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Analects | Study Guide


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Analects | 10 Things You Didn't Know


The Analects is an ancient collection of the thoughts and wisdom from China's most well-known and culturally significant philosopher, Confucius. Thought to have been born in 551 BCE, Confucius spent his life wandering, teaching, and pontificating. The dedicated following he developed during his lifetime was responsible for preserving his words. The Analects was compiled at some point during China's infamous Warring States period (475–221 BCE), an era of constant conflicts resulting in China's first unified empire. Confucius's most gifted students and their descendants compiled The Analects after Confucius's death. .

The philosophical doctrines of The Analects have had a profound impact on Chinese culture and politics for more than 1,000 years. Some dynasties of China adopted The Analects as required reading, while others shunned them out of paranoia. The messages in The Analects of respect for elders, integrity in leadership, and devotion to educational pursuit have shaped China and its surrounding regions over centuries.

1. The most common version of The Analects was compiled by an emperor's tutor.

Centuries after its composition, there were numerous versions of The Analects taught throughout China. The most common were traditionally the Lu and the Qi versions. An official named Zhang Yu took it upon himself to synthesize these two editions, adding chapters from the Qi Analects to the Lu Analects. Zhang Yu was tutor to Emperor Cheng (51 BCE–7 CE) of the late Han dynasty, and his composition of The Analects, known as the Zhang Hou Lun, became the standard account of the text for a millennia.

2. The Analects was required knowledge for passing state exams in medieval China.

The role of Confucian thought in ancient and medieval Chinese politics cannot be overstated. For centuries The Analects was regarded as a fundamental text for any educated man. During the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE), there was a great revival in Confucian philosophy, and public officials were required to memorize The Analects. The text was one of the bases for the government's civil service examinations, which had to be passed by any citizen attempting to secure a job with the government or become a public servant. The exams were a key component in upward mobility during this era, so The Analects was an incredibly important aspect of a young man's education.

3. During the Qin dynasty, Confucian texts were burned—and Confucian scholars were buried alive.

The Analects hasn't always been treated with reverence in China. Although the Han dynasty celebrated Confucian teachings, this was partially a backlash against the mistreatment of Confucian texts and scholars that occurred centuries earlier during the Qin dynasty under the reign of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Qin Shi Huang's regime received constant criticism from Confucian scholars, prompting him to order all books that didn't chronicle the history of his dynasty to be burned. The emperor wrote, "I suggest that the official histories, with the exception of the Memoirs of Qin, be all burnt, and that those who attempt to hide [other works] be forced to bring them to the authorities to be burnt." The ruthless ruler—who also buried at least 400 Confucian scholars alive—is remembered for the army of terra-cotta statues buried with him in his tomb near Xi'an, China.

4. The oldest known version of The Analects was damaged by a fire, an earthquake, and a tomb robbery.

The oldest dated copy of The Analects was discovered in 1973 in Dingzhou, China. This version was written on bamboo strips and had been locked away in a tomb since at least 55 BCE. This incredibly fragile document faced a number of harmful disasters. A tomb robbery and a fire left the Dingzhou copy of The Analects damaged, and it deteriorated further following a 1976 earthquake. Scholars have had a particularly difficult time deciphering this version and comparing it to other copies of The Analects due to this damage.

5. For centuries there was no definitive version of The Analects.

Before Zhang Yu compiled his version of The Analects, there were numerous versions taught in different parts of China. The Lu and Qi versions were the most widely distributed, as well as the ancient text, which is thought to be inscribed on the flattened bamboo (called slips) found in Dingzhou. Scholars speculate there were numerous other versions of The Analects prior to the Qin dynasty's burning of Confucian texts. The versions differ to varying degrees—for example, the Lu and Qi versions are relatively similar, the Lu version having 20 sections and the Qi version having an additional two. The ancient version ordered the text differently and split one chapter into two.

6. Some scholars believe that today's version of The Analects is only a fraction of a much larger work.

One notable Han dynasty Confucian scholar, Wang Chong, proposed that the original version of The Analects had more than the commonly accepted total of 21 chapters. He believed, though never confirmed, that another version contained at least an additional nine chapters. This version, known speculatively as the "Hejian" version, allegedly circulated during Wang's lifetime (27–c. 100 CE). Wang went so far as to posit that the original version of The Analects contained hundreds of chapters detailing Confucius's conversations with students and scribes. However, the Han dynasty mostly ignored his claims, as Zhang Yu's version was quickly adopted as the definitive version of the text.

7. Archaeologists discovered a medieval schoolboy's copy of The Analects, riddled with errors.

Not all copies of The Analects discovered by archeologists have been professionally crafted by scribes. Since the text was a cornerstone of education in medieval China, some later copies of The Analects were the work of students, who were expected to transcribe Confucian texts. A copy written by a schoolboy in 890 CE was discovered in the desert region of Dunhuang, China, riddled with errors and featuring commentary in the margins. Archeologists were amazed by the neatness of the student's handwriting, even though his work would likely have been considered sloppy by his teachers.

8. Scholars aren't sure whether a particular biography of Confucius is fact or myth.

While The Analects details Confucius's thought and philosophy, another ancient text claims to provide a historical account of his life. Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), written by Sima Qian (145–85 BCE), was traditionally considered the most legitimate account of Confucius's life. However, it differs notably from other portrayals of the philosopher. While other accounts say Confucius was born into poverty, Sima wrote that he was a descendant of a noble family. The author also proposed that Confucius's birth was a miracle in response to the prayers of his family at a holy site. Many scholars believe that this story of Sima Qian's text—along with other anecdotes from Confucius's life—should be read as myth, not fact.

9. A copy of The Analects from North Korea was restricted from Western scholars when first discovered.

An inscribed bamboo edition of The Analects was discovered in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 1990, but scholars had a difficult time studying how it may differ from other versions. Due to North Korea's traditionally isolationist policies, Western scholars did not hear about the find until 1992. By analyzing photographs of the North Korean version of The Analects, two researchers were able to determine that they were copies of a Han dynasty version, although they may differ slightly from other common editions.

10. Confucius was often referred to as a stray dog, even by his followers.

Despite the monumental impact that Confucius has had on the philosophical and political development of China over a millennium, the scholar was always subject to a rather insulting nickname. Confucius is regularly referred to as a "stray dog" by disciples and critics alike, starting with Sima Qian's description of him as "haggard and worn as a stray dog" in his Records of the Grand Historian. The comparison is most often attributed to Confucius's withered, forlorn appearance from ancient and medieval artwork featuring his likeness. The nickname has also provided clues to his year of birth, which is generally accepted to have been 551 BCE. This would mean he was born under the sign of the dog in traditional Chinese mythology.

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