The Selected Sayings of Kongfuzi

The Selected Sayings of Kongfuzi (The Analects of Confucius) are a collection of teachings and dialogues which are concerned with the importance of honesty and sincerity as fundamental principles of moral conduct. The Analects are divided into twenty books, each of which is divided into numbered chapters. Kongfuzi (Confucius, 551-479 B.C.E.) describes moral uprightness or honesty as the purpose for which we are born and as the reason that we exist. If we are not truthful and honest with ourselves, then we may lose our sense of moral purpose and our ability to define the moral aim of our actions. According to Kongfuzi, to be morally virtuous or upright is to be motivated by a love of truth. To be honest and truthful is to follow the Way. To follow the Way is to be sincere, faithful, diligent, courteous, and respectful.

Kongfuzi distinguishes between the virtuous individual who is motivated by a love of truth and the unvirtuous individual who is motivated by a desire for personal gain. The virtuous individual (junzi, "superior man," or "gentleman") is concerned with what is morally right, but the unvirtuous individual (xiaoren, "inferior man," or "small man") is concerned with what is profitable or expedient. The junzi is faithful to the requirements of moral duty, but the xiaoren is neglectful of the requirements of moral duty. The junzi is obedient to the rules of propriety, but the xiaoren is disobedient to the rules of propriety.

According to Kongfuzi, the virtuous individual is sincere and truthful, and acts benevolently toward all other individuals. The virtuous individual is not concerned with being recognized for his or her own virtue, but is concerned with being able to recognize virtue in other individuals. Kongfuzi praises Zi Chan, the chief minister of Zhang, for having four of the qualities which characterize a virtuous individual: 1) humility, 2) propriety, 3) kindness, and 4) justice (V,15).

Kongfuzi asserts that to be virtuous is to be unselfish and is to observe the rules of propriety (XII,1). The rules of propriety (li) require that we show respect for our parents and elders. Filial piety (xiao, including love or respect for one’s parents) and brotherly or sisterly love (di, including respect for one’s brother or sister) may thus be the source of many kinds of benevolent actions. Uprightness in moral duty may begin when a father fulfills his moral duty toward his son, or when a mother fulfills her moral duty toward her daughter. Uprightness in moral duty may also begin when a son fulfills his moral duty toward his father, or when a daughter fulfills her moral duty toward her mother.

Kongfuzi teaches that being virtuous means being concerned with doing what is morally right, and that it does not mean being concerned with being recognized for doing what is morally right. An individual who avoids being publicly recognized for acting virtuously may demonstrate by his or her kindness and benevolence (ren) that his or her actions are not motivated by a selfish desire for personal gain.

Kongfuzi emphasizes the importance of the principle of reciprocity (shu) in moral conduct. According to the principle of reciprocity, we should not act toward other individuals in a way in which we would not want them to act toward us (XV,23). If we try to act virtuously toward others, then they will try to act virtuously toward us.

Kongfuzi teaches that we should be kind to those who are kind to us, and that we should act justly toward those who are unkind to us (XIV,36). He does not argue that we should be kind to those are unkind to us, because this mode of conduct is not required by the principle of reciprocity. However, he teaches that virtue (which is expressed by kindness) is an inner power or moral force (te) which should be cultivated by all individuals. If each of us acts kindly, then others will join us in acting kindly.

Kongfuzi argues that in order to determine whether an individual is sincere and truthful we must not only listen to the words of that individual but must also observe the actions of that individual (V,9). The words and actions of a virtuous individual (or junzi) are always consistent with each other, but the words and actions of an unvirtuous individual (or xiaoren) may not be consistent with each other. The words of an unvirtuous individual may express good intentions, but these supposedly good intentions may not be expressed by the actions of that individual.

Kongfuzi also argues that perfect virtue is a constant mean between the vice of excess and the vice of deficiency of a moral quality (VI,27). To go beyond the mean is as wrong as to fall short of the mean (XI,15). To be perfectly virtuous is to be able to demonstrate honesty, sincerity, kindness, diligence, and generosity in all situations (XVII,6). To be perfectly virtuous is also to be able to be prudent and calm in all situations (XII,3).

Kongfuzi maintains that to be wise is to refrain from making arbitrary prejudgments about situations and is to refrain from drawing premature conclusions about situations (XIV,4). To be wise is also to admit that one is capable of making mistakes and is to learn from one’s mistakes (IX,24).

According to Kongfuzi, to govern a state or society is to rectify moral conduct (XII,17). The purpose of a government or legal authority is to rectify the names which are used to refer to various kinds of moral conduct. If correct names are not given to various kinds of moral conduct, then we cannot make proper judgments about whether to approve or disapprove these kinds of conduct. The 'rectification of names' (zhengming) thus enables us to correctly evaluate whether various kinds of moral conduct are right or wrong, prudent or imprudent, honest or dishonest, respectful or disrespectful, kind or unkind, benevolent or malevolent, virtuous or unvirtuous.

Kongfuzi argues that the effectiveness of a ruler in governing the people of a state is determined by whether or not the ruler acts virtuously. The qualities of an effective ruler include faithfulness, righteousness, benevolence, and propriety. The qualities of an ineffective ruler include unfaithfulness, depravity, malevolence, and impropriety. An effective ruler must combine moral uprightness with wisdom in order to promote the well-being of those who are under his protection or authority. If a ruler acts righteously toward those who are under his authority, then they will act righteously toward him. If a ruler observes the rules of propriety, then those who are under his authority will observe the rules of propriety.

Kongfuzi teaches that we should seek to correct our own faults before directing our attention to the faults of others. Rather than trying to analyze or expose the faults of others, we should be more concerned with recognizing our own faults and with correcting our own moral conduct.

Kongfuzi praises his favorite disciple Yan Hui for demonstrating an enthusiasm for learning and for showing a willingness to consider the feelings of others. Kongfuzi also praises his disciple Zi Lu (Yu) for showing boldness and eagerness, but notes that Yu also demonstrates impatience and a lack of good judgment (V,6). Kongfuzi criticizes his disciple Shan Chang for being too much influenced by passion and not enough influenced by reason, and he also notes that his disciple Zigong is often preoccupied with finding faults in others (XIV,31). According to Kongfuzi, we should always try to be benevolent toward others and should always try to be faithful to the principles of tolerance, justice, and moral uprightness.

Kongfuzi teaches that we should always try to make sure that our actions are consistent with our words, and that our words are consistent with our actions. He also teaches that we should be willing to accept responsibility for our mistakes, and that we should be willing to learn from our mistakes.

Kongfuzi describes himself as a transmitter of the knowledge of antiquity (VII,1). He is described by his disciple Zigong as sincere, courteous, deferential, and cordial (I,10) and by his disciple Zang Shan as faithful and benevolent (IV, 15). Zigong also describes Kongfuzi as a man of unequaled virtue (XIX,25).

According to Kongfuzi, a complete human being is one who is wise, courageous, sincere, unselfish, courteous, and respectful of others. A complete human being is also one who is adept in the practice of the rules of propriety and who is accomplished in the art of making music (XIV,13). The practice of ritual ceremony (or of the rites of propriety) and the playing of music provide an important means of expression of the goodness in human nature.


Confucius. Confucian Analects, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean. Translated by James Legge. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.

Confucius. The Analects of Confucius. Translated by Arthur Waley. New York: Random House, 1938.

Fung, Yu-lan. "Confucius, the First Teacher," in A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. New York: The MacMillan Company (1948), pp.38-48.

Wu, Joseph S. "Confucius," in Great Thinkers of the Eastern World. Edited by Ian P. McGreal. New York: HarperCollins (1995), pp.3-8.

Copyright© Alex Scott 2004

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