The Reading Room
The Analects: A Target of Tyrants for Two Thousand Years
Banned Books Week runs from October 1-7. Because the OLL supports wide access to knowledge, informed readers, and challenging questions, we'll be dedicating the entire month of October to blog posts about books that have been banned, challenged, and restricted. We hope you enjoy them, and we encourage you to join us and read a few banned books yourself!
The Analects (“selected sayings” Chinese lunyu 論語) is a collection of sayings of Confucius (Chinese: Kong Fu Tzi 孔夫子, , 551-479 BCE), assembled by his students during the third and fourth centuries BCE. For centuries, The Analects were learned by heart by all educated Chinese men, who used the collected aphorisms and maxims as a guide to ethical personal and political conduct.
During the centuries after Confucius’ death, his students collected his works (as well as those of one of his most important disciples, Mencius), into two main collections (which included the Analects) known as The Five Classics and The Four Books. After the 12th century, these collections formed the core of the Chinese educational system, and their mastery was the basis of the examination system by which government officials were chosen.
The Analects focus on morality and ethics, both personal and public. A well-ordered, prosperous society is based on the virtue of its population and its rulers. Society operates best when its members are conscious of the importance of etiquette and ritual, represented by the Chinese character li 禮. The observance of rituals and the practice of good manners described by the term li were related to another important Confucian concept in The Analects, ren 仁, which describes humane and considerate conduct. When practiced together, they lead to personal virtue and result in a just society. The importance of filial piety is part is crucial to the maintenance of a peaceful and prosperous order, but so are the mutual obligations we owe to one another. The Emperor is supposed to be the embodiment of virtue and an example to his subjects.
Thus, the goal of the sayings and maxims in The Analects is the pursuit of virtue in one’s personal and public actions. A person who embodies the Confucian virtues is called a junzi 君子, a Gentleman or Superior Man, who fulfills all his duties to others, and conducts himself with prudence. The Analects council that the Superior Man will follow a “golden mean” of moderation in all his behaviors, as well as a version of the “Golden Rule”: “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself” (Analects Vol.VI, Book XII, Chapter II).
The Analects were compiled near the end of what is known in Chinese history as the Warring States period (475-221 BCE), characterized, as the name implies, by numerous competing feudal polities. In 221 BCE Shih Huang Di established the Qin dynasty which subdued the warring feudal kingdoms and established a unified empire. To solidify the centralizing tendencies of the dynasty, its rulers turned away from Confucianism toward a rival philosophy known as Legalism. The Legalists, supporting the centralizing project of the Qin dynasty, taught (among other things) that absolute, unconditional loyalty and obedience to the Emperor was the basis of a well-ordered society. They ridiculed Confucianism for being too sentimental, but their real objection to it was its teachings about individual virtue and loyalty to one’s family. Fearing the continued power of Confucian philosophy, the emperor banned all Confucian books and ordered them burned. For good measure, he also oversaw the wholesale massacres of Confucian scholars. In 191 BCE the Qin dynasty fell and was replaced by the Han dynasty, which revived Confucianism. Since Confucius’ teachings had been memorized and transmitted from teachers to their students, it was possible gradually to rebuild the works of the Confucian cannon.
The next challenge to The Analects (and the other Confucian texts) came many years later during the twentieth century after the Communists came to power in China. In 1966, Mao Zedong and other leaders of the Chinese Communist Party launched the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” aimed at eradicating the so-called “Four Old Characteristics” from Chinese society: Old Customs, Old Habits, Old Culture, and Old Thinking. Though Chairman Mao had himself previously quoted Confucius in his speeches and writings, the young thugs who carried out the Cultural Revolution, the “Red Guards,” targeted Confucian books (and Confucian scholars) for ridicule and destruction. Significantly, the Party explicitly evoked the history of the Qin dynasty’s anti-Confucian campaign, praising its persecution of Confucian scholars and its destruction of Confucian texts as necessary in the fight against feudalism.
The Party’s anti-Confucian attitudes began to soften after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and by the 1980s it had begun to explore ways to revive and make use of certain aspects of Confucian philosophy deemed compatible with the Party’s goals. Yet, the two periods in which The Analects were banned in China were ones dominated by political projects based on tyranny and violence, which found Confucius’ project of educating virtuous individuals to be a profound threat.