Reading Confucius' Analects

Written by Juwon Kim, (Student Correspondent) Columbia University
MIC Hangzhou, Spring 2015

It was not until mid-April that we found out that 章老师and 练老师 worked as volunteers every week at a local community service center. 练老师 told a few of us in class that we were all invited to come check it out, so last Friday after supper, a couple of friends and I walked over together with him to the center.

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Every Friday evening from six-thirty to seven-thirty for an hour, the teacher volunteers take turns reading Confucius’ Analects to children who range from age eight to twelve. When we arrived, I realized the room was much more spacious than I expected—large enough that even after all the children, their parents (most of them were mothers; in fact, I am not quite sure if I saw a father at all), the teacher volunteers, visitors like us, and a few latecomers were all seated, there were still many rows of empty chairs left. We sat at the very back. Up on the front wall hung a big screen of Confucius.

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The chatter in the room died down quickly once the teacher cleared her throat and announced that the evening was about to begin officially. Everyone stood up, cupped their hands, recited after the teacher, “为天地立心,为生民立命,为往圣继绝学,为万世开太平 (To ordain conscience for Heaven and Earth; to secure life and fortune for the people; to continue the lost teachings of the past sages; to establish peace for all generations to come—four goals for intellectuals outlined by张载Zhang Zai, a neo-Confucian moral philosopher during Northern Song dynasty),” bowing at the end of each phrase.

After the ceremony, the actual reading session begun. We were provided with the text (it was printed in traditional Chinese characters, but there was a pinyin for every character). The teacher began to read a chapter phrase by phrase from the Analects, the students repeated after him after each phrase.

I was shocked. The teacher read; the students repeated. It was difficult to believe that the students understood what they were reciting; I had studied the translated text of the Analects in college previously, and even as a college student it was extremely difficult to grasp its full meaning. Yes, these students were Chinese native speakers, but they were reading a classical Chinese text that was printed in traditional Chinese characters, neither of which is used in Mainland China today in daily life! When they finished reciting the chapter, they went back to the beginning, and re-read the chapter, this time different students taking turns to lead the rest.

My roommate later told me that they probably did not in fact understand the content of the text, that they probably just memorized the sound of the text. She said that just knowing the sound of the text is sufficient at that age, because as students age, they get used to reading classical Chinese, and by high school, they know the text through and through.

This is not a perfect equivalent by any means, but the Iliad or Beowulf did not appear in the English literature syllabus until I was in high school, and it was not until I was in college that I finally read Plato’s Republic. But the students in China start as early as age eight learning the Analects! Simply reciting the sound of the classical text is already regarded as the first step of the learning—that is, the sound of great wisdom already makes us better human beings. Clearly, grasping the knowledge of the text is not the final goal of learning in China, because if that was the case, then these kids were not learning anything this evening. Learning in China is a transformative process that makes us better moral beings.