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.