CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 18, June 2009


In Quest of the Authentic Confucius | China Heritage Quarterly
Book Cover: Confucius-A Life of Though and Politics

In Quest of the Authentic Confucius

John Makeham

English-language translations of the Analects continue to be an important genre introducing readers to Confucius (trad. 551-479 BCE) and his teachings. Over the past decade or so, several fine translations have appeared. Those of Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans) (1997), E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks (1998), Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont Jr. (1998), Edward Slingerland (2003) and Burton Watson (2007) stand out in particular.[1] Surprisingly, however, ever since the publication of Herlee G. Creel's Confucius: the Man and the Myth which appeared exactly sixty years ago, there have been few book-length biographies of Confucius in English and even fewer in which authors attempt to develop their narratives on the basis of reliable historical sources.

One recent publication in which the author does attempt to do this is Annping Chin's Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics.[2] As she explains: 'I considered including many more stories of Confucius written before the first century…. but a more careful reading convinced me that most of the stories were inventions' (p.5). As for records of Confucius' travels scattered throughout the Analects and in diverse Warring States-era writings, 'they appear either as fragments or as isolated episodes, and most of the episodes are either too tidy, too self-conscious, or too well-crafted to be authentic' (p.85). I will return to the problematic, but pivotal, issue of identifying just which stories, anecdotes and other material relating to the life of Confucius are, in fact, 'authentic' rather than invented or apocryphal.

The first of the book's eight chapters, 'Leaving Home', explores why Confucius left his home state Lu in 497 BCE when he was fifty-four. Chin explains that her story begins here because this was 'the point where Confucius enters the records of history' (p.6). The account focuses on his relations with various rebellious retainers of the Ji clan, the three powerful families of hereditary counselors in the state of Lu. A strength of this chapter is the use of accounts in Zuozhuan to cast an inter-textual light on several Analects passages. However, considerable discussion is generated on the basis of Chin's unquestioning acceptance of the traditional identification of the Ji family retainer Yang Hu 楊虎 with Yang Huo 陽貨 of Analects 17.1. As D.C. Lau has shown, there are difficulties in making this identification.[3]

'Families and Politics' introduces a number of detailed stories about sixth-century counselors found in Zuozhuan, most of which relate only tangentially to the Confucius of the Analects or Zuozhuan. The purpose of the chapter seems to be to provide some insight into Confucius's views about what makes a good counselor, although Confucius himself barely features in this chapter. The third chapter, 'Companions', presents anecdotes involving the disciples Zaiwo, Zigong, Yan Hui, Zilu and Ran Qiu and Confucius' relationship with them. These disciples accompanied Confucius, at various periods, on his fourteen years of wandering after he left Lu in 497. Chin's material is drawn principally from passages in the Analects.

'Wanderings' covers Confucius' travels between 497 and 484, a period which presents 'a challenge for the historical imagination' (p.85). Here Chin draws on accounts in Zhuangzi, Mencius, Xunzi, Shiji and Zuozhuan for her narrative. Topics featured in this chapter include Confucius' trip to Wei 衛 and his attempts to secure employment there; the deadly encounter in Song 宋; speculations about Confucius' views of women; being trapped between Chen 陳 and Cai 蔡; Confucius' conversations with the governor in She 葉; and extended discussion of the Upright Gong (Analects 13.18) story. The cluster of stories at Analects 18.5-18.8 about madmen and recluses is also conscripted into the narrative.

The title of chapter five, 'Return', relates to Confucius' return to Wei in 485. Discussion focuses on the disciples Ran Qiu and Zigong, both of whom had by then established political sinecures; the ongoing political and other machinations of the Three Families; and anecdotes featuring Zizhang and Zixia, based on passages in the Analects. The following chapter, 'Teaching', discusses stories about Confucius the teacher and his views on teaching drawn from the Analects; various disciples' perspectives on Confucius as a teacher; Confucius' views on music, filial piety, and benevolence/humaneness (ren); and Confucius' alleged execution of Shaozheng Mao, a story which, incidentally, remains politically charged, as was evidenced in the 'criticise Lin Biao, criticise Confucius' (pi Lin pi Kong 批林批孔) campaign of 1973-1974.

'The Rites of Life and Death' presents accounts of Confucius at home and with friends; his views on eating and attire; his behaviour on ritual occasions (consisting mostly of passages culled from the 'Xiangdang' chapter of the Analects); and his death and burial. The final chapter, 'Defenders', provides a potted account of the teachings of Mencius and Xunzi.

It should be pointed out that the book under review is identical in content to the hardback edition published under the Scribner imprint in 2007 (right down to the pagination and same few typographical errors): The Authentic Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics. No explanation is given for the change of title, prompting the curious reader to speculate—probably unjustifiably—that the author may have developed some second thoughts about how authentic her reconstructed Confucius was, after the benefit of two more years of reflection. Nothing else in the new edition, however, suggests any reservations. Whatever may be the reason for the change in title, Chin's stated aim in writing the book remained unchanged: 'To outsiders like us…we give [Confucius] credit for all that has gone right and wrong in China because we do not really know him. That is the reason why I wrote this book. I wanted to know Confucius, and I wanted the book to be a discovery…. As I was writing this book, the drive became a tighter search for the authentic Confucius' (p. 2).

To some extent, this goal is reminiscent of Simon Leys' attempts to recapture the 'real' Confucius whose distant but 'unique voice' he discerns throughout the Analects: 'The strong and complex individuality of the Master is the very back-bone of the book, and defines its unity… Confucius can speak for himself across twenty-five centuries.' To shore up his position, he quoted the French novelist Julien Gracq on the subject of the credibility of the gospels in the light of modern textual scholarship. In relation to one such scholar, Leys paraphrased Gracq as saying:

The scholar in question simply had no ear he could not hear what should be so obvious to any sensitive reader that underlying the text of the Gospels, there is a masterly and powerful unity of style, which derives from one unique and inimitable voice; there is the presence of one singular and exceptional personality whose expression is so original, so bold that one could positively call it impudent (xx).

Unlike Leys, however, in her effort to recover an image of the historical Confucius based on reliable sources, Annping Chin casts her net much wider than the Analects. Yet despite the commendable efforts involved, the results suffer from a lack of sustained scholarly rigour. For the past two thousand years, traditional accounts of the chronology of events marking the course of Confucius' life have been based on Sima Qian's (ca.145-ca.86) narrative reconstructions and chronological tables in the Records of the [Grand] Historian. Chin prudently recognizes that Sima Qian was also a story-teller whose commitment to a continuous narrative seems often to have outweighed his commitment to veracity (or indeed, even to consistency)[5], prompting her decision not to defer uncritically to his chronology of events or even to his accounts of various aspects of Confucius life: 'A significant part of my version of Confucius's life is, therefore, a response to Sima Qian's. Mine is not a continuous narrative like his; the gaps reflect the gaps in the sources' (p.6). Yet in the same breath, she also seems to betray uncritical deference to a common methodological fallacy: 'Because Sima Qian was situated much closer in time to Confucius than we are (five hundred years as opposed to twenty-five hundred), if we question his accuracy at any point we have to be well prepared to say why we are challenging him' (p.5). Now, although the recommendation being made in the second half of this sentence is sound, the assumption that seems to be lurking here—viz. simply because one source is less removed in time than another source from some historical event, therefore the earlier source is more reliable—is definitely not sound. More explicit expressions of this methodological fallacy are: 'Since Mencius was… a second generation disciple of Confucius' grandson, he must have been better informed than Sima Qian' (p.28), and the claim that Zhuangzi is a more reliable source than Shiji for reconstructing Confucius' travels because Zhuangzi 'lived two hundred years earlier than Sima Qian and so two hundred years closer to Confucius' time' (p.86).

There is thus some irony in Chin's acknowledgement of a debt to Qing-dynasty evidential scholarship (pp.251-252). Although evidential learning had no strict ideological commitment to Han sources, for many Qing scholars, Han philological works proved to be the key to recovering the lost meaning of the pre-Han texts. This recovery was premised on the idea that Song and Ming sources were sullied with the heterodox ideas of Buddhism, Daoism, and Neo-Confucian thought and that only the Han commentaries had not been corrupted by Buddhist and Daoist notions. The great philologist, Ruan Yuan (1764–1849), for example, related that although in his youth he began studying Song writers, he felt he was coming ever closer to the real meaning of the classical teachings as he gradually proceeded backward to Tang, Jin, Wei, and finally to Han writers.[6] More pertinently, a related hermeneutic consideration motivating Qing scholars to privilege Han interpretations was the naïve belief that because there was less historical distance separating Han scholars from the sages of antiquity, their interpretations were more valid than those of later scholars. The following comments by Ruan Yuan typify this reasoning:

The glosses written by people in the Han period were particularly close to the time of the sages and worthies. This is analogous to people from Wu being able to understand the language of the people from Yue, whereas people from Chu are not able to do so. Or again, while my grandfather was alive, he saw the physical form of my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather; I, however, have not. Accordingly, the accounts provided by those who live later are never as good as those who lived earlier.[7]

As for the separate issue of the reliability of Zhuangzi as a historical source for reconstructing events in the life of Confucius, curiously there was a traditional belief, dating to at least the Tang dynasty, that Zhuangzi (mid-fourth? to early-third century BCE) was an heir to the teachings of Confucius.[8] A.C. Graham also notes that the 'Inner Chapters [of Zhuangzi], permeated by an obsession of the life and legend of Confucius, invite the suspicion that the author must have been brought up a Confucian…. It is almost as if Confucius were a father-figure whose blessing the rebellious son likes to imagine would have been granted in the end.'[9] In the Outer and Mixed chapters of Zhuangzi, however, especially in the dialogues with Laozi, and in the Yangist compilations, 'Dao Zhi' (Robber Zhi) and 'Yu fu' (The Old Fisherman), Confucius is portrayed far less sympathetically. Yet, sympathetically portrayed or otherwise, Confucius is the most cited character in the whole of Zhuangzi, and the frequency with which he is cited allows the various contributors to that composite collection plenty of scope to use him as a spokesman for a host of opinions—there is no consistent image of Confucius in that text.

Statue of Confucius at the Confucius Temple at Guozijian, Beijing. Photograph: John Powers
Statue of Confucius at the Confucius Temple at Guozijian, Beijing. Photograph: John Powers

To take one example, consider the story about Confucius and his followers' running into difficulties between Chen and Cai (Analects 15.2). No less than seven different versions of the story are recorded in Zhuangzi, each with its own unique variations. Which version—if any—should be relied upon? Yet not only does Chin avoid the issue of the composite nature of Zhuangzi and the attendant issues of dating its component parts, in her discussion of the Chen-Cai story, she simply assumes that the Analects version of the story must be the original version and is content to discuss the Analects version in the light of one version of the story as recorded in Zhuangzi (without so much as mentioning the existence of the other six).[10] We have no evidence to confirm that the Analects version of the story predates all seven versions found in Zhuangzi. Chin did not consider the possibility that the apparent direction of the textual borrowing is actually from Zhuangzi to the Analects rather than vice versa; or that all passages ultimately derive from a third source that predated both texts.

The question of the date and composition of the Analects is even more problematic. Traditional accounts identify the writers-cum-compilers of the Analects as Confucius' first- and/or second-generation disciples. Chin subscribes to this traditional belief: 'The idea of putting these records into a collection probably took shape within a hundred years or so after Confucius' death' (p.4). She suspects that the followers who feature in the beginning and end of the book probably initiated the project. Accepting that it is 'more a repository than a book' (p.3), she nevertheless insists that from 'this collection alone, we are able to learn what Confucius thought about the early heroes and the people of his time; how he felt about archery contests, music and musicians, poetry and speech; and what he understood about human nature and human potential' (p. 4). Over the past fifteen years, a substantial body of scholarly argument critical of traditional accounts of the dating and composition of the Analects has been published. Chin does not address any of this scholarship.[11] It is understandable why one might disagree with particular revisionist accounts of the dating and composition of the Analects;[12] it is less apparent why a professional historian should choose to ignore key arguments. Given the centrality of the Analects to Annping Chin's project, this lacuna is, at the very least, anomalous. We may claim with justifiable confidence that a real historical Confucius lived around 500 BCE. We cannot claim the same sort of confidence, however, in our answers to questions such as 'Who wrote the Analects?' or 'How much of the Analects is a record of Confucius' or his contemporaries' ipsissima verba?' Chin presents no arguments or evidence to warrant new confidence.

Over the past four decades, the discovery and publication of an important body of archaeologically recovered texts—including many previously unattested texts—has stimulated debate about issues of authorship, transmission, and interpretation.[13] The manuscripts excavated from tombs at Mawangdui 馬王堆, Dingxian 定縣, Guodian 郭店, the collections of Chu 楚 bamboo strip texts purchased by the Shanghai Museum and, most recently by Tsinghua University,[14] are of especial importance. Chin states that all the texts in the Guodian and Shanghai Museum Chu bamboo strip collections 'had an influence on this book' (p.7) but does not explain how. In the most extended discussion of the topic (in a note discussing Confucius' disciple Zhonggong 仲弓), she relates: 'Among the recently excavated texts there is one in the Shanghai Museum collection that is entitled Zhonggong. The discovery created a lot of excitement within the scholarly community. The text, however, did not add much to what was recorded in Analects 13:2 and the Kongzi jiayu' (p.232 n.83). By contrast, one of China's leading experts on bamboo and silk manuscripts, Peking University palaeographer, Li Ling 李零 (who, as it happens, has recently also published a best-selling annotated commentary on the Analects[15]), cites this same manuscript to demonstrate the strong possibility that our received version of the Analects, in whole or in part, consists of passages extracted or digested from texts that are themselves assorted collections of sayings and records of events and people.[16]

The other source that Chin describes as 'central' (p.4) to her book is Zuozhuan, yet she again avoids the problem of its composition. We know that the creation and transmission of Zuozhuan was subject to a long process of accretion. Thus there are speeches and narratives that may date to the sixth or fifth centuries BCE and there are explanations and judgments appended to those speeches and narratives that may date to the fourth century BCE. Yet the editorial commitment to a year-by-year chronology for the text might date from as late as the third or even second centuries BCE.[17] This has implications about how we might use Zuozhuan to reconstruct events in Confucius' life.

A few non-textual issues warranting critical scrutiny also stand out. Chin accepts that Zisi was Confucius' grandson and that it was through Zisi's disciples that Mencius gained detailed knowledge of Confucius' life which in turned informed the eponymous Mencius (pp.193-194). Elsewhere she variously describes Zisi as Mencius' teacher (pp.208); and Mencius as 'a second generation disciple of Confucius' grandson' (p.28). Yet as Mark Csikszentmihayi has cogently argued, there is little evidence to support the traditional identification of Zisi as the grandson of Confucius before the Han.[18] Here I must confess to having a vested interest in this issue, having expressed strong reservations about attempts by Chinese scholars to accord Zisi a pivotal role in the various attempts (historical and contemporary) to establish a link in the transmission of teachings from Confucius to Mencius. My concerns center on issues relating to intellectual orthodoxy and to ruxue-centered cultural nationalism, as evidenced in the attempts by many contemporary mainland scholars to connect Zisi with the Guodian and other texts.[19]

In the last part of book, devoted to Xunzi, Chin maintains:

Xunzi had a brief redress in the eighteenth century under the Qing…. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, the political agenda would once again dictate the scholars' perception of Xunzi. Some of the smartest and most progressive minds of that era would accuse Xunzi of being a defender of absolute rule; they would again point to his theory on human nature as lacking a moral directive; and they would drag him out just as a foil to Mencius, who was their favorite Confucian (pp.218-219).

We are not told who these 'smartest and most progressive minds' were. Perhaps the incident Chin had in mind was the anti-Xunzi movement of the late 1890s led by a young Liang Qichao (1873-1929) (who at the time still aligned himself with New Text scholarship), Tan Sitong (1865-1898), and other New Text partisans. In fact, by the end of the nineteenth century, riding on the crest of a major revival of interest in Masters Studies (zhuzixue 諸子學), there was a huge resurgence of interest in Xunzi and his writings. In 1897, Zhang Taiyan (1869-1936) had already published 'Later Sage' (Hou sheng) in which he placed Xunzi on an equal footing with Confucius and claimed that for over two thousand years the meaning of Xunzi's essays such as 'On the Correct Use of Names' (Zheng ming) and 'Discourse on Ritual' (Li lun) had not been properly understood. Over the following decade, leading intellectuals such as Wang Guowei (1887-1927), Liu Shipei (1884-1919), and even a re-invented Liang Qichao singled out Xunzi's 'On the Correct Use of Names' essay along with parts of Mozi in their effort to identify logic in the writings of the pre-Qin masters. Another important factor contributing to renewed interest in masters and other non-canonical texts in the late nineteenth century was the perception of their practical value. As Hao Chang observes:

As the philosophical interest in the noncanonical ancient texts spread, interest in them tended to become more practical than theoretical, inasmuch as some intellectuals turned to these texts not so much out of intellectual curiosity as out of concerns with practical problems of life and society. In this way, classical texts such as Hsün Tzu, Mo Tzu, and those of Legalism, became intellectual resources for the growing moral and political activism of the closing decades of the nineteenth century.[20]

One last example: according to Chin, 'Confucius does not appear to have arrived at any definitive position about human nature or the heart; or if he did, he did not state it.[21] The Analects (5.13) says, "It is possible to know about Confucius' cultural accomplishments, but not his views on human nature and Nature's way" ' (p.163). As it happens, elsewhere in the Analects it also says that 'Confucius seldom talked about profit, about what had been ordained by heaven (ming 命), and about humaneness (ren 仁)' (9.1). Thus understood,[22] the claim made in 9.1 is clearly preposterous, not least because ren is the most ubiquitous concept in the text. Analects 5.13 and 9.1 serve merely to underscore the composite nature of the text. Pace Chin, for the past two millennia traditional commentators have had little difficulty in identifying Analects 17.2 (frequently paired with 17.3) as the definitive statement of Confucius' views on human nature.

This book is obviously aimed at the general reader and undergraduate students: endnotes and dates are pared to the minimum and there is no use of Chinese characters in the text or notes. The sort of issues I have raised in this review would be of little interest to this readership. Yet writing on historical topics, even for a non-specialist readership, should not relinquish authors of the responsibility to interrogate their sources with rigour. Annping Chin has gone some way towards fulfilling this responsibility as evidenced by her decision not to follow Sima Qian's narrative reconstruction of Confucius' life and by rejecting many apocryphal stories about Confucius found in Warring States and Han sources. The book could have been improved if she had delved more deeply, and critically, into the reliability of other key sources as well—not least, the Analects itself. (The scholarly apparatus for doing so could have been contained in the notes.) Finally, on a more subjective note, I would have preferred it if the hagiographic portrayal of Confucius had been a little more muted. Surely we have enough of those.


[1] In a review of Watson's translation, I compare it to these other translations, as well as to that by D.C. Lau; see Journal of Chinese Studies, (2009) 49, in press.

[2] New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

[3] Lau raises four problems; see his Confucius: The Analects (Lun yü), Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1992, p.216.

[4] Simon Leys, The Analects of Confucius, New York & London: Norton, 1997, pp. xxi, xvii.

[5] Trying to get a consistent chronology out of Sima Qian's reconstruction of Confucius' life is frequently an exercise in futility.

[6] Ruan Yuan, 'Notes from the Refined Study for Glossing the Classics at West Lake' (Xihu gujing jingshe ji), p.61, in Notes from the Refined Study for Glossing the Classics (Gujing jingshe ji), Comprehensive Collection of Collectanea, New Series (Congshu jicheng xinbian) edition, Taipei: Xinwenfeng Chubanshe, 1985.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Han Yu (768-824), for example, asserted a direct line of transmission from Zixia to Tian Zifang to Zhuangzi. See Han Yu, 'Preface Presented to "Flourishing Talent" Wang Xun (Song Wang Xun Xiucai xu), in Han Yu's Collected Writings (Changli xiansheng ji), Complete Library in Four Divisions (Sibu congkan) edition, p.20.6a. In more recent times, Guo Moruo similarly proposed that Zhuangzi may have been an heir to the Yan Hui lineage of Confucius' teachings. See Guo Moruo, 'Critique of Zhuangzi' (Zhuangzi de pipan), in The Complete Works of Guo Moruo, Volume on History (Guo Moruo quanji, Lishi bian), vol.2, Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe, 1982, pp.188-212.

[9] A.C. Graham, Chuang-tzu: The Inner Chapters, London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1986, pp.117, 118.

[10] This story is also recorded in many other Warring States writings.

[11] In English, see, for example, the following: E. Bruce and A. Taeko Brooks, The Original Analects: Sayings of Confucius and His Successors, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998; Mark Csikszentmihalyi, 'Confucius and the Analects in the Han', in Confucius and the Analects: New Essays, edited by Bryan W. Van Norden, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002; John Makeham, 'On the Formation of Lun yu as a Book', Monumenta Serica, (1996) 44, pp.1-25. In my article I argue that it was not until around 150-140 BCE that the Analects came into existence as a book and that this book was based on a number of earlier 'collected sayings' of the Master. Chin does list the Brookses' translation-cum-study in her bibliography but does not discuss it or even refer to it elsewhere in the book.

[12] For one example, see my review of E. Bruce and A. Taeko Brooks, The Original Analects in China Review International, (1999) 6.1, 1-33.

[13] A good introduction to the topic of the composition of early Chinese texts is William G. Boltz, 'The Composite Nature of Early Chinese Texts,' in Text and Ritual in Early China, edited by Martin Kern, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005.

[14] 'Tsinghua Acquires Warring States Bamboo Strips from Chu'. Tsinghua University News, 24 October. Retrieved on 29 May, 2009.

[15] Li Ling, Dog Without a Home: My Reading of the Analects (Sang jia gou: wo du Lunyu), Taiyuan: Shanxi Renmin Chubanshe, 2007.

[16] Li Ling, Old Silk and Bamboo Texts and the Origin and Development of Scholarship (Jianbo gushu yu xueshu yuanliu), Beijing: Sanlian Shudian, 2004, pp.298-299, 324.

[17] Wai-yee Li, The Readability of the Past in Early Chinese Historiography, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007, p.37.

[18] Mark Csikszentmihayi, Material Virtue: Ethics and the Body in Early China, Leiden: Brill, 2004, pp.87-100.

[19] See the chapter 'From Doubting the Past to Explaining the Past' in my Lost Soul: 'Confucianism' in Contemporary Chinese Academic Discourse, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008.

[20] Hao Chang, Chinese Intellectuals in Crisis: Search for Order and Meaning (1890-1911), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987, p.12. For specific examples see Liu Zhonghua, Research on Qing-dynasty Masters Studies (Qing dai zhuzixue yanjiu), Beijing: Zhongguo Renmin Daxue Chubanshe, 2004, pp.313-16.

[21] This seems to be inconsistent with Chin's statement cited above that from 'this collection [the Analects] alone, we are able to learn what Confucius…understood about human nature and human potential' (p.4).

[22] For one plausible alternative reading—depending on how much internal consistency one is prepared to acknowledge in the Analects text—see William G. Boltz, 'Word and Word History in the Analects: The Exegesis of Lun Yü IX 1', T'oung Pao, (1983) 69.4-5, pp.261-271.