who will go on at some length about how you should be ren even if (as you should expect) people hate you for it. 4.1 is Confucius at the opening of the age of philosophers.

I’m hoping this will make a good intro. We have a nice little quote (Confucius works well for putting quotes on the wall and reading them together) and our first untranslated term in a context that encourages us to dive into what ren is. That will lead us into ideas about self-cultivation and what sort of person Confucius thinks you should make yourself into. Questions about your life’s course and what sort of person you should become are interesting to a certain type of 19 year old. Then, finally, some politics, which should be the most alien part of it for them, but might make more sense if it is grounded first in personal behavior, which is, as Brooks points out, more or less the way the school developed, only coming to be concerned with state policy and cosmology and such much later. In the long run the accretion approach may make teaching easier.

Further updates if events warrant. If nothing else I can bring up the first part of 5.10

Zai Yu slept in the daytime. The Master said: Rotten wood cannot be carved; a wall of dung cannot be decorated. What is there in Yu for me to reprove.? 宰予晝寢。子曰:「朽木不可雕也,糞土之牆,不可杇也;於予與何誅!」


  1. humaneness is a common translation []

10 responses to “Teaching Confucius”

  1. C. W. Hayford says:

    Sam Crane’s response at Useless Tree is itself a nice response to a nice post. I commented on it there:

    “Yogi Berra is said to have said ‘half the things I said I never said.’ Although I have no memory of it, what Alan attributes to me is sensible and probably true. As it happens, last night I did a class session on Confucius myself. After explaining that, as you [Sam] put it so well, that no one Confucius is ‘transcendentally authentic,’ my conclusion is there are ‘two, three, many Confucii.’ Do you suppose that this is the ‘authentic’ plural of Confucius?”

    It’s important to be historiographically aware, but more important to present a story which is intelligible to students. Francis Bacon said “truth emerges more easily from error that from confusion.” (quoted in Thos. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions). So between error and confusion, I figure hitting .500 is pretty good.

  2. […] 24, 2008 by Chris Over at The Useless Tree and at Frog in a Well there’s a discussion about how to approach the teaching of Confucius. Since I’m teaching […]

  3. Chris says:

    Great question! Caught it at Sam’s place. I put up a response of my own at mine.


  4. Alan Baumler says:

    I think I agree with everybody (Sam, Charles and Chris) that the hard core “say nothing” position does not work for teaching. (In Brooks’ defense he was not talking about teaching, but about publishing, which I think is a different thing.) On the other hand I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with outright ignoring the nature of the text. In some contexts that works fine. If you are teaching a history course on Late Imperial China and want to do some “Confucianism” the Zhu Xi version may be your best bet. Likewise in a philosophy class you might well point out that Han thinkers obscured a lot of the complexity of the Warring States and then plow on like it does not matter.

    On the other hand, if you want to teach the pre-Han period, either in a history class or somewhere else, I think that you have to get into the composition of the texts. In part this is because as a historian it bothers me to see textbooks that treat the period like Confucius, Xunzi and Laozi were all sitting around a table having a debate, but even more because I think looking at the texts as accretions helps students to enter them.

    Analects, at least for me is a hard text to make much of with students. It’s not like Laozi, a text with a clear unitary meaning that is instantly apparent once you understand it.(Well, for some of us anyway :-)) Looking at Analects the way Brooks does, (simplifying a lot) as a text that starts in its earliest layers with a concern with personal behavior, grows more concerned with state affairs and then consoles those out of office gives it a bit of structure that I think helps. I actually used Brooks’ translation in the Early China class, and it served as sort of a history of the Warring States period. It was not disastrous. (Well, not totally disastrous. I think it would have worked better with the group I had in that class the year before.) I think you –have- to get into these issues in a fine-grained enough context and –should not- in a broad-brush context. Rice Paddies, I think, is in the process of crossing the line.

  5. Sam says:

    Agreed. Different classes require different sorts of engagement with such texts…

  6. Chuck says:

    Coming late to the conversation — I am not an expert (far from!) on early China. I have been trying to incorporate some of the Brooks’ points about the history of the text into my lectures. But particularly in Chinese Civilization/ Yao to Mao type surveys, I just have a hard time imagining using this translation. At the point of the course when we get to Confucius, students are still struggling with any form of romanization (and the Wade-Giles issue remains a problem). I also find the comparisons to other thinkers more confusing than helpful (especially for students). For example, on page 13 of The Original Analects “Rvn is not niceness, though it evolves in that direction. It confers a capacity to judge others (William James saw this as the end of education; Kallen James 287).” Or see p. 87 comparisons to England.

    I’m wondering how those who use the work deal with these kinds of issues in teaching.

  7. Alan Baumler says:

    I would certainly not use Brooks translation in a Yao to Mao class. In fact the only books I tend to use in the early part of that class are Songs or Zhuangzi. Pretty much any translation of Analects is going to be rough going for them, as there is no real way to get them into the text. I did use Brooks in an upper division course and it was o.k. I lost some of them, but I think it was good for those who put in the effort. They were actually less annoyed by his romanization than I was, since they were less invested in pinyin.

  8. C. W. Hayford says:

    I have used films such as “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman” to get good discussions of how Confucian values — well, maybe: “the values of the one formerly known as Confucius” — are being constantly revalued and reinvented. After all, he said “make it new.”

  9. […] at The Useless Tree and at Frog in a Well there’s a discussion about how to approach the teaching of Confucius. Since I’m teaching […]

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