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Analects | Context


Although The Analects references some historical people and events, the text cannot be viewed as an authoritative historical document. It originates from a time of few historical records and was likely compiled and edited by many different people over many years. Its purpose was to record memories and valued lessons, not to accurately describe every person, place, and relationship. References might be to real or legendary people and places, and conflicts exist between different references to the same event.

Past Dynasties and Rulers

Xia Dynasty (c. 2070 BCE–c. 1600 BCE)

Confucius and his followers reference a number of ideal rulers and three dynasties in The Analects. From a modern perspective some are historical and others are merely legends, but those who compiled The Analects seemed to view them as equally historical. The legendary sage-kings Yao and Shun were supposed to have lived and ruled nearly 2,000 years before Confucius's lifetime. The last sage-king, Yu, is said to have founded the oldest of the three dynasties, the Xia (Hsia). It is known only from stories.

Yin (Shang) Dynasty (c. 1600 BCE–c. 1046 BCE)

The next great dynasty after the Xia was the Yin (also called Shang), which was founded by the emperor Tang and existed until the 11th century BCE, approximately 500 years before Confucius. This is the first dynasty for which archaeological evidence exists, making it reasonably historical. Occasionally referenced, the last ruler of the Yin was Zhou (Chou), whose bad behavior brought down the empire. He is a historical figure, but two princes from the end of the Shang dynasty, the brothers Bo Yi ('Po-i) and Shu Qi (Shu-ch'i), referenced as heroes in The Analects, are considered legendary.

Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE)

The last dynasty referenced in The Analects is the Zhou (or Chou), not to be confused with the last king of the Yin dynasty (written with a different Chinese character but rendered the same in English), believed to be founded in 1046 BCE. Two great kings also used as idealized examples are associated with its founding. King Wen (wen or wan meaning "culture") laid the cultural foundations, and his son King Wu was the official founder of the dynasty. Also mentioned is the duke of Zhou, King Wu's younger brother who ruled as regent while Wu's son, Cheng, was young. The Zhou dynasty actually continued through Confucius's lifetime and for 300 years after his death. However, by his time political control had largely been broken up into a number of smaller states. When the Zhou is referenced in The Analects, it usually means the idealized earlier period of the dynasty.

The Political Present of the Master

The central government of the early Zhou dynasty started to fall apart after about 200 years, and an alliance of some of its smaller member states eventually arose in northern China. The first head of the alliance, a little more than a century before Confucius's birth, was Duke Huan (Hwan) of the state of Qi (Ch'i). He was followed by Duke Wen (Wan) of Jin (Tsin). Both are mentioned in a few chapters of Book 14 of The Analects.

A number of dukes ruled in Lu, Confucius's state, during his lifetime. Duke Zhao (Chao), who ruled until he was 42, is mentioned once in The Analects. Duke Ding (Ting), referenced twice, was in power for the next 15 years and was followed by Duke Ai, who is mentioned the most in The Analects and ruled through and after the end of Confucius's life. The latter two were duke more in name than in actuality; during their reigns the real power in Lu was held by three powerful families. Of the Three Families Ji was the most powerful and is referenced most frequently in The Analects. Its leader, Ji Kang Zi, and a number of other members also appear. Of the other two families only the Meng and a few of its members are mentioned.

Mandate of Heaven

Confucius believed the dukes, as the legitimate rulers of Lu, had the Mandate of Heaven, a divine appointment that couldn't be taken away by force. The Three Families may have held most of the power, but they were not legitimate in his eyes. As the powers in the state, he had to and did deal respectfully with them, but his support of the duke can be seen in subtle ways in The Analects. He is believed to have served in the duke's government in his 30s and 40s, which would have been largely before the Three Families came to power. It seems logical that the messy political situation in Lu might have been a reason for his decision to travel to other Chinese states searching for a more virtuous government. Unfortunately it seems he also found dysfunction elsewhere and never again aspired to government after returning to Lu.

Influence of Confucianism

Confucianism is an ethical system centered on the ideas of Confucius. While not an organized religion, its values have influenced Chinese life and culture for over 2,000 years. It has also influenced beliefs in other Asian countries, including Japan, Vietnam, and Korea.

Although Confucius's ideas were preserved by his students and others and continued to spread after his death, they did not become part of government practices until the rise of the next great dynasty, the Han, around 207 BCE. The short and tumultuous Qin dynasty (221–207 BCE), which ruled immediately before the Han, actually considered such advanced learning dangerous and confiscated and perhaps even burned books on nonpractical matters.

However, the Han dynasty eventually embraced Confucianism. As the dynasty developed, it took more and more civil servants to run it. In 124 BCE Emperor Wu established the first imperial academy, where people could be trained for and tested for readiness to perform these government positions. Although other schools of thought were also taught, by the first century CE, Confucianism had become the most important part of the examinations.

The Han dynasty collapsed around 220 CE and with it the influence of Confucianism in the central government, although it was still used at the local level. Even when later dynasties (Sui and Tang) again unified China after periods of war and barbarian invasion, the influence of Buddhism, which had grown in popularity during the Han, was greater than that of Confucianism. However, that changed in 960 when the founder of the Song dynasty used the Confucian ideal of humane government to unify a war-weary people. A new civil service system was established with Confucian texts at its heart. Except for a short period of Mongol rule, this system persisted until the imperial system ended in 1905—nearly 1,000 years!

During the Tang dynasty (618–907) it became popular for people of different trades or professions to worship their own patron gods. The legend of Confucius was a logical choice for scholars, so he was worshiped and had temples dedicated to him, although he himself seemed mostly agnostic and would have strongly denied any claim to divinity. Nonetheless, many temples of Confucius still exist today.

Names in The Analects

Names can be extremely confusing in The Analects. Not only are a large number of people referenced, often without any context given, but they can be referred to by any of three or four different names or titles depending on who is addressing whom.

In Chinese culture the family name is given first, and the individual's given name follows it. A stranger may more formally refer to a person by their whole name. A superior, such as Confucius, usually refers to students more familiarly by their first names. Young men were also given public names (many of which started with zi) used in more general circumstances, such as when a writer describes who is speaking.

In addition Chinese names can be spelled different ways in English, and different translations may use different spelling systems. This guide uses the more modern Pinyin system and notes the older Wade-Giles spellings (if different), used in the James Legge translation available in the public domain, in parentheses at key points.

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