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Analects 12.1 and the commentarial tradition.

THE TWELFTH CHAPTER of the Analects opens with the disciple Yan Yuan questioning Confucius about Goodness (ren).(1) The Master responds that "to ke ji and return to propriety (li) is Goodness. If for a single day a man could ke ji, then all under heaven would consider Goodness to be his. The practice of Goodness comes from oneself alone, how could it come from others?" Yan Yuan then asks for a detailed explanation of how Goodness is achieved, to which Confucius responds, "If it is not |in accordance with~ propriety, do not look. If it is not |in accordance with~ propriety, do not listen. If it is not |in accordance with~ propriety, do not speak. If it is not |in accordance with~ propriety, do not move." Finally, Yan Yuan announces, "Though I am not quick, I would like to practice these words."

James Legge translated the phrase ke ji as "to subdue the self"; Soothill as "the denial of self"; Lyall as "to conquer the self"; Wing-Tsit Chan as "to master oneself"; and D. C. Lau as "overcoming the self."(2) But the admonition to "overcome the self and return to propriety" stands out dramatically in the context of the Analects. Does the passage imply that humans are by nature evil and that only through rigorous training and introspection can the cultivated gentleman overcome his savage, animal instincts? The English word "evil," at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, connotes absolute bad. Did ancient Chinese thinkers assume this sort of stark dualism, or is this a modern interpretation?

The only Western scholars to translate the phrase in a significantly different way are Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound. Pound translates the phrase ke ji as to "support oneself" in the first appearance and to "be adequate to" oneself when the same phrase occurs in the next line.(3) Waley, noting the classical usage of ke as "to be able to," translates the phrase: "He who can himself submit to ritual is Good"(4) (emphasis mine).

A solution to the puzzle would seem to lie in an understanding of the word "ren" which is after all the topic under discussion. At once a standard of moral behavior, and a mystical entity in itself, the concept of ren in the Analects--variously translated as "benevolence," "Goodness," "humaneness," and "altruism"--is notoriously elusive. Arthur Waley's translation of the word as "Goodness" has the merit of being sufficiently general to cover the word's various connotations. For now, suffice it to say that ren in the Analects is a desirable goal, an ideal for which the student of the text is expected to strive.

Fortunately, though the relationship between this ideal and one's natural impulses is difficult to determine from the terse language of the Analects, later commentators on the phrase make their stances on the issue quite clear. Later interpretations of the passage are by no means uniform; the difficulty Western scholars have had in interpreting the phrase is mirrored in the commentaries of Chinese scholars. Even a cursory reading of commentaries to the Analects quickly dispels facile notions of a monolithic Confucian tradition firmly founded on a set of commonly held truths. Tracing the vagaries of the phrase through the commentarial tradition reveals much, not only about the attitudes of various Chinese thinkers towards the self and towards the Analects, but also about the tenuous nature of their claims to objectivity--the foundation of classical exegesis.


The basis for the majority of the English translations cited above was established already in the Han by the scholar Ma Rong (79-166) who understood the phrase to mean "to restrain oneself" |ke ji: yue shen~.(5) That is, ke ji is a process of self-cultivation, or more accurately, of self-control. For Ma Rong, the self stands in stark opposition to Goodness; only through submission to the bounds, or rather the binds, of ritual propriety can one curb the excesses of the self and become good. In a brief passage in his Fa yan, the Han thinker Yang Xiong defines ke not as "to restrain the self," but as "to overcome one's selfishness".(6) This is a significant departure from the Ma interpretation, both because of its harsher definition of ke and for its nuanced interpretation of ji. For Yang, the self was not a uniform entity, but a composite of both good and bad elements. The task facing the practitioner, then, was to weed out these bad elements--to overcome one's selfishness, rather than the self in general. But it was to be several centuries before scholars recognized the value of Yang's interpretation; up until the Song, discussion of the passage was dominated by Ma Rong's gloss. The central reason for the popularity of Ma Rong's interpretation was, perhaps, simply its accessibility, for Ma Rong's gloss was included in what were to become the two most influential editions of the Analects in the Six Dynasties period: He Yan's (190-249) Lunyu jijie, and Huang Kan's (488-545) Lunyu yishu, a subcommentary to He Yan's text.

Interestingly, both Huang Kan and He Yan's versions of the Analects, in addition to Ma Rong's "restrain" gloss, include an opposing interpretation of the phrase attributed to another Han scholar, Kong Anguo. In the text, the reader is presented with a startling contradiction: two distinct readings of the phrase side by side. Under the phrase "to keji and return to propriety is Goodness," we read: "Ma |Rong~ states, 'keji means to restrain the self.' Kong |Anguo~ states, 'fu means to return; if one is able (neng) of oneself to return to propriety, then this is Goodness.'"(7) The authenticity of Kong's authorship of a commentary to the Analects was vigorously challenged already in the Qing.(8) But what is important for our purposes here is that the gloss to 12.1 attributed to Kong was included in He Yan's third-century edition of the Analects and accepted as authentic all the way up to the eighteenth century. "Kong's" picture of self-cultivation here is markedly different from that of Ma Rong. For Kong, the point of the passage is not that the self and Goodness are opposing forces that can only be brought together through vigilant containment of natural impulses; rather, Kong emphasizes precisely the opposite: that Goodness is within the grasp of the individual; the individual can of himself, without external assistance, become good. For Kong, rather than condemning the self, Confucius had reaffirmed it.

Included in Huang Kan's subcommentary is yet another interpretation of Analects 12.1. In the text, Huang quotes the Eastern Jin scholar Fan Ning (339-401) who writes: "ke means to hold oneself responsible (ze). To 'return to propriety' is to blame oneself (zeke ji) for losing |one's sense of~ propriety. If one is not Good, then one cannot hold oneself responsible for returning to propriety. Therefore, if one can take the responsibility on oneself to return to propriety, then this is Goodness."(9) Fan Ning's interpretation approaches that of Kong ("to be able to"), while introducing a new factor into the discussion: responsibility. If one fails to return to propriety and achieve Goodness, one has only oneself to blame. Fan's sensitivity to this aspect of the passage stems no doubt from attention to the line of the Analects that follows: "Goodness comes from oneself alone. How could it come from others?" Innovative though it was, Fan Ning's interpretation was not to play a prominent role in the history of the Analects, for in the Song, Huang Kan's subcommentary--along with Fan Ning's glosses--disappeared, surviving in Japan from which it returned to China only in the seventeenth century.(10) In sum, at the beginning of the Song, two interpretations of the phrase were commonly accepted: Kong Anguo's "of oneself" to return to propriety is Good|ness~, and Ma Rong's to "overcome the self" is Good|ness~. While commentators disagreed over the nature of the self, with the exception of Yang Xiong, the composition of the self was not--at least in relation to this passage--a topic of discussion.


If the early commentaries provide us with vital clues about the thought of early thinkers, it is with the Song that we begin to get more extensive commentaries that reveal much more about the scholars who wrote them. In the early years of the Northern Song, the scholar-official Xing Bing (932-1010) completed a new subcommentary to He Yan's text. In the subcommentary, Xing attempts to reconcile the Ma and Kong interpretations, stating, "As for the Master saying 'to keji and return to propriety is Goodness,' ke means 'to restrain'; ji means 'the self'; and fu means 'to return.' He is saying, 'if one can restrain himself (neng yue ji) and return to propriety, then he is Good.'"(11) If here Xing seems to give equal emphasis to the interpretations of Kong and Ma, further on in his commentary it becomes clear that he wishes to emphasize and even sharpen Ma Rong's reading at Kong's expense.

Liu Xuan (fl.600) says, "ke should be interpreted as 'to overcome' (ke xun sheng ye). Ji means, the 'individual' (shen). When the individual has cravings and desires (shi yu) he should order them with propriety and righteousness. When one's cravings and desires do battle with propriety and righteousness, and propriety and righteousness overcome cravings and desires, then the individual returns to propriety. This then is Goodness. 'To return' is to say that when one's emotions are hounded by cravings and desires, and one has parted from propriety, one once again returns |to propriety~. Now we have verified that ke should be glossed as 'to overcome'; and ji as 'the individual,' which is to say, one can overcome and dismiss cravings and desires and return to propriety."(12)

Xing Bing's commentary marks a significant break with the earlier texts in two respects. First of all, he is no longer content simply to record divergent interpretations; he saw the need to reconcile them, to give a correct interpretation. Secondly, Xing's gloss of ke ji marks a shift in the view of the self. To ke ji was no longer a process of persistent cultivation as it had been with Ma Rong; now, it was a fierce battle with the wily animal instincts of the self. Both of these aspects--the drive to define a single, correct interpretation, and the harsher interpretation of the verb ke--laid the groundwork for the reevaluation of the Analects that was soon to follow.

The Cheng-Zhu school of the eleventh and twelfth centuries linked a complex metaphysics to ethics and self-cultivation by drawing an opposition between the "celestial principle" (tianli) and human desire (renyu). The celestial principle, the argument goes, is within all of us, and indeed, within all things. But it is obscured, by qi ("ether" or "matter"), and by human desire which confuse our perception of the goodness latent within us. As when looking into a pool of water, one can only see the bottom when the waters are stilled. This then was the justification for Zhu Xi's promotion of meditation (jingzuo and cunxin) and of jing, or "reverential attention"--an attitude of mind to be maintained throughout self-cultivation, whether it is meditation, study of the classics, or going about one's everyday business. The relevance of Analects 12.1 to these notions was, for Zhu Xi, clear. In the gloss on 12.1 in his enormously influential commentary, Zhu writes:

Goodness is the perfected virtue of the original mind. Ke is to overcome. Ji refers to the selfish desires of the individual (shen zhi siyu). Fu means "to return." "Propriety" is the pattern of the celestial principle. Goodness is the means by which one perfects the virtue of the mind. It must be that perfect virtue of the mind is nothing other than the celestial principle, which cannot be damaged by human desires. Therefore, the Good man must possess the means to overcome his selfish desires and return to Goodness, in which case all will be in accord with the celestial principle, and the virtue of the original mind will become perfected within him.(13)

In the same commentary, one of the Cheng brothers is quoted as saying, "That which is not propriety is selfish interest (siyi). If one has selfish interests, how can one attain Goodness? This must be overcome completely and one's selfishness 'returned' (i.e., subordinated) to propriety before one can be said to be Good."(14)

The shift that began with Xing Bing is more pronounced here. The Kong Anguo interpretation is not entertained. Even the milder, Ma Rong interpretation is not mentioned. This rejection of pluralism is indicative of Zhu Xi's commentary as a whole. Only on a few rare occasions(15) does Zhu present opposing interpretations of a passage without adjudicating between them. The more inclusive approach of the Six Dynasties compilers became even less acceptable to Ming and Qing scholars, as we shall see below. From this period, commentators to the Analects were no longer satisfied with a looser definition of orthodoxy that could include more than one interpretation of a given passage. As all wisdom lay securely in the past, they needed to know which reading was right.

Here, the chief innovation of Zhu Xi and the Cheng brothers is not in their interpretation of ke, but in their definition of ji. Zhu Xi, like the Cheng brothers, asserted that human nature was good, or more precisely, that we all carry within us the potential for goodness, manifested in certain circumstances by a natural, spontaneous tendency to do what is right--a position he attributed to Mencius. The Ma Rong / Liu Xuan / Xing Bing interpretation of ke ji clearly contradicts such a view. Why then would Zhu choose this interpretation, when the Kong gloss would have fit his conception of the self so well? The answer lies, in part, in a tension in Zhu's thought between a belief in innate goodness and a severe form of self-cultivation that holds that the only way to realize this innate goodness is to overcome the powerful personal desires that obscure it. Zhu makes this picture of the self explicit in his convoluted commentary to 17.2: "The Master said, 'In nature |men are~ close together; in habit |they are~ far apart.'" "What is called here 'nature,'" Zhu Xi writes, "is a reference to 'substantive qi' (qizhi). It is because of the nature of substantive qi that there are differences |in people~ with respect to beauty and ugliness. This being so, if we speak of the beginning, then all |people~ are not so far apart. It is only through habit that good is made good; through habit that bad becomes bad. It is only by these means that |people become~ far apart."(16) Thus, human beings are at once bad and yet fundamentally good. Zhu clearly needed a more complex picture of the self; in short, a division between self and selfish. To make this division, Zhu drew on the passage from Yang Xiong's Fa yan mentioned above, namely "ke means 'to overcome one's selfishness.'" By defining ji as "selfish desires" rather than "the self," Zhu could make his case for rigorous self-vigilance, without redressing the human nature question. This theme of self-conquest comes up again and again in Zhu's commentary to the Analects. Quoting You Zha (1053-1132), for instance, Zhu writes, "The way of learning must be based on loyalty and trustworthiness, assisted by self-conquest".(17) Commenting on a reference to Confucius' contemporary Qu Boyu, who "wanted to reduce his errors, but could not," Zhu says that he could not "reflect and overcome himself".(18) Finally, in a particularly Buddhist-sounding passage, Zhu states: "When one overcomes and does away with one's selfishness and returns to propriety, then selfish desires do not remain and the original state |benran~ of the celestial principle is obtained. If one only controls |oneself~ but does not act, then this indicates that one has not removed the roots of the sickness."(19) As we shall see below, in the history of Analects 12.1, Zhu had effectively shifted the direction of discourse from human nature to the focus of cultivation: desire and selfishness.


In Wang Yangming's Chuanxi lu, the following dialogue is recorded:

I said, "'If a man can for one day overcome the self and return to propriety, all under heaven will return to Goodness.' In his commentary, Zhu Xi interpreted it from the point of view of the effect |cultivation of Goodness has on others~. What do you think of that?"

The Teacher said, "The learning of the sage and the worthy is for themselves (i.e., not in order to impress or influence others).(20) The emphasis is on effort and not on effect. The benevolent man regards all things as a body. If you fail to |perceive all things as~ one body, it is simply because you have failed to eliminate selfishness. If the perfection of the true nature of Goodness is achieved, then all under heaven will partake of this Goodness and the 'eight directions (i.e., whole universe) will be in my room.'(21) |The idea that~ all under heaven partakes of this Goodness is certainly inherent |in the passage~. It is like |the saying, 'Behave in such a way that~ there will be no complaint against you in the state or in the family.'(22) This means that one does not himself complain, that is, does not complain against Heaven or blame other men.(23) This being so, the idea that none in the family or in the state will complain against |the benevolent man~ is certainly inherent |in the passage~. It is just that this is not what is emphasized."(24)

For the most part, Wang has accepted Zhu Xi's interpretation. To ke ji is still to overcome one's selfish desires. But for Wang, Zhu Xi's attempt to place self-cultivation in a dialogue with social interaction smacked of a moral subjectivity removed from the touchstone of "innate moral knowledge" (liangzhi). This innate moral knowledge was found through introspection and was obscured by a selfish attention to one's position in society. Nevertheless, these two--the social order and self-cultivation--were not in conflict. In Wang's holistic world-vision, to order the self is to order society--a process that for the good man is spontaneous, objective, and above all, selfless.

The interpretation of Analects 12.1 in the Song-Ming period points to the profound impact of Buddhist thought on Chinese intellectual life. We have here a sharp dichotomy between spontaneous human desires and an innate perfected self that would have been quite alien to early Chinese thinkers. In his "Illustrate Illustrious Virtue" (Ming mingde), the late Ming/early Qing philosopher, Yan Xizhai (a.k.a. Yan Yuan) (1635-1704), drew attention to this invasion of "foreign" sensibilities into the Cheng-Zhu understanding of human nature. Yan writes, "Originally Zhu Xi understood nature, but he was influenced by Buddhists and mixed up with the bad habits of people of the world. Had there been no doctrine of physical nature (or, 'substantive qi') advocated by Cheng Yi (1033-1107) and Zhang Zai (1020-77), we would surely distinguish man's nature, feeling, and capacity, on the one hand, and attraction, obscuration, and bad influence, on the other, and the fact that man's nature, feeling, and capacity are all good and that evil originates later would be perfectly clear."(25)

The affinities between the Buddhist model of the self, and that proposed by Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming is made even more explicit in the writings of the Ming monk, Hanshan Deqing (1546-1623). In his Daxue gangmu jueyi tici, Deqing emphasizes the central importance of cultivation, which, he tells us, is "entirely an effort of the mind". Deqing then proceeds to comment on Analects 12.1 as follows:

"To keji" is to exert one's efforts toward making one's mind (xindi) benevolent. "To keji is Goodness" means to "illustrate illustrious virtue." For "all under heaven to return to propriety" is to "be a new person" (xinmin). "Goodness comes from the self": this |refers to~ the true self (zhenji), or, the stage of perfect goodness . . . .(26) As soon as Master Yan |Yuan~ heard this, he understood. Then, he abandoned his intellect, froze his limbs and, cutting himself off from everything, simply sat. He sat, and forgot. His forgetting reached the point where there was nothing else to forget. |Then,~ turning his body, he leaped up, conscious of everything he saw and heard. He was not at all like the person he had been before. It was just as if he had created a new self out of the old one.(27)

Thus, for Deqing, Confucius' injunction not to "look, listen, speak, or move" was consistent with his own Buddhist metaphysics: through meditation, the adept expels the distracting, obscuring thoughts that plague the mind and sees through to the "true self," in Buddhist parlance, the "Buddha nature" (foxing).

Ironically, the earliest commentator to challenge the Cheng-Zhu interpretation of ke ji that I have found was also a Buddhist. Ouyi Zhixu (1598-1654), one of the most prolific Buddhist scholars of the Ming--known chiefly for his bibliographic arrangement of the Buddhist canon and his Tiantai exegetical works--composed a remarkable commentary to the Four Books inspired by the realization that the Chinese sages of antiquity were in fact "manifestations of bodhisattvas dispatched by the Thus-Come-One."(28) For Zhixu, the passage reads like a koan. When Yan Yuan asks about Goodness, it is like "a monk asking his master, 'What is a Buddha?'."(29) Confucius' reply is like the master responding, "Only you yourself are." When Yan Yuan asks Confucius for specific instructions, he is like the monk who asks, "How can I take on this responsibility?". Confucius' reply is like the master responding, "There is a cataract over your eye and |the illusion of~ flowers fall wildly in space |before you~." When Yan Yuan promises to "direct his efforts towards what |Confucius has~ said," it is like the monk bowing before his master. Then, in the next line, Zhixu makes his interpretation specific: ke means "to be able to" (ke neng ye). After nearly a thousand years of languishing in obscurity, the Kong Anguo interpretation had returned.

After glossing ke as "to be able to," Zhixu continues: "To be able of oneself to return to propriety is called 'Goodness.' As soon as one perceives the body of Goodness (renti), then all under heaven immediately dissolves into the body of Goodness and there is nothing under heaven beyond Goodness to be attained. It is as if the ten directions were empty and all had disappeared." Zhixu readily acknowledges his debt to Wang Yangming and draws on the Wang passage cited above later in his commentary. This influence manifests itself chiefly in the monk's holism and radical idealism. But Zhixu felt no such identification with Zhu Xi and attacks his interpretation of the word ji, "self," as "selfish desires," though Zhu is never mentioned by name. After reiterating that "the entire earth becomes you yourself," Zhixu continues, "Therefore |Confucius~ says |Goodness~ comes from the self. The 'self' of 'from the self,' is the same 'self' as in 'be able of oneself to' (keji ji zi). It (i.e., the character ji) does not have two different meanings." Zhixu then goes on to tie the passage to notions of the Buddha nature, delusion, enlightenment, and Nirvana. The Buddha nature, he tells us, is innate in every individual, but is obscured by the activities of the sense organs.

"To look, listen, speak, and move" are the functions of the six sense organs (liu gen).(30) This is a matter for you yourself. |Confucius~ is not telling you not to look, nor to listen, nor to speak, nor to move. You only need to do away with what is not |in accord with~ propriety. This then is propriety. When you return to propriety, then the body of Goodness is perfected. In ancient times it was said, "There is only a technique for removing cataracts; there is no technique for giving sight."

While Zhixu gives a distinct interpretation of the passage, affirming the value of the self, rather than viewing it with suspicion and disdain, he is still caught in the vocabulary of the Song Confucians, for the Buddhist discourse on human nature shared with its Confucian counterpart a tension between a belief in the innate goodness of human nature and a harsh criticism of selfishness, at times culminating in the denial of the very existence of the self--an orthodox doctrine to which most Chinese Buddhist exegetes at least paid lip-service.(31)


If Zhixu criticized Zhu Xi with a degree of reserve, never mentioning him by name--the Zhu Xi commentary to the Analects was, after all, required reading for the civil service examination--Qing scholars were less circumspect. In fact, rather than taking new positions on the Analects in spite of the standard Cheng-Zhu reading, evidential scholars often read the Analects differently precisely because of the Cheng-Zhu interpretation. We have already seen an example of this type of attack in Yan Xizhai's comments on human nature. The speculative interpretations of the sages by Song and Ming proponents of lixue, the critique goes, were tainted by Buddhist ideas and not true to the original texts. Recognizing the infiltration of Buddhist concepts into Confucian discourse, the new school of Qing philologists proclaimed that the only way to recover the true meaning of the classics was through absolute objectivity. The comments of Dai Zhen (1724-77) on Analects 12.1 illustrate this point well. In his seminal Mengzi ziyi shuzheng, Dai, like Zhixu before him, takes Zhu Xi to task for his interpretation of the word ji as "selfish desires." If ji means selfish desires, "How do we know," asks Dai, "that the ji of keji is different from the one that follows"--namely, "Goodness comes from the ji (self) and not from others." Further, "Outside of this passage, we never hear of selfish desires referred to as ji."(32) This egregious misunderstanding, Dai tells us, stemmed from the disdain for all desire in the Laozi, Zhuangzi and, above all, in Buddhism. "Lao|zi~, Zhuang|zi~ and the Buddhists |called for~ the cessation of desires, but not for the cessation of selfishness; the way of the sages was the cessation of selfishness, but not the cessation of desires. As for selfish desires, this is something that the sages most certainly did not have. This being the case, a sage like Master Yan |Yuan~ cannot be said to have been unable to overcome his selfish desires. How could Master Yan still have fallen prey to selfish desires?" Hence, for Dai, desires are not in themselves wrong; the sages are sages precisely because of their desires, their righteous desires. But in the lines that follow, Dai essentially keeps the Zhu Xi interpretation, deftly shifting the focus of the passage from selfishness to objectivity--the centerpiece of his own justification for philologically-based scholarship. In a holism reminiscent of Wang Yangming, Dai writes: "If even the slightest bias exists in one's opinions, then the moral nature is impure. All |of these prejudices~ are the key to the barrier between the self and the rest of the world. If you can conquer the self (keji) and return to the most appropriate, unchangeable rule, then there will be no division between you and the rest of the world." The nature of the self has changed only slightly. Rather than being a dangerous source of blatant selfishness, the self is the source of a more subtle evil: the subjectivity that separates us from the truth of the classics and subsequent union with the natural order. Consequently, the means by which we overcome the self has also changed. Rather than through meditation, self-cultivation, and introspection, the truth is obtained through rigorous scholarship, a systematic, philologically sound analysis of the classics.

In Dai's day and the century that followed, a host of evidential scholars applied their considerable talents in textual criticism to Analects 12.1. Some quoted a passage in the Zuo zhuan to support Zhu Xi's interpretation of the phrase as "overcoming selfish desires." In the Zuo zhuan passage, a troubled king refuses to eat or sleep and, unable to zi ke, "overcome himself," he comes to an evil end.(33) Confucius then comments that this is a saying from "an old record" and states that to "ke ji and return to propriety is Goodness." Previously, few scholars would have doubted the authenticity of a quote from the Zuo zhuan, but the atmosphere of skepticism in the Qing allowed tough-minded scholars like Yu Yue (1821-1907) to ask if the Kong Anguo definition of ke might not be more appropriate. Yu writes:

Kong |Anguo's~ gloss of ke as "to be able to" (neng) is correct. This should be read together with the three-character phrase "oneself return to propriety." "Of oneself to return to propriety" is personally to return to propriety. That is to say, of oneself to return to propriety. He who can of himself return to propriety is good. The following phrase |of the Analects~ therefore says, "If one can one day of himself return to propriety then all under heaven will return to Goodness. Goodness comes from the self; how could it come from others?" We must |read the phrase~ according to Kong Anguo's gloss in order for Confucius' meaning in the passage to be consistent. The self is juxtaposed to others and not to propriety.(34) The |compiler of the~ zhengyi (i.e., Xing Bing) could not understand Kong |Anguo's~ gloss and carelessly quoted Liu Xuan, and Ma Rong's interpretation of "restraining the self," missing the contradiction.

In the |entries under the~ twelfth year of Zhao, in the Zuo zhuan, because Prince Chuling cannot "overcome himself" (zi ke), Confucius is quoted as saying, "This is from an old record. To overcome the self and return to propriety is Goodness." If you believe this passage to be true, then it is proper to interpret ke as "to conquer." But Master Zuo came after the early Confucians. Thus, I fear that this sort of passage is insufficient evidence.(35)

In the seventeenth century, when Huang Kan's subcommentary, along with Fan Ning's gloss of ke as "to hold responsible," returned from Japan, a handful of Chinese scholars embraced Fan's interpretation citing a passage in the Hou Han shu which lends support to Fan's gloss. In that passage, a virtuous man is described as one who, when students come to him for learning, gives up his mat, and when students leave him "blames himself" (keji).(36) The founder of "Han Learning" proper, Hui Dong (1697-1758), gave the most extensive argument for the Fan gloss, although he seems to have arrived at this conclusion independently, for he never mentions Fan Ning by name. Hui's reading is based on the Shuowen jiezi definition of ke which says, ke, jian ye, that is, "to ke is to shoulder" or to "take responsibility for." This reading is slightly different from that which takes ke to mean "to be able to." For Hui Dong, as for Fan Ning before him, "of oneself to return to propriety" is not simply a possibility, but a duty. As Hui says,

To "take Goodness as your own responsibility" |Analects 8.7~ refers to ke. |Reading in~ the Analects: "to ke ji and return to propriety," Master Zuo took it for an expression from an ancient record. But it was for this very reason that Confucius made the phrase clear by adding, "Goodness comes from the self." For the later Confucians Wang Su (464-532) and Liu Xuan to interpret ke as "to overcome," ji as "selfish" and ke ji as "to triumph" (zhansheng) makes no sense at all.(37)

The commitment of these scholars to objectivity is clear. Even if it means questioning the accuracy of a text as reputable as the Zuo zhuan, the evidential, or kaozheng, scholars were intent on recovering the original meaning of the text. As Dai Zhen said in a letter to his disciple, Duan Yucai, "I consider it beneficial to have an even mind (xing ping) when examining into antiquity (kao gu). In whatever I say about a matter, I do not allow the opinions of others to mislead me, nor do I permit my own opinions to betray me."(38) Han Learning was an attempt to return to the more reliable, less speculative scholarship of the Han Dynasty. But a return from the Qing to the Han was more difficult than these scholars realized; too much had come between. The disdain of evidential scholars for Zhu Xi arose as much from his method as from his conclusions. Ironically, once Zhu had become established in the world of evidential scholarship as the quintessence of rampant subjectivity, his interpretations became the standard against which theirs were judged; "objectivity" was achieved first and foremost through the refutation of Zhu's conclusions. Given the choice, the kaozheng scholar would invariably rule against Zhu, quoting the passage, "take Goodness as your own responsibility,"(39) to support the claim that ke meant "to take responsibility," but neglecting the phrase "restrain me with propriety,"(40) which would lend support to Zhu's claim, or citing a passage from the first-century Shuowen or the fifth-century Hou Hanshu, while simultaneously rejecting the earlier Zuo zhuan as too late to be reliable. The same tendency towards false objectivity is evident in Arthur Waley's otherwise admirable translation of the Analects. In a footnote to his translation of 12.1 ("He who can himself submit to ritual is Good"), Waley writes: "In the Zuo zhuan (Zhao Gong, 12th year) Confucius is made to quote this as a saying from an 'old record.' The commentators, not understanding the archaic use of ke ('able to') turned ke ji into 'self-conquest,' an error fruitful in edification" (emphases mine).(41) As we have seen, the "commentators" were well aware of this interpretation of the phrase, as a cursory reading of the major commentaries reveals. Even if Zhu Xi did not have a copy of the Huang Kan edition of the Analects, or did not consider interpreting the phrase according to the Shuowen definition of ke, he most certainly consulted the He Yan edition, containing both Ma Rong's reading ("to restrain") and Kong Anguo's reading ("to be able to"). Indeed, in his commentary to a passage in the Great Learning, Zhu himself glosses the character ke as "to be able to" (ke neng ye).(42) Zhu Xi, then, was aware of his options and made a choice, not unlike any of the other commentators discussed, Waley included.


On January 18, 1974, a CCP Central Committee document revealed that a scroll had been discovered hanging over the bed in the home of former Defense Minister Lin Biao, said to have died in a mysterious plane crash some three years earlier. The characters on the scroll, reportedly written by Lin himself, read: "Of all things this is the most important: overcome yourself and return to propriety." In what was to become known as the "Anti-Lin Biao, Anti-Confucius Campaign", Analects 12.1 became the locus of unprecedented attention.(43) Much of the groundwork for the renewed interest in 12.1 was laid in the early sixties in a piece by the scholar Zhao Jibin, entitled "The Original Meanings of Ren and Li Explained" (Ren li jie gu), being an analysis of 12.1 that remains, to this day, the most complete study of the passage. After going through many of the commentaries discussed above, Zhao rejects the positive explanations of Fung Yu-lan, who read the phrase to mean that one should restrain oneself in order to behave properly--an idea in which Fung saw relevance to the modern world. Rather, Zhao explains, the phrase is indicative of Confucius' reactionary position. Li refers not simply to a proper way of behaving, but specifically to the rites of the Zhou Dynasty. In the periodization of early China current among Chinese Marxists during the sixties, Confucius stood at the pivotal point between slave and feudal society. Hence, for Confucius to call for a return to the rites of slave society could only be seen as retrogressive and dangerous. In the years that followed the commencement of the Anti-Lin Biao, Anti-Confucius campaign, a plethora of articles, pamphlets, and slogans emerged, equating Lin Biao with Confucius and criticizing Analects 12.1.

Take, for example, the piece "Thorough Exposure of Counter-Revolutionary Ambition" by one Wu Nianxian, "a worker of the Peking Printing House," who writes:

Lin Biao and Confucius were two venomous snakes from the same nest, two poison gourds on the same vine. They thought the same, talked the same, and pursued the same sinister aims. Both were reactionaries trying to turn back the wheel of history and bring about a counter-revolutionary restoration, Confucius being the supreme master and Lin Biao his pious disciple.

Bent on saving the slave system from its imminent extinction, Confucius wantonly preached "restrain oneself and return to the rites," meaning the revival of the slavery of the Western Zhou Dynasty . . . and the dictatorship of the slave-owning class. "Restrain oneself" was aimed at "returning to the rites." It served the purpose of inducing the people to curb their aspirations and refrain from rebelling against the slave-owning aristocracy at a time of great social change. This concept decreed that people should "not look at, listen to, say or do things not conforming to the rites" but should act entirely according to the rules and regulations set by the slave-owning aristocracy. In this way all under heaven would "submit to benevolent rule," i.e., to the rule of the slave-owning class. It can be seen from this that to "restrain oneself and return to the rites" was Confucius' reactionary program for restoring Western Zhou slavery.(44)

In addition to the definition of li as "the rites of slave society," the other notable shift here is the understanding of what it is that is being inhibited by rites. Rather than "selfish desires," it is the determination to rebel against a repressive class hierarchy that is restrained.

The motives for linking Lin with the "revisionist" Confucius are readily apparent. In the early seventies, as the impetus for the Cultural Revolution began to fade, proponents of the movement saw their power slipping; their real target was no more Lin Biao than it was Confucius. Rather it was the proponents of the creation of a new order, an order in which these commentators would play no part. None of these many publications in newspapers and pamphlets approached the philological sophistication of Zhao's piece. In the early seventies, that type of analysis seemed superfluous. The original meaning of the passage, was, after all, quite clear.


That the understanding of Analects 12.1 varied from one reader to another should not surprise us. The Analects is, after all, a collection of diverse aphorisms from the fifth century B.C. ostensibly recorded by Confucius' disciples after the Master's death. Modern scholarship has further shown that the text was not composed by one person at all, but is made up of a number of "textual layers" compiled by different people over a lengthy period of time.(45) In short, while the text presents the reader with a generally consistent view, any interpretation to a passage as open to different readings as 12.1 is inevitably tentative. As the Qing scholars demonstrated so eloquently, philologically sound arguments can be made for at least three basic readings of the phrase: 1) to overcome the self and return to propriety is Goodness, 2) to be able of one's self to return to propriety is Goodness, 3) to take responsibility on oneself to return to propriety is Goodness. None of the three arguments is conclusive; the precise intention of the single individual who first recorded the phrase some time in the Zhou Dynasty is, pending the discovery of new material, lost to us.

Nor should it surprise us that the interpretation of a given scholar was the product of his age. No aphorism is more prevalent in Western scholarship of recent years than that which warns that no interpretation is completely objective, hermetically sealed from the intellectual and social environment in which the interpreter writes. What is surprising is that the Analects--a text that in itself is not particularly remarkable--should become the locus of this much attention. But then, perhaps it is misguided to say that the Analects "itself" was the focus of attention. Rather, it was the means by which attention was drawn to particular issues, that is, a philosophical and political language. As early as the Han, and certainly by the Song, even a concept as complex and fundamental as human nature could only be discussed in this limited, yet flexible language, the language of the commentarial tradition.

1 The author would like to thank Professors Albert Dien, P. J. Ivanhoe, and Steven Van Zoeren for their comments.

2 See James Legge, Confucius: Confucian Analects, the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean (rpt., New York: Dover, 1947), 115; William Soothill, The Analects (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1947), 115; A. Lyall, The Sayings of Confucius (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1925); Wing-Tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1963); D. C. Lau, Confucius: The Analects (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), 112.

3 Ezra Pound, Confucius (New York: New Directions, 1969), 243.

4 Arthur Waley, The Analects of Confucius (New York: Vintage, 1938), 162.

5 He Yan, Lunyu jijie (reprint of the ganjun edition), 6.7b, in Wuqiubei zhai Lunyu jicheng, ed. Feng Lingyan (Taibei: Yiwen, 1966) (hereafter WQBZ), 2.2.

6 Wang Rongbao, Fa yan yishu (Taibei: Yiwen, 1951), 8.11a. See also the notes by Wang that follow, summarizing the interpretations of 12.1 up to Zhu Xi.

7 Ibid.

8 Cf. Lunyu Kongzhu bian'e by Shen Tao in Lunyu fuji ji qita yizhong (Shanghai: Shangwu, 1939). The first to challenge the Kong commentary was Yan Roju whose argument is summarized in Benjamin Elman's From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard Univ., 1984), 177-79.

9 Huang Kan, Lunyu yishu (reprint of the Genji edition), 6.22 b; WQBZ, 2.10.

10 Cf. Siku quanshu zongmu (Taibei: Yiwen, 1974), 35.4, according to which the text was lost to China in the Southern Song. Chinese scholars of the late imperial period first learned of the existence of a copy of Huang's text with the publication of a new edition in Japan in 1670.

11 Xing Bing, Lunyu zhushu (reprint of the Ming edition), 12.2a; WQBZ, 4.7.

12 Ibid.

13 Zhu Xi, Lunyu jizhu, in Sishu zhangju jizhu (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1983), 131.

14 Ibid., 132.

15 I.e., Lunyu jizhu, 54, 61, and 90.

16 Ibid., 175-76.

17 Ibid., 50.

18 Ibid., 155.

19 Ibid., 149.

20 Cf. Analects, 14.24.

21 A quotation from Lu Dalin (1044-90), Keji ming in Song-Yuan xuean, comp. Huang Zongxi (Taibei: Huashi, 1987), 1105.

22 Analects, 12.2.

23 Analects, 14.37.

24 My translation here is based, with some emendations, on that of Wing-tsit Chan in his Instructions for Practical Living (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1963), 226, no. 285.

25 From Chan, A Source Book, 705-6, with minor emendations.

26 Here, Deqing is employing the scheme seen in the Da xue.

27 Hanshan Deqing, in Hanshan Dashi mengyou quanji, 44.406b, in Chanzong jicheng (Taibei: Yiwen, 1968), 25.17034b.

28 "Da wen er, xingxue kaimeng dawen", in Lingfeng Ouyi Dashi zonglun (1801 edition), 3.2.25b.

29 Cf. Lunyu dianjing buzhu (reprint of the 1934 edition), WQBZ, 8.5.

30 Namely, vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and consciousness.

31 Lai Yonghai goes into this topic in some detail in his Zhongguo foxing lun (Shanghai: Shanghai Renmin, 1988). See also Whalen Lai, "The Pure and the Impure: The Mencian Problematik in Chinese Buddhism," in Early Ch'an in China and Tibet, ed. Lai and Lancaster (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1983), 299-326.

32 Mengzi ziyi shuzheng, C25a, in Zhihai (Shanghai: Dadong, 1935), 130. The passage is translated slightly differently in Ann-ping Chin and Mansfield Freedman, Tai Chen on Mencius: Explorations in Words and Meaning (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990), 170.

33 Zuo zhuan, Duke Zhao 12th year (Ruan Yuan edition): 45.38, in Shisanjing zhushu (Taibei: Yiwen, 1965).

34 In support of Yu Yue's argument, the reader should note that the words "others" (ren) and "goodness" (ren) are homophonous. In other words, the passage may be an example of the sort of serious "play on words" at the source of so many key concepts of early Chinese thought.

35 Yu Yue, Lunyu pingyi (reprint of Yu Yue's Qunjing pingyi 30), 31.6b; WQBZ 25.3.

36 In his commentary to the Hou Han shu passage, the Tang scholar, Li Xian, defines the term ke ji as "to hold oneself and not others responsible". The passage comes from the biography of Cang Hong, in Hou Han shu (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1982), 58.1888. It is cited in connection with Analects 12.1 in Huang Shisan's Lunyu houan (reprint of the 1883 edition), la; WQBZ, 10.7. In his Lunyu shuzheng (reprint of the 1948 edition), 199, Yang Shuda cites yet another passage from the Hou Han shu that supports the "responsible" gloss; WQBZ, 14.2.

37 Shuowen jiezi gulin (Taibei: Shangwu, 1959), 3061.

38 Elman, 56.

39 Analects, 8.7.

40 Analects, 9.11.

41 Waley, 162, note. I have converted the original romanization from Wade-Giles to pinyin.

42 Daxue zhangju, in Sishu zhangju jizhu, 4.

43 See Kam Louie's lucid study, Critiques of Confucius in Contemporary China (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980), especially chapter 5, "The Anti-Confucius Movement: The Early Seventies."

44 Workers, Peasants and Soldiers Criticize Lin Piao and Confucius (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1976), 15-16. I have changed the romanization to pinyin.

45 See, for example, H. G. Creel's discussion in Confucius: The Man and the Myth (New York: John Day, 1949), 291-94.
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Author:Kieschnick, John
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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