« Back to Menu

A: Analects of Confucius

A statue of Confucius

What is it?

The ancient Chinese book is a collection of sayings and ideas attributed to Confucius. With occasional references to people Confucius met, the Analects also offers rare insights into the life of the greatest Chinese philosopher.

Believed to have been born in 551 BC during the Warring States period, Confucius is commonly referred to as “the king without a crown”. Confucius was credited with teaching 3,000 students, although only 72 of them are said to have mastered his thoughts. These followers compiled the Analects after the philosopher’s death around 479 BC and the book achieved its final form more than a quarter of a century later. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) Confucianism became the ruling ideological doctrine of the Middle Kingdom and the book became required reading for scholars.

Why is the book important?

The Analects shaped traditional values over the last two millennia.

Given the Han Dynasty is viewed as a golden era for Chinese civilisation (which is why China’s biggest ethnic group call themselves Han), its advocacy of the Analects was key to the book’s growing influence over time – it was often the first textbook children studied in school. The basic moral values it advocated, including benevolence, filial piety and loyalty, were the bedrock of Chinese civilisation.

Scholars who excelled in studying Confucian classics were allowed to join the state bureaucracy. This subsequently evolved into a civil service examination, and a process that favoured meritocracy over aristocratic connections – meaning that powerful local governors could start out from humble origins. For nearly 2,000 years, the study of Confucianism and its core values was the sole route for upward social mobility.

What did Confucius really say?

The Analects often begins with the phrase “Confucius says” but the exact origins of Confucian values have been the subject of heated academic debate for thousands of years.

That began with Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, who unified the Middle Kingdom in 221 BC. According to Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian – aka Shiji, China’s first book of general history, covering the 2,500-year period leading to the Han empire’s founding – the emperor ordered a mass burning of books, supposedly to unify his new kingdom’s languages (and thus most of its political opinions). The result of this extreme censorship was that many of the Confucian scriptures (carved on bamboo slips) were lost.

That led to the debate between the “New Text School” and “Old Text School”. The “New Text” referred to scriptures written by contemporary scholars from memory. The “Old Text” came from the few older books that had survived Qin Shi Huang’s ban – including some said to be hidden in the walls of Confucius’ former homes. Both camps accused each other of forging the Confucian doctrines.

The debate rumbles on even now…

And the relevance today?

Confucianism has made something of a comeback in recent years. In the 1960s and 1970s – a nadir for Confucian scholars – his ideas were banned by China’s ruling Communist Party as a source of feudal ‘backwardness’. But over the past decade or so the scribe has enjoyed a reputational makeover through the tacit backing of the state. For instance, a network of government-backed institutions that teach Chinese language and culture abroad have been named Confucius Institutes.

China’s renewed embrace of Confucianism coincides with President Xi Jinping’s campaign for a “great rejuvenation” of the nation – an effort that plays on the Middle Kingdom’s strengths during the most iconic Chinese dynasties (such as the Han). If Xi’s message is that of reviving past greatness, who better to yoke to the campaign than Confucius, a figure who embodies the longevity of China’s civilisation.

Xi’s embrace of the sage became plain shortly after he became leader, when he said that Confucianism was the key “to understanding the national characteristics of the Chinese” and was “the cultural soil that nourishes the Chinese people”. At a practical level Confucianism today – as viewed from government circles – is associated with themes like stability and prosperity; respect for elders; and the promotion of officials by meritocratic methods.


© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Exclusively sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.