Analects 5.22

Recently I noticed that the way I have always read Analects 5.22 is out of line with the wide consensus.  So maybe I’m just missing something.

子在陳曰:「歸與!歸與!吾黨之小子狂簡,斐然成章,不知所以裁之。」(thanks to


When the Master was in Chen, he said, “Let me return! Let me return! The little children of my school are ambitious and too hasty. They are accomplished and complete so far, but they do not know how to restrict and shape themselves.”


The Master was in Chen.  He said: “Let us go home, let us go home! Our young people are full of fire, they have brilliant talents, but they do not know yet how to use them.”

The remark here is almost always read as referring to the disciples Confucius had left behind in Lu; he has to return because their training is suffering in his absence.  That is how it is understood by Dasan, Soothill, Ware, Waley, Lau, Leys, Huang, Ames+Rosemont, the Brookses, Slingerland, Watson, Eno, Chin, Ni.  But to me the remark seems to express an observation about the disciples that are with him in Chen: he has decided that they are not, after all, ready for this foreign project.

I have read the remark that way because it seems to express a surprised observation.  It seems to express a major change of plans based on a recent observation.   Also the intermixing of praise in the observation suggests to me that its objects were expected to hear the remark, or hear of the remark.

Confucius says at 11.2, on a probable reading, that none of the disciples with him in Chen achieved good relations with officials there; and Zigong says at 1.10 that what success Confucius had outside Lu was due mainly to virtues of humility.

Here are four points that might argue for the consensus reading:

1. The remark seems to speak of the problematic disciples in the third person.

(But it could have been spoken in the presence of a Chen bigwig or his representative as well as the disciples.)

2. The term “歸” has perhaps a positive flavor, suggesting going toward something rather than retreating.

3. The term “黨” might be taken to refer to a place rather than a party.

(So read, could it be a humble way of saying to a Chen bigwig, “My Lu folk here”?)

4. The term “小子” might be taken to refer to very young followers, hence those who were not with him in Chen.

(But on this last point: how would Confucius in Chen hear of the brilliance and poor judgment of disciples in Lu, except by hearing of some major political stumbles?  The term “小子” could simply mean disciples, and it might be chosen here to express consoling affection, or as a kind of apology to officials of Chen who might have been offended or disappointed.)


After a limited search of translations and their notes, I’ve found only one where the translator seems to share my view:  Harbsmeier at TLS.


When the Master was in Chén he said: “One should go home! One should go home! These little ones in our group are wanton and thoughtless. Bombastically they create their elegant public image, but they do not know how to tailor this.”


How should the passage be read?

5 replies on “Analects 5.22”

  1. Translating 5.22 this way does make a lot of sense! Students left behind in Lu not being ready is not a big issue. After all they haven’t been assigned any major task. If they are not ready, they can just stay there and continue their studies. On the contrary, Confucius finding out that the disciples accompanying him in Chen are not ready for their mission IS an issue that could prompt his withdrawal.

  2. Thanks Martyna! You make a good point – if he is referring to the disciples in Lu, his phrasing suggests that he is referring to all of them. But only a very few might be ambitious and senior enough to do something that might be politically problematic or might endanger the reputation or safety of his group. Also I imagine we don’t know for sure that he did actually leave any disciples behind in Lu when he went to Chen. For all we know he may never have had very many, yes?

    Interpreting 5.22 as I do makes sense to me not just on the assumption that the record is authentic. I think the arguments about what makes sense apply about as well either way.

  3. I just did a tad more searching of the literature and found, with the help of several scholars’ mentions, what must be the main reason for the consensus reading of 5.22. Mencius 7B37 begins thus:

    Wan Zhang asked, saying, ‘Confucius, when he was in Chen, said: “Let me return. The scholars of my school are ambitious, but hasty. They are for advancing and seizing their object, but cannot forget their early ways.” Why did Confucius, when he was in Chen, think of the ambitious scholars of Lu?’
    Mencius replied, ‘Confucius not getting men pursuing the true medium, to whom he might communicate his instructions, determined to take the ardent and the cautiously-decided. The ardent would advance to seize their object; the cautiously-decided would keep themselves from certain things. It is not to be thought that Confucius did not wish to get men pursuing the true medium, but being unable to assure himself of finding such, he therefore thought of the next class.’

    (Thanks to for the original and the Legge.)

    One could read the above passage from the Mencius as a sufficient refutation of my reading of 5.22. Or one could accept my reading of 5.22 and read the above passage as evidence of the inadequacy of Mencius’ records and understanding of Confucius.


    • For my part I’m inclined to think the Mencius passage reflects the inadequacy of Mencius’ understanding (or that of the author of the passage), since (a) I think the received reading of 5.22 doesn’t make much sense and (b) my alternate reading makes perfectly good sense and fits doctrinally with other remarks attributed to Confucius in the Analects.

  4. Chris Wen-Chao Li’s fascinating new translation (What Confucius Really Said) has an interesting take. Material between the lines of asterisks is quoted from the book:

    >> On a pilgrimage to the land of milk and honey.
    Confucius @MasterSays

    Time to go back. Time to go back to my
    little ones, so full of promise, so
    brimming with talent, yet so naively
    optimistic about fame and glory. They
    could really use a reality check to temper
    their high hopes.
    § Session 05.22


    Here Li seems to see the improbability of the traditional reading. He seems to address it by supposing that what Confucius has discovered in Chen is that making headway with foreign rulers is very difficult, and he thinks the students back in Lu could benefit from the information.

    I don’t see that the original text admits this reading.

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