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The Uses of Confucius

THE ANALECTS OF CONFUCIUS Translated from the Chinese by Simon Leys, W.W. Norton: 180 pp., $23

June 29, 1997|BENJAMIN A. ELMAN | Benjamin A. Elman is the author of "Classicism, Politics and Kinship: The Ch'ang-chou School of New Text Confucianism in Late Imperial China." He is a professor of Chinese history at UCLA and the director of the Center for Chinese Studies at UCLA

Why another translation of Confucius? There have been so many versions that one must be suspicious of still another attempt to bring life to the sayings of the man known in China as Kongfuzi (Master Kong), a title the Jesuits later Latinized as Confucius.

The conversations between Confucius and his disciples--the second most translated text from China, after the Daoist text attributed to Laozi (Lao Tzu)--that were recorded in a classical idiom in Chinese are notoriously difficult to translate while preserving meaning, subtleties of nuance and style. Ezra Pound's translation earlier this century was a public success but a critical disaster because of his ignorance of the commentarian tradition. D.C. Lau's philologically precise version for Penguin Classics remains a critical success but is stylistically stiff. Now the noted Sinologist and anti-Maoist gadfly Simon Leys has successfully brought textual precision and literary style together to capture the grace, brevity and precision of the epigrams in this well-crafted translation.

Born in the 6th century BC, Confucius lived during a time of great social disorder. The feudal system in China was collapsing, and in its place, Confucius proposed a government based less on heredity than on morality and merit. Yet moral and political visions of the highest virtues often were produced by those who failed in terms of the power relations of their times. Confucius' ideas frequently faced opposition. His attempt and inability to reinvent Chinese society were consequently discussed and reflected upon in discussions among his disciples and became fables that provided lessons of morality and character building.

Confucius' continual reinvention for more than 2,000 years speaks volumes for the value and provocative nature of his teachings. The "teachings of the sage" have become an educational fortress with millennial walls. His visions of the highest good, however, have been seen as cultural obstacles by 20th century revolutionaries and were first attacked by Republican revolutionaries in 1915 and again by messianic Maoists in 1966. His advocacy of conservative character building, harmonious family life, obedience to the worthy, acknowledgment of a teacher as a moral guide and the priority of elites as public servants were viewed as archaic and counterrevolutionary.

Today, however, many powerful Chinese, from Singapore politicians such as Lee Kwan-yew to Hong Kong bankers and Beijing Communists, now see the uses of morality, civility and culture as symbolic mortar to rebuild political consensus and avoid partisan bickering. Confucianism is being rediscovered by Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese leaders.

In his excellent rendition of conversations between Confucius and his disciples, Leys avoids the stereotypical Confucius and attempts to bring the man to life. His translation reveals the careful scholarship of a philologist like Lau, but his prose avoids the mechanical cadences that frequently result from too little literary flair. Leys seeks to salvage Confucius from what has been made of him, particularly from the suppression his ideas faced in his own time and during the anti-Confucian cultural revolutions in the 20th century, when the cry "Down with Confucius" resounded from many of the best and brightest Chinese intellectuals. Leys also deserves credit for trying to save Confucius from the exaltation his views elicited from emperors, examiners and contemporary Pacific Rim pundits, who see in his virtuous words the civilizing tools needed to yoke authoritarian Asian politics to modern economic growth and, thereby, to avoid what they perceive as the chaotic amorality of Western liberal democracies.

The Chinese bureaucratic tradition, built around the sayings of Confucius and his repertoire of classics, was reinvented many times during the last 2,000 years. Confucian tradition is not easily summarized. It stresses the creative and charismatic origin of what was transmitted. The authority of the master merged with its more conservative cultural chain of transmission. Thereby, obedience to Confucius' ideals became a routine part of Chinese political and social ideology. A distinction should be drawn between a Confucian tradition that stressed creative dialogue and one that represented obedience. Although today we tend to separate these aspects of Confucius' teachings into the categories of transmission and charisma, as Max Weber perceptively did, the two strains were usually found together.

To control interpretations of his teachings was to control the articulation and justification of dynastic power. Imperial scholars and officials, accordingly, were indispensable handmaidens of the ruling dynasty. The historic connection between Confucius and political discourse suggests the power these texts had over political behavior and expression in imperial China. But the "Analects" is not the only form of teaching closely associated with Confucius.

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