Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Analects 2.13


A while back, in the now-vanished Discussions section, I proposed a new idea about Analects 2.13.  Here I’m putting it back on the record.



On Tzŭ Kung asking about the nobler type of man the Master said: “He first practices what he preaches and afterwards preaches according to his practice.” (Soothill)

Soothill’s translation is typical.  But it seems to me greatly to strain the language of the original. And there is real awkwardness in the idea of practicing what one preaches when one has not yet preached it.

I propose that Confucius here is not describing the junzi or an aspect of the junzi.  Rather I think the passage should be read in one of the following ways:

Zigong asked the Master to speak of the junzi.  The Master said, “Live by his sayings before you follow him.”

Zigong asked the Master to speak of the junzi. The Master said, “Live by his sayings before you repeat them.” (Cf. 9.24 for the possibility of reading”從” in this way.)

A third possibility is that Confucius meant his reply to be ambiguous as between these two.

What these new readings have in common is that they do not have Confucius saying anything directly descriptive of the junzi (though he displays the assumption that the junzi has worthy sayings).  Instead, Confucius’ remark addresses Zigong’s relation to the junzi, probably meaning to humble Zigong a bit.  Zigong’s question presumably arises from his aspiration to become a junzi, while Confucius speaks only of how Zigong should relate to a junzi—although his answer would appear also to be good advice toward becoming a junzi.

This reading fits the fact that while at 2.12 the junzi is not a vessel, at 5.4 Confucius tells Zigong to his face that he is a vessel.

What significant implications might my way of reading 2.13 have?  The old and new readings would seem to reflect similar views about moral progress and about Zigong, so what do we learn if we decide that the new kind of reading is more plausible?

Nothing directly earthshaking, so far as I know.  But the question what we are to make of the Analects and its parts—how we should regard it as a historical object and what philosophical ideas we can reasonably find therein—is a huge puzzle with a million little pieces inside and outside the text.  We are very far from solving it.  Nor are we yet at a stage where we can reasonably despair of further major progress, for it appears that we are at a stage where we can still hope to make big progress if only by correcting our big mistakes.  And we don’t know in advance what is going to be relevant.

In particular, if we have only the traditional reading of 2.13, the passage should stick in our scholarly craw as a minor puzzle, for we do not have any reading of 2.13 that seems to be an adequate fit with the words.  We might then take it as linguistic evidence for something about the use of those words that we would otherwise be less likely to believe.  Or we might take it as evidence of a kind of corruption in the text, suggesting a certain mindlessness of a recorder that should undermine our confidence in the rest.  Or we might adopt some other non-standard reading.  James Ware, for example, gives: “First he sets the good example, then he invites others to follow it.”  Eno gives, “One who first tries out a precept and only after follows it.”  Slingerland gives, “He first expresses his views, and then acts in accordance with them.”  Annping Chin points out in her note, “Some scholars suggest an alternative reading based on a different punctuation: ‘He acts first. Whatever he says will follow his action.’”

Once we have a reading such as mine that fits the words well, we no longer have that puzzle on our agenda; we rid ourselves of one bit of prima facie evidence of a certain kind of textual corruption.  We seem to gain some evidence about Confucius’ character as an interlocutor.  We seem to gain some increment of evidence about the range of meaning of “問X”.  We might lose a significant portion of our evidence that “從” had a familiar use in connection with sayings, meaning to adopt or repeat them.  We find a new connection between adjacent passages (2.12 and 2.13), which might contribute to our insight about the compilation at least of this Book.  On the new reading we have more reason to disagree with Dasan, who (reading the passage in the usual way) argues that it does not reflect anything about the character of Zigong.  And we gain some increment of evidence about the reliability of standard interpretations, and hence about whether interpretive creativity might be worth our while.  Any of these points might make a difference to how we read some other passage in or out of the Analects.


  1. I just began reading the _Analects_ two nights ago; I made it through books one and two. Read this passage in Slingerland, Ames, and Lau. Slingerland and Ames were the most helpful; I get the strong sense that translation for Confucius requires a commentary closer to the style of this meta-commentary to be helpful to English-language readers.

    Nicely done. Thank you!

  2. Thanks Bill, I agree with Gregory. As an amateur, however ardent, adjudicating such translation differences are beyond my competence, but this sounds more than plausible, and it seems to cohere well, as you suggest, with adjacent passages and, I would think, even the text as a whole. (I miss the Discussions section too!)

  3. Thanks Gregory and Patrick.

    My own skill in old Chinese is quite limited. Paul Goldin said in the old thread that my new reading fits the words just fine [or maybe he just meant what’s the first version above – 12/23]. Here’s a breakdown of the original:

    子貢 Zigong
    問 asked
    君子 junzi
    子曰Master said
    先 first
    行 act(s)
    言 saying, words
    而後 afterward
    從 follow (repeat?)
    之 it/them/him

    (Nouns and verbs are indifferent as to number; verbs are indifferent also as to person.)

    It’s hard for me to judge how badly the standard reading strains the words. But I think that if by “先行其言” Confucius meant “first he acts on his sayings,” and if the key to his point was that the junzi had not yet said those sayings, then Confucius would be showing himself a poor wordsmith. Similarly I gather that if and when “從” can mean saying a saying, it means repeating the saying: it implies an antecedent act of saying. But I could be quite wrong about that. Experts are invited to weigh in here!

    The candidate Annping Chin describes, which divides the remark at a different point, does not have that kind of awkwardness. “First he acts. His words then follow that.” But it has three problems. First, it divides the saying into two parts of very unequal length, which is stylistically nonstandard. Second and third, the longer part includes an arguably unnecessary pronoun (之) with no antecedent, and a redundant 而後(afterward).. I imagine Confucius could have said the same thing with more balance by “先行,其言從” – but I’m not sure that’s OK languagewise.

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