For many years I have wanted to find a fortune cookie that actually had a piece of paper with “Confucius Say:…” followed by an actual quote from Confucius. I am not betting on it, one because the ‘Confucius Say’ thing is dead in U.S. fortune cookies1 and, more importantly, because Confucius has still not become a historical figure in the West. By this I mean that quotes from the big C are usually the standard “You wantee eggwoll with that?” Eastern Wisdom stuff. Just like there are lots of people who think that the main take away from Socrates is “Like sands of the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” and that the central message of Buddhism is “Every man for himself.” there are lots of people who are happy to quote Confucius without making any effort to find out what the text actually says, in a way they would never do with Emerson or Henry Kissinger.
This came to mind while reading about the Confucius Institute in the Times Higher Education supplement. Here I learned that “The wheel of fortune turns round incessantly, the Chinese philosopher Confucius said.” I didn’t remember that from Analects, or anywhere else, and while it turns up on Google lists of quotes from Confucius the locus classicus seems to be Oliver Goldsmith who cites Confucius as saying “The wheel of fortune turns incessantly round; and who can say within himself I shall to-day be uppermost”. I was actually pretty happy to find this, as it is an actual classical source for this quote2 I assume the author was using the quote to make some sort of subtle point about the differences between Confucius and foreign understandings of his ideas, but I am not quite sure what that point was.
So, what are your favourite bits of Eastern Wisdom, and have you been able to figure out where they come from?