IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia


The Original Analects

If you assume that Confucius's Analects consists of a small but still discernible kernel plus various people's additions to this core, The Original Analects is a fascinating read. One must be prepared to master yet another transcription system, and the substitution of '0' for 'BC' - ('0479' for '479 BC') but the numbering of the chapters and verses is the same as in the standard Lunyu. A review of The Original Analects - Sayings of Confucius and His Successors, E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998, 342 pp. ISBN 0-231-10430-8).

By B.J. Mansvelt Beck

It is widely recognized that classical philosophical texts, often attributed to and named after an individual, may in fact be the result of an accretion process around an older nucleus. This has been shown for the Mozi, may be surmised for the Laozi, and a convincing case has been made for the Guanzi. Not all such texts, however, have grown in this way. The Zhuangzi, for instance, stubbornly resists all efforts to slice and dice it into different layers, as does the Mengzi, but in this study it is taken for granted that the Zhuangzi is a multi-layered text, and that mere 'inconsistencies' in the Mengzi 'do imply an accretion process'. Are mere 'inconsistencies' proof of an accretion process?

The authors apparently think so, for 'inconsistencies' in the standard Analects form the backbone of the accretion theory in these Original Analects: if we find two mutually inconsistent verses in the Lunyu, we assume that one verse is the older one, reflecting a philosophical position that the school subsequently abandoned. The school's new position on the subject was then formulated in the pithy Lunyu-style (often introduced by: 'The Master said:..') and haphazardly interpolated into the old text - but the older, now 'offending' verse was not expunged. If, for example, Confucius speaks at length about the virtue ren, such verses obviously belong to a period in which ren was deemed important; when we then meet the highly problematical verse IX.1 'The Master seldom spoke of profit and fate and ren', we are equally obviously dealing with a phase in the school's development where ren is being abandoned. This coincides nicely with Lunyu Chapters X and XI, where ren is not mentioned at all. So, sometime in the period to which the authors assign Chapters X and XI, somebody forged?, designed?, wrote? the above description of the Master, but did not append it to his Chapters X and XI. He interpolated it at the very beginning of the previous, pre-existing Chapter IXI.
This study distinguishes no fewer than nineteen such interpolators, most of them not only adding their own chapters to the Lunyu but also dropping verses here and there in the others' chapters. Three of these interpolators had the brilliant idea of putting their own chapter at the beginning of the whole collection, so that the Analects, which began their existence with Chapter IV at the front, after a century and a half acquired Chapter III in the front of that; then years later someone added his own chapter and called it chapter II; and a further twenty-five years down the line someone did the same and called it no. I. This form of accretion then stopped, but the text continued to grow, but only at the tail end, acquiring Chapters XVI to XX before being closed in about 249 BC ('0249').
Readers of the Analects may be surprised to learn that Confucius's most famous phrase, 'To have friends coming from far places, is this not also delightful?', is therefore a late addition, belonging to a phase in the development of the Confucian school when 'loss of court influence' seemed 'permanent', i.e. after 295. Therefore Chapter I offers 'a citizen ethic, which holds that virtue is valuable even without public service'. The busy forger (Zigao, the fifth head of the school) also left some verses in the body of the received text, but so skilfully hidden that some of them escaped detection 'until 15 October 1993'.
It will be clear that this is a book a prendre ou a laisser - there seems to be no middle way. The question is not whether the Lunyu is a monolithic work - it is not, the great Han commentator Zheng Xuan already suggested three authors for the text. The question is whether one can agree with a nineteen-fold layering of the work. Can one accept 'interpolation' left, right, and centre as the solution for perceived inconsistencies? The question is: can one resolve inconsistencies in the Analects by creating a new set of inconsistencies?
A detailed examination of the method employed is superfluous, consisting of a mixture of sound philological reasoning and a great deal of special pleading to tie up the loose ends. There is no doubting the authors' erudition, but one cannot escape the impression that the forces of this erudition are too often marshalled only to overwhelm the reader.
Readers who keep their wits about them will notice that the questions raised by this kind of approach are not mentioned, let alone answered. Do philosophical schools change their values as soon as the going gets tough? Do they announce their new stance by forging 'words from the Master' which they then pass off as genuine? Why do they keep the old, offending verses? If the answer is 'veneration for the old text', this leads to the question: Why did they rape the old text by interpolating into it? And perhaps most of all: do the authors really want to say that ninety-five per cent of what 'the Master said' is not what the Master said?
The chief value of this study, in my view, are its character as a treasure trove of Lunyu lore, and the fresh translation of the Analects that goes with it.
B.J. Mansvelt Beck can be reached at Vondelstraat 11-G, 1054 GC Amsterdam, The Netherlands, tel.: +31-20-6167047.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia