Tag Archives: Confucius

Book: The Analects of Confucius (Roger Ames & Henry Rosemont, Jr.)

A sweet book… Co-author Roger Ames gave me this pirated copy in person back in 2010

Orderly politick padded with multiple layers of excellent endnotes.
A concise introduction to traditional Chinese thought.

326 pages, ★★★★★

Uncovering and decoding The Analects is like decoding the woolly mammoth genome. Just like a genome, this text evolved as it was re-recorded over time. Current copies of The Analects have probabilities assigned to each character—rather like a genome map! (See page 301.)

The notes explain everything, and more. Subtle puns—and a thousand other details—that I would have had never have picked up are explained beautifully in the notes section (see Analects 3.21). Other notes discuss the rationale behind the historical substitution of one character for another that is so common in different versions of The Analects (due to puns, changes in meaning, simplifications, or copying error).

Read this book from cover to cover: the notes are separated from the text for good reason. First, everyone, even China-novices, will love the introduction. In many respects, the introduction distills all the parts of The Geography of Thought (another book discussing East/West cultural differences) that made any sense, into just a few tens of pages. The philosophical text that follows is difficult even for Sinologists to understand, but refrain from looking at the notes and find your own meanings first time. Then proceed to read the lengthy notes section; referring back to the text when necessary.

Some of my favourite quotes are listed below:

On education… Analects 6.20: 子曰:知之者不如好之者,好之者不如樂之者。

(From the notes) This use of “love (hao 好)” evokes the expression, “to love learning (haoxue 好学)” that pervades the text. The worth of knowledge is a direct consequence of its efficacy: to what degree does it conduce to human happiness and enjoyment?

On politics… Analects 8.14: 子曰:不在其位不在其位,不谋其政。

The Master said, “Do not plan the policies of an office you do not hold”.

On class… Analects 13.25: 君子易事而難說也。說之不以道,不說也;及其使人也,器之。小人難事而易說也。說之雖不以道,說也;及其使人也,求備焉。

Exemplary persons (junzi 君子) are easy to serve but difficult to please… in employing others, they use them according to their abilities. Petty persons (xiaoren 小人) are difficult to serve but easy to please… but in employing others, they expect them to be good at everything.

The Analects were written on various materials over 2000 years ago, and the ancient text is now found damaged, scattered and buried several meters deep across central China. The last major discovery of The Analects was in Dingxian 定縣, Hebei Province 河北省, in 1973. Buried in a tomb were fragmented bamboo strips, most of which had already been broken and burned by grave robbers long ago. The legible parts of these bamboo strips were incorporated into existing versions of The Analects by aligning intact character sequences with existing copies. New text, and new versions of the text, were discovered.

Co-author Roger Ames is an excellent lecturer; I’ve attended his lecture course at PKU (Beijing University). You can watch a concise introduction to Chinese philosophy on YouTube here. For an introduction to ancient China, Roger Ames is a great place to start. ★★★★★


Book: The Importance of Living

Practical Handbook for Life. Soul Food.
471 pages, ★★★★★

The Importance of Living should be read at leisure with 耐泡 tea (any tea that rebrews well), a large pad and pens, with nothing to do and nowhere to go for two days. Get very comfortable. Put everything you need within reach.

For tea, I recommend a very fragrant, full-bodied black tea (红茶) with a strong, sour, fruity after-sweetness (回甘) such as Jinjumei (金骏眉); because it pleases your tongue, body and soul in a manner that builds after being sipped. Or try the redder, high-Qi (气) end of the Oolong spectrum, such as Big Red Robe (大红袍), which is designed to be inhaled rather than drunk. Both teas would work equally well. Reading this, coupled with the tea, feels like being hugged.

Then curl up with this book, a heavy blanket and a large, ring-bound notepad. Sip this book like you would chicken soup or a hot lemon drink when you’re ill. You’re not ill, but you’ll feel as cured and rejuvenated in two days’ time as if you were. It’s a great excuse to stay home.

However, that soup gets filling. Take breaks every so often to make sure you’re taking everything in (by “filling”, I mean that it’s full of beautiful, palatable, digestible answers and doesn’t ask the reader many questions).

The Importance of Living is a detailed and healthy definition of a good life well-lived. It’s laced with Chinese history, culture and language (with explanatory footnotes) and written with childlike amazement at every simple aspect of life. It’s a childlike re-analysis of everything you do. He philosophises about:

  • how tall your chair should be
  • how to drink tea
  • how to categorise national stereotypes
  • with whom to smoke tobacco
  • why not to care too much about money
  • the ideal school curriculum
  • and hundreds of other life-tips

It makes a delightful and reassuring read. His thoughts are peppered with supporting quotes from ancient Chinese scholars such as Mencius and Confucius, and the book’s both beautifully-written and logically-structured. On the first read, I recommend making detailed notes. See these two mind maps on my wonderfully red bed below.

Then try to familiarise yourself with The Importance of Living as you would a Bible, a reference manual or a handbook. Familiarise yourself with the book’s layout so you can look up answers to life’s questions later.

Each reader will find musings in this book relevant to his or her own life. So I was delighted to read that Confucius had described exactly how I feel about my work as an educator in Beijing:

“Confucius seemed to have felt that scholarship without thinking was more dangerous than thinking unbacked by scholarship” — Lin Yutang 林语堂

“Thinking without learning makes one flighty, but learning without thinking is a disaster” — Confucius

Lin Yutang then talks almost prophetically about the state of Chinese education today when he asks:

“Why are there school marks and diplomas, and how did it come about that the mark and the diploma have, in the student’s mind, come to take the place of the true aim of education?” — Lin Yutang 林语堂

I blogged about “following passions” and “eliminating credentialism” some time ago, so this passage on page 390 particularly moved me. Read the middle paragraph in the picture below (starting with “Confucius”). It’s exactly what I’ve been saying on WordPress…

The book is full of gems like this, but you’ll have to read it and find your own. Give this book unrestricted access to your brain. This book requires that you reflect on every minute aspect of your daily life. In terms of living books (and not just reading them), The Importance of Living would make an ideal sequel to Fight Club because it builds a highly-refined life from scratch, like a beautifully-written, logically-structured instruction manual.

This book is what the terrible Instant Turnaround could have been if it were written by a refined, cultured, spiritual (and Chinese) author; and not by a bored Western office-worker with all the imagination drained out of his corporate monkey-skull. Everyone should put aside their moneymaking trivialities for two days and read this book on the couch. ★★★★★