Did Confucius Actually Say the Things He Said?
“Confucius say” jokes are perhaps how many people in the Western world know of Confucius. Older individuals might also associate him with fortune cookies. At best, many think of Confucius as an aphoristic sort of philosopher, offering wise quotes, not unlike the Book of Proverbs in the Bible, but not a fully systematic thinker the likes of Plato and Aristotle. However, for the Chinese, he is both and much more. What Confucius said, or the general ideas, were the basis for one of the longest continuously practiced philosophies or religions the world has ever seen. Even if it isn’t being practiced the way it used to be, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean culture still lean very heavily on Confucianism to this day. Even Western culture has been touched by Confucius, with some aspects of Enlightenment thought being derived from Western philosophers reading Confucius and being influenced by this seemingly secular and humanistic system. But this all brings us around to the question- did Confucius actually say the things he said?
First, let’s get the bad jokes out of the way. Along with Chinese immigrants to the United States, Confucianism went abroad with them. Many of these early immigrants held on to Confucianism and would try to express Confucian ideas or quote Confucius in English, generally with the accents and the things said being mocked. This all led to the English speakers going with the “Confucius say” quips, often followed with things most definitely not quotes from Confucius, but reframing to mock the immigrants.
Expanding on this, down the line in the 1930s, Columnist Walter Winchell popularized the joke in his columns. The format was then further widely popularized by radio host Jack Benny. By the 1940s many newspapers around America had their own “Confucius say” columns. The format made a comeback in the internet age as image macros called Wise Confucius. This version recycled many of the same jokes, but with a photoshopped picture of Confucius from Chinese art as the backdrop. Before this modern format, Americans were also exposed to Confucius through fortune cookies. Korean American writer and businessman Yong Sik Lee is generally credited with kicking off the end to the practice of quoting Confucius in the fortune cookie business after 1981, saying of his motivations: “Making a joke of him is not right… I don’t think it’s nice to say ‘Confucius say’. I took them all out. That set a trend.”
That said, while Confucius never said “It takes many nails to build a crib, but only one screw to fill it,” he did say a rather lot that ultimately influenced world history to an extreme degree. So, what did Confucius actually say?
To begin with, a little background. The era Confucius lived in was a wild one, to put it mildly. Born in 551 BCE in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, Confucius lived in an era called the Warring States, which ultimately influenced to an extreme degree his teachings as a method to try to stabilize society as a whole using classic ideology as the vehicle for this.
This brings us to how leadership ruled here. Medieval Europe had rule by divine right, the Muslim world had caliphs, and the Zhou had the Mandate of Heaven- Heaven here is sometimes described as nature, fate, small g god, or capital G God depending on era and background. The Zhou justified this concept by pointing to the legendary sage kings that founded Chinese civilization. Those sage kings received their authority to rule from heaven. Whatever heaven was for the Zhou, it had a mandate for who should rule expressed through the will of the people- think a spiritual democracy without casting votes. This worked great when the Zhou conquered their predecessors in the 11th century BCE, but when their authority broke down in 771, Heaven didn’t find anyone fit to rule for almost half a millennia.
The Zhou lost their capital to non-Chinese invaders and moved east to modern day Luoyang. At the same time, local lords lost confidence in the dynasty, and quickly carved up their own domains. Thus, as you might have deduced from the former referenced name of the era, this was an era of constant warfare, with hundreds of states battling it out initially, and then as power was consolidated, down to tens of states, but still all in a perpetual state of war.
During this time, no regional king reigned powerful enough to become emperor. This is where the mandate of heaven comes back in- it was the criteria for rulership, and as long as one did not become emperor, their position of power was always threatened. Regions had high turnover of kings as noble families deposed noble families, and no one could gain that precious mandate.
But you know who was a fan of the mandate of heaven? Confucius. Confucius came from the state of Lu, one of the states that had a hard time expanding due to its central location in the Zhou heartlands. Important here was that Lu was also still well influenced by Zhou culture and religion, as was Confucius himself. Thus, Confucius didn’t see himself as the founder of his own school, religion, or movement, but simply a vessel for the continuation of the way of the sage kings before him. These are the same sage kings that got their right to rule from heaven.
On this note, our name for the movement, Confucianism, isn’t what Confucius or Confucians call it. In Chinese Confucius and Confucians are Ru, and their movement is called Ru Jia. The word Ru means soft, because following the ways of the sages and sage kings, one had to be soft with the people. Again, think spiritual democracy- the mandate of heaven is expressed through the will of the people, so you should be soft with them.
Earlier in the Zhou, Confucius belonged to a class called the Shi. At first these were a warrior aristocracy; think the Samurai in Japan. Over the centuries this class became scholars that initially specialized in rituals and history, ultimately heading up the bureaucracy. This connection between ritual, history, and bureaucracy would follow Confucians up to the end of Imperial China in 1911. Confucius wanted to cultivate the Shi, which expanded to Junzi and is translated as “gentleman.” It is these gentlemen that would become Confucians in the time after Confucius, and the scholar-officials who ran the Chinese civil service until the collapse of Imperial China.
That background out of the way, it might come as a shock to learn that, much like Socrates and Jesus, we don’t know if Confucius said anything we say he said. You see, we have not a single thing that we can say for sure Confucius wrote down himself. Even the compilation of his sayings, the Analects, are not actually directly written by Confucius, but compiled by his disciples, not unlike Plato and others compiled the teachings of Socrates. On top of that, in the early days of Confucianism, many different Analects existed. Each was studied by a school associated with a region. Each school had a different focus, one was more interested in ritual, another was more interested in music, and so on. Our received text is a combination of these regional versions, with a lot of omissions.
As for the sayings he supposedly said, they are usually aphoristic, close to the punchy “Confucius say” quotes we hear. The language can be terse and difficult even for those with a high level of classic Chinese under their belt. Even in translations these sayings are likewise pretty terse, hence the “Confucius say” jokes in English.
All that said, the Analects are the most authoritative collection of Confucius’ sayings, but, even then, they almost never stand alone in Chinese, with commentary on them expounding on their interpretation of what’s actually being said. On top of that, for most of Confucianism’s existence, the Analects wasn’t the most important of Confucius’ works. You see, Confucius was very busy as an editor and teacher of at least a few thousands students over his lifetime, rather than an original author in his own right. Indeed, Confucius never claimed to have originated any of his ideas, supposedly noting he was a “transmitter who invented nothing.” Rather, he edited numerous ancient and classic texts that were extremely important to early Chinese states, such as Classic of Poetry, China’s earliest and most important collection of poems. Going back to the mandate of heaven as spiritual democracy, the Classic of Poetry was seen as a look into the mind of the people.
He also edited an ancient collection of documents said to be written by the ancient sage kings, books on rituals, and even a book on music, said to be lost. On top of this he is credited with editing I Ching, China’s well known divination manual. The list goes on and on and on, with the number far more than the works he supposedly authored himself. These edited works were extremely important to China’s history and culture, with the influence similar in reach to that of the Bible, with Confucius simply being a vessel for exposing these works and ideas and their importance and interpretation to his students.
Thus, in his editing of them, Confucius taught these texts to his students more so than anything, with the way he edited the works meant to get across the message he wanted his students to learn from them. This is also why Confucianism is considered to be inherent to Chinese culture, as many of its most important works are core to Chinese identity.
But here again, what did Confucius actually say and advocate for? To begin with, he wanted to fix the problems that made his society so extremely unstable. He saw the world as breaking down into several sets of relationships. At the top you have the relationship between Heaven and the emperor, and at the bottom you have the basic family unit, the relationship of parent and child. The authority given to these sets was the mandate of heaven expressed from the cosmic level down to the familial level.
On an individual level, one had to cultivate a benevolent humanity. This benevolent humanity is cultivated internally through striving for sincerity. Sincerity here means living your external life in accordance with your internal thoughts.
As you might expect from this, Emotions played an important role. Cultivating a proper and healthy connection with your emotions, thus, allows you to control those emotions. Confucius was no Vulcan, however- emotions are to be felt, but controlled. These emotions are strengthened by external connections and actions, the most important being filial piety, performing rituals, and education.
The first two are often a sticking point to modern Chinese and Western readers because filial piety is identified by modern opponents to Confucianism as a tyrannical patriarchy. Rituals are seen as religious, and in Confucius’ case, tied to the rites of an outdated class.
On this note, rituals have always played an important part in Confucianism. By performing rituals, you play your part in society. You put your morals into practice and devote yourself to an order bigger than yourself. As such, these rituals can be considered religious, and etiquette based. On this religious note, the Chinese in Confucius’ time took ancestor worship very seriously. The ancestors could affect your health and success, and angry ancestors could doom an entire family. They were cared for in this life through filial piety and in the next through rituals, such as burial and funerary rituals.
As for his extreme support of education and self improvement, Confucius saw the study of ancient texts, poetry, mathematics, and physical education like archery and horse riding to be a means for one to be more in tune with emotions and to become a better person in general. You achieve benevolent humanity through education, and the education never stops. You must continually renew yourself as you go on your own path as a human being.
All of this said, in the context of what Confucius actually said, for a tradition said to be older than Confucius himself, it shouldn’t be surprising that it went through a lot of changes over the centuries after his death. Different eras of Confucianism are practically foreign to each other and might as well be opposing ideologies within the same system. If you were a Confucian in the Han dynasty, the Analects wouldn’t be as high up on your priority list as the works that Confucius edited. Ideas introduced from outside of Confucianism like the five Chinese elements, or yin and yang would be so ingrained in your culture, that you read them into Confucius’ words, even if he never even supposedly said them, let alone actually. You even might elevate the status of Confucius himself as an uncrowned king, rather than a scholar. You might further read the pessimistic Xunzi and ignore the optimistic Mencius as misguided.
Contrast this to a Ming era Confucian who holds the Analects back in high esteem over the edited classics. Buddhism is a major influence as you try to debunk it and its foreign ideas. The authors the Han held in high esteem are now considered incomprehensible and their opponents are now widely read when centuries ago their writings almost disappeared. Mencius is back on the menu, and Xunzi is considered a heretic.
While the exact references here are beyond the scope of this article, the takeaway message is that Confucianism remained very elastic and changed according to the time. However, still maintaining its core identity of benevolent humanity. Just how you get there varies based on era.
On this note, also important to the sayings of Confucius, as alluded to- they were almost never alone. There was almost always a commentary attached. Depending on the era, this commentary was as important as the sayings of Confucius themselves. For example, born in 1130, Zhu Xi is regarded as the most important Confucian after Confucius, and likely one of the world’s most influential philosophers you’ve probably never heard of. His commentary on Confucianism became the orthodox interpretation, and his writings were what you had to study to become a civil servant in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam for hundreds of years.
It was Zhu Xi’s understanding of Confucius that ultimately got transmitted to the West, with the first published Western translation of Confucius’ Analects coming in 1687, prepared by the Jesuits. This translation influenced countless enlightenment thinkers including the likes of Leibniz and Voltaire.
In the end, as should come as a surprise to almost no one, the vast majority of “Confucius says” lines you might have heard, even potentially the non-joking ones, do not represent what Confucius ever said. And, in fact, we can’t actually say for certain whether Confucius really ever said anything we say he said, at least not his exact words. But, whatever those exact words were, through his students, the core ideology of what he taught them survived and, while elastic through the ages on specific focus and application, the ideas he espoused ultimately led to one of the world’s longest continuous civilizations through successive dynasties, as well as influenced cultures around China and to some extent far beyond. Sadly, we will never know whether his sense of humor would have found his later attributed sayings like “Man who fart in church sit in own pew” funny or not.
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Angle, Stephen C. and Justin Tiwald. Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017.
Rainey, Lee Dian. Confucius and Confucians: The Essentials. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
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