Anthology of small texts from Confucius and his pupils that depict Confucius as a man and chronicle some of his life events. Confucius’s personal followers may have started the work after his death in 479 BCE. The English title, “brief sayings of Confucius,” reflects the belief that it was swiftly collected and accurate in traditional China.
The Chinese term, Lunyu 論語, translates to “collated conversations.” Modern historians say the text was compiled over two to three centuries and is not a credible account of Confucius’s statements or opinions. The Analects, like the biblical Gospels, record Confucius’s image and ideas from the perspectives of many branches of his school of thought.
This online translation with basic comments makes it easier to get an English translation of this important document. It is intended for undergraduate teaching and does not replace scholarly editions.
My interpretations may not reflect consensus readings (there are, and always have been, alternative interpretations of many of the text’s most intriguing passages, starting from passage 1.1).
In this brief introduction to the text, I will briefly discuss Confucius’s life and social environment, review some general ways analysts date the Analects’ component parts, and discuss key terms, translation, and personal names.
In English, Kong Qiu 孔丘 is known as “Confucius” after being born in 551 BCE near a small Shandong Peninsula ducal realm. The Zhou (established in 1045 BCE), a powerful royal state, had dispatched members of its upper aristocracy to control portions of its empire as hereditary lords, subjects of the Zhou king but masters of their local domains if they stayed loyal.
Non-Zhou nomadic peoples raided the Zhou capital and killed the Zhou king in 771 BCE, weakening the Zhou kings and making feudal lords de facto sovereigns over essentially autonomous kingdoms and statelets.
Confucius’s day saw incessant warfare, the further devolution of power from the Zhou-appointed feudal houses to subordinate families that managed to accumulate power locally, and the rising fluidity of social mobility encouraged by this type of open competition for power, as intelligence and warrior skills in their assistants proved more valuable.
Confucius’s father was a low aristocrat from Lu 魯, a medium-sized state. Our best sources say he was a key aide to a “grandee” family. During his reign, this family controlled a domain on Lu’s southern border near Zou 鄹, a non-Zhou cultural area owned by the most powerful in Lu.
The family’s do-main was moved north just before Confucius’s birth, but Confucius’s father, an older man with no healthy boys from his principal wife and his concubines, picked a Zou lady as a concubine. She gave birth to Confucius soon.
Confucius’s father died three years later, and he grew up with his mother’s family near the Lu-Zhou border. Adulthood sent him to Lu’s feudal center to seek social status based on his father’s connections.
The state of Lu was proud that its rightful lords, the dukes of Lu, sprang from the Duke of Zhou, a famous brother of the Zhou royal founder.
After the Zhou royal house fell, Lu became the finest storehouse of Zhou aristocratic culture. However, powerful warlord families took over Lu’s administration and wealth in the sixth century, marginalizing the rightful ducal dynasty and altering Lu’s unique government form and ceremonial ritual.
Confucius likely was a semi-outsider when he sought his fortune in Lu, the son of a “mixed” relationship between a Lu man who had long lived in Zou and a non-Zhou lady (see text 3.15).
Confucius was known for advocating a puristic resurrection of Zhou traditions in court conduct, religious ceremonial, and all aspects of life.
He became a specialist in these traditions, and Confucius became famous for his argument that recreating early Zhou civilization through its ritual forms, or “li,” would restore order to “the world.” The Analects focus on Confucius’s view of Zhou society and why he believed its patterns could construct a new utopia.
Through his grasp of Zhou cultural patterns, Confucius taught young aristocracy seeking polish and gained some significance in Lu through their ties. He and some of his adherents tried to undertake a great restorationist plan in Lu to restore authority to the ducal house.
After 500 BCE, when Confucius was fifty, the scheme failed, forcing him to leave his native state. He roamed eastern China with a retinue of disciples for 15 years, looking for a ruler who would hire him and embrace his principles.
The Analects depict significant occasions in these unsuccessful voyages. A few years before his death, Ran Qiu, one of Confucius’s senior followers, invited him back to Lu, where he taught young men the literary, ritual, and musical arts he believed were vital to Zhou culture.
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Julianne has a bachelor’s in communication and journalism working with Psychic Spirituality & Relationships. She has also practiced numerology, tarot, and other psychic arts.