A Way with Words

Just as Socrates loved Homer enough to know the Iliad and Odyssey by heart, Confucius had the Book of Odes burned into his bones and memorized in his marrow; indeed, the Analects are permeated by the Odes. When one of the disciples asks Confucius’ son if there was anything his father taught him that he didn’t teach the disciples, the son replied, “No. He was standing alone once, when I passed below the hall with hasty steps, and said to me, ‘Have you learned the Odes?’ On my replying ‘Not yet,’ he added, If you do not learn the Odes, you will not have the wherewithal to speak.’ I retired and studied the Odes.” (16.13) 

   The Odes are the foundation for humane education, not for the sake of a merely technical skill with words (as in “grammar” and “rhetoric”) but for acclimating the young to a noble elevation and dignity, and stirring them to higher planes of character and admirable utterance, which may be absent in their ordinary lives:

The Master said, “It is by the Odes that the mind is inspired.
   “It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is established.
   “It is from Music that the consummation is received.”

The Master said, “In the Book of Poetry are three hundred pieces, but the design of them all may be embraced in one sentence, ‘Having no base thoughts.’” (2.2)

   However, studying the Odes brings something more important than moral edification; it teaches us to read words of multiple significations and teases us into developing an ability to see beyond literal denotation. In the following exchange, we see the zealous Zi Gong making a connection and discovering hidden meaning in an old poem:

Zi Gong asked: “What do you think of a poor man who doesn’t grovel or a rich man who isn’t proud?” Confucius said, “They are good, but not as good as a poor man who is satisfied and a rich man who loves propriety.” Zi Gong said, “The Book of Odes says:

Like cutting and filing,
Grinding and polishing. 

“Is this what you are talking about?” Confucius said, “Ah, now I can begin to discuss the Book of Odes with Zi Gong. I speak of various things, and he knows what is coming.” (1.15)

In what Confucius says to him, Zi Gong hears the Ode and understands that he is being advised to keep working on himself. Confucius then humorously remarks that Zi Gong is now ready to grasp the deeper senses of the Odes. The Book of Odes has also become an occasion for two people to relate to one another in discussing goodness. 

   There is a similar conversation with the refined Zixia:

Zixia asked, saying, “What is the meaning of the verse: ’The pretty dimples of her artful smile! The well-defined black and white of her eye! The plain ground for the colors?’”
   The Master said, “The business of laying on the colors follows the preparation of the plain ground.”
   “Ritual then is a secondary thing?” 
   The Master said, “It is Shang who can bring out my meaning! Now I can begin to talk about the odes with him.”

Here, the student brings out a profound implication that pleasantly surprises the teacher, who is surely grateful to be shown a hitherto undiscovered meaning in a long-familiar poem. 

   One of the greatest pleasures in life is to have friends who “share” with us a common body of beloved poetry; it is like owning a landscape in common, in which we can roam together freely and find beautiful things to show one another. Confucius is so happy to “know” a man’s heart through the poems he loves that he even bestows his niece on a student for loving the right poem:

Nan Rong frequently recited the verse of the “White Jade Table.” Confucius gave him his elder brother’s daughter to wed. (11.6, tr.A.C.Muller)

The verse in question expresses commitment to carefulness with words: “A flaw in a white jade tablet may be polished away; but nothing can be done for a flaw in one’s words.” (Odes, 256) Confucius is moved to find Nan Rong reciting this verse so often, perhaps even when he thinks he is alone. Both of them know that the steadfast care for words reveals a far deeper commitment: to truth, to troth, and to character that is built through saying what we mean, no more and no less, and through saying it well. A man with such a character would make a trustworthy husband for a beloved niece.

   An education founded on studying the Odes develops a sensibility for terse, suggestive language, and the intuitive sympathy essential for “getting” such language. The intuitive sympathy extends to keeping pace with our friends who also “get” the poems and who might see different sides to them. Thus, the Odes provide a place of congregation for an entire community, and an occasion to learn to read another human being’s words with penetration. If all moral action depends on a capacity for accurate sympathy, what better way to cultivate that than through imbibing the Odes at at early age?

   Although in most translations Confucius comes across as a tedious Polonius obsessed with correct usages, in his own language he is obviously somebody with a gift for resonant, poetic language. Throughout the entire Analects he takes conventional terms — such as junzi, ren, li — and re-animates them with new meaning. Take, for instance, the passage I presented in my previous essay:

 “He whose actions are influenced neither by slander that gradually poisons the mind, nor by statements that shock like a flesh-wound, may be called intelligent. Indeed, he who bases actions neither on poisonous slander nor on shocking statements may even be called far-seeing/above it all.” (Analects, 12.6)

In my first attempt at this, I read it too narrowly to refer only to slander and utterance intended to hurt. After a conversation with a friend who is more sensitive to Confucius’ language than I am, I realized that statements that shock like a flesh-wound encompasses a broad range of vicissitudes, including legal and financial catastrophes, betrayals and news of deaths, and medical upsets. The culminating adjective is literally “far” — a common word, but dense with possibilities. Disambiguating it, translators end up with something clear but flat, such as “perceptive” or “aloof.” But “far” says so much more: aloof, far away, transcendent, seeing far and wide, far-penetrating, far-reaching…Only a poet would have ended this Analect with a word so concrete and rich. 

   Unlike a language like Sanskrit, with its intricate grammatical structure that tends to over-specify the relations between the words of a sentence, Chinese tends to under-specify and leave abundant room for the intuitive intelligence that enjoys seeing all the possible connections. Confucius’ language draws on this tendency. With each sentence he gives us a corner and invites us to discover three more. But as we see, it is much more than a pedagogical ruse: Confucius’ way with words has its womb in the Odes. He keeps to this Way because all healthy social interaction depends on an ability to read freely and sympathetically between the lines, and on the cultivated tactful intelligence that can understand without needing to spell out. Without this, all social interactions descend into legalism, where every term has to be defined in order to be “used” more effectively in the justifications of argument. Lifelong immersion in the Odes may preserve us from this descent.


2 thoughts on “A Way with Words”

  1. Krishnan,

    A Way With Words (and might I add ‘and with Poetry’)

    I do not know where to start other than to say thank you very much, because this is your best writing to date on this series on Confucius Analects. And you have taken the time and effort (more than 99% of the Chinese that I know, my own people) to know the man Confucius for what he was and is rather than to see magic in some words he might have said or uttered and taken superficially and out of context.

    And accordingly, you have realised that you cannot take the ‘Li’ or the ‘Ren’ or the ‘Junzi’ on their own, as having complete and exclusive meaning by themselves.

    You cited among other things in this piece of writing :-

    The Master said, “It is by the Odes that the mind is inspired.
       “It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is established.
       “It is from Music that the consummation is received.” (8.8)

    To my mind, this is the very summation of what Confucius taught.

    It all starts with the mind, followed by the body and then completed in the music of and the dance, if I might express it in Hindu/Buddhist epistemological terms. In fact Analects 8.8 is better translated as ‘You rise up in learning (with and from) Poetry. You achieve (good and exalted) social standing with ‘Li’. It is through (like being the harmonics that is ‘Classical’) Music that makes you complete as a ‘Junzi’.

    You also cited :-

    The Master said, “In the Book of Poetry are three hundred pieces, but the design of them all may be embraced in one sentence, ‘Having no base thoughts.’” (2.2)

    Perhaps that ‘one sentence’ should be translated as – ‘Poetry is refined thoughts’. For the benefit of the Western audience, in Chinese sometimes you describe the effect or impact rather than stating the objective. It is like the Chinese like to do it back to front.

    The Chinese ‘Odes’ that is compulsory learning for ‘Mandarin’ scholars are like poetic Chinese history and culture and tradition and more. The Chinese written language itself, in terms of each brush stroke hieroglyphic, has to be learned by rote. But there is no ‘learning’ in mere words. The fact that you can write, that you are literate, that does not, without more, on its own, make you learned and wise. Accordingly, the Odes are more than poetry. They are books or poetry of Great Learning. It is equivalent to learning the entire Encyclopaedia Brittanica by heart! You see, Chinese poetry is written at a higher level of writing, equivalent to the writing style of University Professors in the West. And because it has to be written poetically with structured number of words and lines and rhymes, it is like writing in Shakespearean sonnets. Now, the person who can read this higher level of writing must not just be an academic, a writer but he must also be a poet! This is the level required by Confucius of a learned erudite scholar – one who is eloquent, fluent and articulate like a poet. This is one of the ‘two hands’ a scholar must have to have the ‘wherewithal to speak.’ The other hand is of course the quality of the mind – the learned thinking analytical wisdom mind. You wrote about ‘learning’ to be a ‘Junzi’ in an earlier article. We shall discuss these ‘two hands’ now.

    To remember your vocabulary of Chinese words is one thing. To remember in entirety all the Odes (the entire Encyclopaedia Brittanica) requires an eidetic mind. To know a Chinese word in its common meaning or sense is one thing. But Chinese words are ‘figurative’, as you quite clearly pointed out in this article, and may have different meanings and nuances, not just phonetically through tonal accentuation or inflexion or from accompanying gestures or facial expressions when spoken, but also in the context and line of phrase or thought when it is in written form. A ‘no’ can be a ‘yes’ or vice versa!

    The magic of poetry when it is comprised in something equivalent to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica is that it brings to the communicative quality of the written language and word the richness, imagination and profundity and creativity of thought and idea that are inherent and innate in poetry. Poetry also teaches one to think in the abstract, because you can toy and play and mould into the tapestry of the poetry different colours and complexions and possibilities. This provides the training ground in percipience, in explication, to be luculent and clear in thought and expression, to be heuristic. That way with the insight from all the metaphor, bon mot, maxim, idiom, aphorism or example or illustration that abounds (like stars in the firmament) in the poetic lines of the Odes, those that illustrate the affairs and relationships and foibles of men and the maelstrom of life of the ruling class in particular, you are armed for intellectual discourse and dialectical debate of the highest level. And from being diacritical and able to distinguish the different scenarios, one would thus be armed with the requisite savour-faire to verbal thrust and parry or to riposte and praise and exalt as befits the situation. In short, the Odes arm you with the learning and the ideas and the weapons and the ammunition so that you are not desultory in speech and debate, but you can ‘rise’ up in your mind, be one-pointed, be directly and relevant to point, not wish-washy (and ‘rise’ is what the appropriate connotation should be in Analects 8.8), as well as ‘rise’ up to the occasion in bearing and mien demeanour in the ‘Li’.

    Speaking of ‘Li’ as in propriety, as in social standing, as in standing tall in public, but no matter how you want to phrase it in the Chinese sense, it must be clear to the Western audience that it is not meant to be perfunctory. The appearance in practising the rites and rituals may appear to the Westerner as being fawning and servile, obsequious and like a sycophant. Indeed that is apparently so, but if you are an literati, a gentleman, a cognoscenti, a ‘Junzi’, then it takes on a different flavour and impression – you are humbling yourself. A sow in silken clothing however will still be a sow!

    And that leads us to the relevance of the third criterion – of being a connoisseur or learned in classical music – that is when you become the consummate ‘Junzi’.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very fine suggestions, Vince. The analogies to the Book of Odes might be what Shakespeare is for the English, Dante for the Italians, Homer for the Greeks, the Torah for the Hebrews, Goethe for the Germans: these are the works that create the cultures, and they can do this continually because they have fathomless potency. To “know” such works involves not memorizing or analytical exposition, but it means being attuned to that fathomless potency. These books rightly seem to contain everything. The Indians make the mistake of thinking such a book must be very large, like the Ramayana or Mahabharata. The wisdom of the ancient Chinese is in the refined succinctness of their poems, which in turn creates succinct refinement: one brushstroke can communicate the whole plant!


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