Confucius didn't mean that

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We often encounter fake "Oriental wisdom" that purports to come from the ancient sages.  So much of it clogs the internet that it is very hard to keep track of what is genuine and what is false.  And then there's the (in)famous pseudo-linguistics of the "Crisis = danger + opportunity" trope which has captured the occidental imagination.

Another type of distortion and misinformation concerning Chinese thought are actual quotations of an ancient sage's words that are misused and misinterpreted to imply something other than what was originally intended.

In "Things Confucius Never Said", The World of Chinese (10/9/21), Sun Jiahui has assembled a group of five such abused quotations attributed to Confucius.  Since she has done such a superb job of presenting them, I will make only minor adaptations in giving them here.

以德报怨 yǐdé bàoyuàn

Return good for ill

This is a chengyu that comes from The Analects (《Lúnyǔ 论语》), a collection teachings and stories involving Confucius written during the Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE), which means to repay evil with good. It is often quoted, and also frequently criticized as an unattainable moral requirement. However, Confucius was not in favor of this idea at all. According to The Analects, a citizen asked Confucius his opinion about the concept of “repaying evil with good,” and Confucius expressed his opposition. The sage’s full reply went: “If you return good for evil, what do you return for good? One should return injustice with justice, and repay good with good ("Yǐ dé bàoyuàn, héyǐ bào dé? Yǐ zhí bàoyuàn, yǐ dé bào dé 以德报怨,何以报德? 以直报怨,以德报德).”

愚不可及 yúbùkějí

Couldn’t be more foolish

This is another widely-used idiom from The Analects. Today, this term is used to criticize someone for their stupidity—it's even defined as such in modern dictionaries. But Confucius originally used it as a compliment regarding Ning Wuzi (宁武子), an official of the State of Wei in the Spring and Autumn period (770 – 476 BCE). Confucius observed that Ning was adept at using his substantial governing talents when the political climate was good and the ruler righteous, but when the ruler was fatuous or tyrannical, Ning would purposely play dumb and work slowly to avoid assisting rulers in promoting foolish policies. “It’s not difficult to fulfill one’s talent, but it’s difficult to pretend to be foolish as he does (Qí zhī kě jí yě, qí yúbùkějí yě 其知可及也,其愚不可及也),” Confucius said, praising Ning for his political wisdom.

三思而后行 sānsī ér hòu xíng

Think thrice before acting

When you are about to make a major decision, your family or friends may cite Confucius and advise you to act prudently and “think three times before acting.” This phrase is also from The Analects, but again, Confucius didn’t actually endorse this practice, and even felt it gratuitous. According to The Analects, when Confucius heard that Ji Wenzi (季文子), an official of the State of Lu during the Spring and Autumn period, often “thought three times before taking any action,” the sage commented: “Thinking twice is enough (Zài, sī kě yǐ 再,斯可矣).” Though Confucius felt appropriate caution was necessary, he disproved of unnecessary wavering, and warned people not to become irresolute and hesitant.

言必行,行必果 yán bì xíng, xíng bì guǒ

Be trustworthy in word and resolute in action

Today, this phrase is a compliment used to describe someone who always keeps their word—but Confucius didn’t intend it this way.

The phrase comes from a conversation between Confucius and his student Zi Gong (子贡) on how to identify people of virtue. Zi Gong asked Confucius what kind of person could be regarded as shi (士)—a term referring to people of virtue and talent. Confucius replied: “They should know what is shameful, and be able to discipline themselves; aim to make contributions to society; and always act like a junzi (君子, respectable person).”

Zi Gong then asked: “What about people inferior to shi, what are they like?” Confucius answered: “Their clan praise them for their filial piety, and their communities praise them for being friendly.”

Finally, Zi Gong asked: “What about those of even lower standing than them?” The sage then replied: “They keep to their every word and are stubborn in every action. They are obstinate, and act like small men (Yán bì xìn, xíng bì guǒ, kēngkēngrán xiǎo rén zāi 言必信,行必果,硁硁然小人哉).” Here, Confucius suggests that being dogmatic and inflexible, and keeping to one’s word without consideration for changes in circumstances, are undesirable traits.

唯女子与小人难养也 wéi nǚzǐ yǔ xiǎorén nán yǎng yě

Women and small men are hard to deal with

Many have accused Confucius of sexism because of this infamous quote, while it is still wielded by modern day misogynists to complain about women. Literally, this quote means “only women and xiaoren are hard to deal with.” Confucius later explained why this was so: “If you get too close to them, they will become impertinent; if you alienate them, they will hate you.”

The main controversy comes from the placement of “xiaoren (小人)” and women in the same phrase. Xiaoren is a negative concept frequently mentioned in The Analects and refers to cruel men, men of small minds, or snobs depending on the context. Xiaoren are the opposite of the ideal Confucian man, junzi, and equating them with women (nǚzǐ 女子) represents a serious insult to that gender.

However, this may not have been exactly what Confucius sought to express. According to Zhu Xi (朱熹), a Confucian scholar who lived in the Song dynasty (960 – 1279) and whose commentaries on Confucian thought were considered to be official interpretations in the imperial examination in later dynasties, nǚzǐ 女子 in this sentence didn’t refer to all women. Instead, Zhu argued, Confucius was talking only of concubines housed by a ruler; while the term xiaoren referred to the servants and slaves of that ruler. By this reading, Confucius meant to say that a ruler needs to deal with his concubines and servants in the proper manner.

Not everyone has bought this explanation, though. There is no evidence to prove Confucius was talking only about concubines rather than all women, and such sexist attitudes toward women may have been common during Confucius’ time. This could be one Confucius quote where the true meaning remains hidden forever.

Which reminds me of a famous Sinological work by Lionel M. Jensen titled Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization (Duke University Press, 1997), which argues that:

…sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Western missionaries used translations of the ancient ru tradition to invent the presumably historical figure who has since been globally celebrated as philosopher, prophet, statesman, wise man, and saint.

Tracing the history of the Jesuits’ invention of Confucius and of themselves as native defenders of Confucius’s teaching, Jensen reconstructs the cultural consequences of the encounter between the West and China. For the West, a principal outcome of this encounter was the reconciliation of empirical investigation and theology on the eve of the scientific revolution. Jensen also explains how Chinese intellectuals in the early twentieth century fashioned a new cosmopolitan Chinese culture through reliance on the Jesuits’ Confucius and Confucianism. Challenging both previous scholarship and widespread belief, Jensen uses European letters and memoirs, Christian histories and catechisms written in Chinese, translations and commentaries on the Sishu [Four Books] and a Latin summary of Chinese culture known as the Confucius Sinarum Philosophus to argue that the national self-consciousness of Europe and China was bred from a cultural ecumenism wherein both were equal contributors.


The current craze for recreating Oriental wisdom wouldn't be the first time it happened in history.  Ex oriente lux!


Selected readings


[h.t. Stefan Krasowski]


  1. ~flow said,

    October 24, 2021 @ 7:19 am

    If one were to look for a redeeming perspective on that last quotation, 唯女子与小人难养也, then Zhu Xi's interpretation of 'concubines and servants' may indeed be helpful.

    Another one is to surmise that Confucius—originally addressing a very specific readership—really meant to say that 'one' (i.e. the noble man, the 君子) should not assume that one's superior position in society or one's superior education per se were enough to know how to deal with people of other walks of life; and since he was (presumably) talking to males of status, other walks include women and generally the unwashed masses. Note that there's no *intent* to denigrate women or people of low status here, it's just a comment on a situation where a very stratified society will produce wildly differing people inhabiting those strata. Insofar this reading can be upheld (and I have no idea whether it's realistic to think so), it's then possible to construe the statement as being a warning to the man of high status: Think not too highly of yourself, for when it comes to dealing with persons of the opposite gender or of lower status, you'll see you understand them very little, and you'll find it quite hard (難) to treat them correctly (養).


  2. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    October 25, 2021 @ 8:41 am

    Wait, this is too much for me — you mean that the Great Eastern Sage might NOT have said that butcher who back into meat grinder get a little behind in his orders? Or that man trapped in pantry might not _necessarily_ have ass in jam? This is paradigm-shifting; next you'll be telling me that Albert Einstein didn't have a workable definition of insanity…

  3. Phil H said,

    October 25, 2021 @ 6:27 pm

    These misunderstandings are pretty sophisticated compared with the nonsense that I often have to deal with in corporate memos. I quite often have misquotes, Frankenstein quotes from different classical authors sewn together, and of course, misunderstandings of the meaning.
    It’s important to note that the post confuses two different thing. Two of the items are chengyus, and three are quotes. Chengyus are no longer quotes from their source text. They are free-floating linguistic objects, and they don’t have to conform to their original usage any more than any other word. The last three, though, aren’t in the chengyu form, and would be recognised as quotes.

  4. Viseguy said,

    October 25, 2021 @ 7:37 pm

    @Benjamin E. Orsatti: It may be crazy, but I read your post over and over, expecting to laugh again — and I do!

  5. Viseguy said,

    October 25, 2021 @ 7:40 pm

    Oh, wait….

  6. William Berry said,

    October 25, 2021 @ 8:53 pm

    @Benjamin E. Orsatti:

    This one might be a little OTT, as they say, but here goes:
    “Confucius says, airplane pilot who flies upside down has nasty crack up”.

  7. Stephen L said,

    October 26, 2021 @ 2:02 pm

    I came across a funny mistranslation (actually, an old slighty 'free' translation that's public domain ) of Horace on inspirational posters:

    "Patience makes lighter what sorrow may not heal"
    "Sed levius fit patientia quidquid corrigere est nefas"

    actually in English being more like "but patience makes lighter what would be *sinful* to fix", which is to me far more entertaining, though maybe less generally applicable than the (mis)translation above.

  8. 번하드 said,

    October 27, 2021 @ 6:08 pm

    Jensen's hypothesis confuses me quite a lot: what about the history and strong role of Confucianism in Joseon/Korea? Did the Jesuits retcon there, too, in the same way, maybe controlled by The World Wide Jesuit Bureau for Fake History Design?

  9. Terpomo said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 2:43 pm

    It seems like that happens inevitably to 'canonical' texts that are still read centuries later in their original form; there's plenty of verses in the Bible that people today misunderstand, especially if they're going by the King James version without realizing the differences in our English (e.g. "avoid all appearance of evil"), or in Shakespeare (e.g. all the parodies that have Juliet lamenting "wherefore art thou Romeo?" and Romeo announcing "I'm over here!") There's probably also some passages where the literal meaning is still transparent but the meaning in context is misunderstood, like Polonius's famous speech.

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