On de 德 and se 色

I’m going to piggyback on some discussion to which I was party at Peony’s and Sam’s because I wanted to see what might come up further from this blog’s clientale (patrons? target audience?). My apologies to both of the other bloggers for cloning their concerns over here, but I offer them admiration as propitiation.

The issue concerns how to understand Analects 9.18 and 15.13. In both places Confucius is quoted saying: “吾未見好德如好色者也,” widely translated as something like “I have never met one who likes virtue as much as he likes sex.” A slight variation in that is to translate se 色 as “beauty” or “the beauty of women.” I’ve never really liked this way of understanding Confucius’s point. So, here is a proposal for how to understand the sentiment in 9.18 and 15.13. (Some of this is cut and pasted from various comments I made on the other blogs):

I think se 色 really can’t mean something as narrow as sex or lust; its meaning is much broader, expressing a broader more central concern in the Analects. The “sex” translation seems flat out wrong for the following reasons. There really isn’t any independent evidence that sexual license was a temptation Confucius worried over. Nor does it seem that concubinage was an option for anyone other than the emperor or possibly a very powerful warlord (any ancient Chinese concubinage experts should correct or corroborate me on this). This line of translating seems to be a projection of much later genres of moralizing texts onto the Analects. But those issues about sexual desire and practice don’t really determine the issue as much as consideration of a more central concern for Confucius. In Analects 2.8 Confucius uses se in a context that I think is much more helpful in setting our understanding of se in the right direction:


“Zixia asked about filial piety. The Master said: ‘[Mere] appearances (se) are the difficulty. With matters to be tended, younger brothers or sons offer their service; with drink and food one partakes in order of birth. Can this really be filial piety?'”

I think this is representative of a concern that Confucius has throughout the Analects with contrasting mere, or rote, behavior that mimics real filial piety (or righteousness, benevolence, ritual, etc) and genuine possession of those characteristics. It’s his concern that the “form” of such activity be filled out with deeper content or correct context. I think that transfers also to distractions that form a category of “surface” pleasure. Appreciation of beauty, in particular, is not a mere surface pleasure for Confucius. So translation of se as ‘love of beauty’ also makes a mistake–the real trouble for Confucius is not appreciating beauty; instead it is enjoying “cheap” delights that merely mimic appreciation of beauty.

The sensibility that Confucius expresses does not concern one arena or type of activity as opposed to a wholly other type–for example, in antiquity, between ritualized life and licentious free-for-all, or something of the sort. I think the sensibility tracks the difference between more closely related activities, namely the “real” or “deep” enjoyment/practice/performance of ritual, filial piety, music, beauty of women, and so forth, and the disingenuous or shallow enjoyment/practice/performance of that same range of things. Confucius’s concerns are focused on a declining empire, but not like the Roman decline as represented in “Caligula.” The decline lies in the loss or threatened loss of coherence, or perhaps integrity, of what he considered to be high culture (in the moral/social/aesthetic mashed-up sense). In effect, it is a type of snobbery but perhaps with less pejorative connotation. It’s like bemoaning the loss of integrity that, say, the ascendence of Kenny G represented for the true jazz aficionado. Kenny G’s performances lack “soul” or something like that, so they are se.

So, if I had to give a translation of the quote from Confucius, it would be something like: “I have never met one who prefers the deeply powerful activity as much as the easy semblance of it.”

As always, comments welcome.

22 thoughts on “On de 德 and se 色

  1. Hi Manyul,

    I am so glad you posted this here as well since I think your opinion sums up perfectly what I was trying to say in my several long posts (I wish I could have said things as succinctly actually!) I am copying my response to you that I left at Sam’s with a few extra comments below

    As you know, I agree with you 100% on this issue

    My only hesitation is concerning that particular passage (9.18; 15.13): And that is this: every single source I have looked at in Japanese, English and very briefly in Chinese have explained this quote vis-a-vis 美人. So, I am guessing that there was some particular context that all the translations are being based on…(and my friend Beijing suggests it was the Romance of Confucius anacdote– which I linked to in my post Post, and interestingly, the english commentaries like Slingersomething have a much more… what is the word? “intense” slant to the anacdote of Nanzi in their telling)…

    Indeed, in general I agree that 色 is like “illusion” or like the “floating world” or perhaps refers to things without depth not too far perhaps from a sense of 遊… It is not beauty per se. Nor sex per se (though it could be those things I think). Like so many other ancient concepts, I think 色 had wide possible definitions and semantic usuages. So, how to make a call?

    I would say you would need to choose your words differently for the translation depending on the context. So that even for the same word 色 you might not be able to go with the precise same word in each case (if there is technical vocabulary– for example, some philosophers might think 徳 is a technical then then in that case, a translator would do everything they could to keep the translation into english consistent, but in this case I don’t think 色 is being used technically, like it might be in Buddhist terminology?? If you agree with me on this point, then I would just say for words which are not being used as technical vocabulary, you would do best to re-translate the word in each new passage)

    If I were translating this, I would probably not go against the general movement which sees this in terms of female beauty. (I have not found one commentary which interprets it otherwise– which does NOT mean they all are not wrong, just that I know what I don’t know). With this in mind, then, I think “a beautiful woman” or “romance” are the only possibilities.

    In any event, Manyul, while I am sticking to my guns (for now) on romance, I couldn’t agree more with what you said above– especially about the overhwelming Roman interpretation.

    And for what its worth, that is why I had such problems with Sam’s example from the newspaper. I never saw the original 論語 passage as a lament of that sort. I am just not at all convinced that it is sex or beauty or any of these things which is the issue, but rather intergrity (but not in a victorian sense)… consistency or I would wonder if elite commitment is not appropriate description (which I think we can still see in certain societies in East Asia among the highly educated or cultured– お茶 (tea ceremony)、お花 (flower arrangement) in japan etc.). That is to say, it is not really a warning against DOING something but more about one’s sense of balance in terms of depth; keeping perspective and that educated, elite je ne sais quoi 🙂

    While I was not crazy about the Kenny G example (though I know what you mean about Kenny G) I loved your translation. As a translator, though, I can tell you right now, no one would let you get away with it! Only because there does seem a general agreement that this is about romance… however, given what you said, I think for that reason (since romance can in fact be overhwlemingly deep) that a beautiful woman might capture the context best.

    I have never met a man who prefers 徳 over a beautiful woman…
    (The vast majority of Jpanese glosses I’ve seen so far “interpret” 色 as 美人)

    Sorry for being so long-winded… I’ve grown rather fond of this passage! My copy of Fingarette arrived by the way and I am going to start reading pretty soon.

  2. Hi Peony,

    Thanks for scouring the commentaries! I think what is clearly wrong with the commentaries on these two passages, 9.18 and 15.13 (and this isn’t a knock on the whole commentarial tradition, of course), is that if you look at all the other instances of 色 in the Analects — 1.3, 1.7, 2.8, 5.19, 5.25, 8.4, 10.3-5, 10.8, 10.16, 10.18, 11.21, 12.20, 14.8, 14.37, 16.6-7, 16.10, 17.12, and 17.17 — there is only one plausible instance where some sort of venery is the issue, 16.7; and there, it is the reference to young age and the youthful body that provides the exceptional specificity: “…少之時,血氣未定,戒之在色…” In nearly all the other instances, the immediately surrounding context makes it clear that it is ‘appearance,’ ‘visage,’ or some other aspect of outward mannerism that is under discussion. The single exception among these remaining instances where the immediate context woefully underdetermines the meaning of se is in 1.7. So, my interpretive instinct is to take the context-neutral instances like 1.7 and the two under question, 9.18 and 15.13, to be reflective of the predominant meaning in all the other instances (excepting 16.7 of course). So, I say, damn the commentaries (on this particular point), full speed ahead!

    I have doubts about the gloss of se as meiren 美人 for similar reasons. In all the Analects instances of 美 — there are twelve of them — only 3.8’s instance refers to the beauty of a woman, and that is when Confucius quotes an Ode, the meaning of which, as he interprets it, equates the beautiful woman with ritual propriety (禮). In the other instances, mei refers to refinement, excellence, or exquisite artistry and in each case, also in a positive way.

    So, what can I say, the commentaries seem to have missed completely on this. Maybe?

  3. Hi Manyul,

    I think there is a possibility indeed that the commentaries are all based on one interpretation that has just “stuck”… Unfortunately, I am in no position to say a word on that subject so have to defer to your expertise (in my ignorance)….

    On the other hand, though, one can look at the character itself to get some clues [色 being usually exlained in terms of two people embracing).

    I spent the day at the big Confucius Temple in Tokyo yesterday with a friend (“Beijing”) and we talked a bit about this in terms of 徳 (we were after all in the Confucian temple)… and I may try and write a post on the translation of 徳 later in the day– so check my place later for that if you have time.

    I am also reading Shirakawa’s book
    And, I have some things to add from that as well that may interest you– though I already translated the really interested part from the japanese wikipedia article on the etymology of 徳 (the article being based on Shirakawa’s work).

    Anyway, you know I am all about the Love too (and damn the commentaries!) so more “scouring” ahead… 🙂

    Have a good one.

  4. Hi Manyul,

    It seems to me that Se 色 as “appearance” makes sense: I have not yet seen one who loves (cultivating their) character/virtue as much as (cultivating their) appearance.

    Paul Goldin, in his The Culture of Sex in Ancient China translates it as “sex” when he discusses this passage on page 63. (You can find it on Google Book if you don’t have the book). He’s the “expert” on these matters, so perhaps he is right. I don’t know. I should read the comments on Peony’s site.

    For the record, De and Se rhymed in Old Chinese.

    Peony, I’d be interested in reading your translation of the Japanese article on De (since I’ve been doing a very extensive study on the evolution of De). I’ve read some of Shirakawa’s ideas indirectly before.

  5. I always read 9.18 and 15.13 in light of Mengzi 1B5, where King Xuan says his weakness is that he is fond of Se 色, and Mencius gives him some unusual advice about how to turn his weakness into strength. In the context, it seems like Se 色 clearly means “sex” or “beauty.” I’m not insisting on this for the Analects, but after reading the Mengzi passage I can’t help but read Confucius’ statement that way.

    Also, Confucius could similarly be talking to or about the powerful in the two passages. Sima Qian (I learn via Slingerhand’s enjoyable Hackett edition of the Analects with selected commentary) reports that 9.18/15.13 is inspired by C’s repugnance with Duke Ling of Wei.

  6. You know, my skill set (and the books I have on my shelf) will not allow me to trace this any further back the 9th century in Japan. And, at that time, the understanding of 色 would have informed the interpretation of the passage in such a way that I cannot imagine anything but 美人 or romance 恋愛 — or pssoibly Stephen’s 好色. Shirakawa has done extensive research in the oracle bone script and was one of Japan’s leading experts in the the historical origins of the characters. I am going to buy his book


    to see if I can uncover anything on 色。However, in the meantime, unless I see evidence otherwise, I just cannot in any conscience go with illusion or appearance.

    Scott, I am going to write more on 徳 later– I’ve got official business over at the elementary school (which of course I had forgotten completely about) But take a look at the Post “talking to beijing” to start and there is an article about Confucius’ supposed romance with Nan zi… which is what Slingerhand wrote about in a far more dramatic manner. Also, there is some Manyul-inspired ideas in the later post “the Voltaire solution.”

    I would love to hear your opinion, by the way.

    Also, Manyul, I said illusion but on 2nd thought, I don’t like it. It’s too Buddhist. You probably know about this famous poem in japanese that all calligraphy students practice because all of the hiragana is contained in the poem so a student would get practice basically the entire syllabary everytime they wrote it out

    … drifting in the world of shallow dreams..

  7. Manyul,

    I almost forgot! I just heard from Chris, he is in transit, but wanted me to remind everyone about the book reading. I think most of us are reading your site, so it might be better to make the announcement here. I forget the date we were going to start too… but I am going to start reading next week. L.

  8. Hmmm. For both Stephen and Peony: “Appearance” is clearly an acceptable meaning for 色 in the period. That was the point of listing all the other instances of it in the Analects. In no way could “sex” work in those other instances. My point was that in the 9.18 and 15.13 instances, nothing indicates a different meaning from “appearance.” Nor in 1.7. Only in 16.7 is there any hint that it is something other than “appearance.” So, we shouldn’t default to “sex.”

  9. But that passage is not about “apperance” in that sense, right? It’s about comportment. (ie one’s facial expressions) when performing perhaps unpleasant tasks as part of 親孝行, no???

    It is not about the ephemeral world…

    And, you know I am against translating this as sex…
    Am officially late.

  10. Manyul,

    How do you like this for 2.8

    “Zixia asked about filial piety and Confucius replied, “The issue is managing our facial expressions. With matters to be tended, the young should serve the elderly, and all people should partake in food in the order of their birth. However, is this all that can be said of filial piety?”

    1) facial expression: One should have a gentle facial expression in front of one’s parents. This is only truly possible if one has love (for parents) in their hearts and this is the therefore the issue 難.
    2) This passage is juxtapositioning “katachi” (outward form) as (色)with feeling


    This is from Kanaya’s book and I think it agrees with your reading actually; which is appearances (as outward form) versus what?? true commitment? heart? The japanese has it as 形 versus 愛情 and a person’s facial expression gives a hint at the state of their heart…

    Anyway, that looks like the standard reading from the 3 versions I have here as well as a quick online check. (including the wikipedia article for 色)

    Depending on context, then 15.13 could be

    It is rare to find a man who prefers virtue to a beautiful woman


    It is rare to find a man who pursues virtue over mere outward appearances (of such virtue)

    Anyway, that’s the best I can do from here.

    Talk to you later.

  11. Hi Peony,

    Thanks; the “comportment” reading of 2.8 makes sense. And comportment is an aspect, as you point out, of outward appearance. The Kanaya notes do agree with my reading. Obviously, by now, I favor “It is rare to find a man who pursues virtue over mere outward appearances (of such virtue)” for 9.18/15.13.

    I’d like to know, really, why the “beautiful woman” reading makes any sense, given the overwhelmingly positive use of 美 in the Analects.

  12. Manyul,

    I must say this is the 2nd time you have convinced me of something to the extent that I have utterly changed my mind concerning an opinion(you know how stubborn I am too)… it must be the “Berekeley vibe” …but, you know, I now favor the above (your) reading as well. However, i think there must be a real reason why beautiful woman is used so overwhelmingly (in japanese it is almost 100% so far of the sources I’ve checked at the library and online). What did you think of the Romance of Confucius (Nanzi) that Beijing gave as the context? Your friend Tim was talking aout the same anecdote.

  13. Hi Manyul,

    I uploaded my final word (for the moment) here:

    Please have a look whenever you get a chance. I also summarized the stuff from Shirakawa’s book on the origins of virtue so far. To be honest, I have a feeling for an expert like you (and your blog readers) there will not be much there that is new or of interest. For me, however, it was pretty interesting.

    In the end, I just don’t think any english translation of 徳 really captures it but right now I guess I am sticking to Confucian Virtue. I don’t think Virtus will ever catch on, you know 🙂

  14. [Hi Manyul (and everyone else)! I met Stephen Walker this weekend and he reminded to get back to your blog, and since I’ve long been perplexed by the intersection of meaning around se, I thought this would be a good time. Sorry to enter the conversation late, though.)

    Given that se sometimes refers to sexual desire, it seems like one cannot settle the issue based on the meaning of se itself. Two things make me question taking it as mere appearances. One is that se regularly means visual appearance but I don’t think it means mere appearance. Manyul, I would read the line you initially quote (2.8) as claiming the opposite, that proper se is actually most difficult and important (I think that is what Peony is saying too in comment 10). Almost every use of se in the Lun Yu follows that sense that se is appearance but is extremely important in itself. The most frequent use of the term se is in chapter ten, where Kongzi’s is repeatedly praised for having the correct se (so he would seem to be a lover of se in that sense). There are a few passages that seem to criticize one who has se but not the reality (e.g, 12.20), but in all of those cases, se if modified or explained. So it seems unlikely (although certainly not impossible) that the text would use se alone as mere appearance. The other point is the use of hao and se together might have been a set phrase. In the Mengzi it pretty clearly refers to sexual desire. In the Xunzi and Zhuangzi it is always connected to the desire of the eyes for beauty. I’ve always read that as referring to beauty in people (rather than robes or a landscape), but it might refer to beauty more broadly (but probably not to mere appearances).

    I want to suggest (that is, test out) a different way of taking the passage as still about sexual desire, but maybe avoiding some of the problems Manyul originally raised. Could it be that the emphasis is not so much on opposing haose as it is on describing what haode should be like? That is, the point is that we should have a powerful, visceral, spontaneous love for de, like we do for beauty? That would seem to resemble the comment in the Da Xue, which compares having sincere intentions to hating a bad smell or loving beauty (如惡惡臭,如好好色). I once heard Wang Bo argue that the Ru connected romantic passages from the Shi Jing to moral messages not so much to moralize those passages (which seems to be the usual interpretation) but rather to say that we should long for goodness with the strength with which, e.g., we miss our lover who as gone off to war, which made me think of this.

    By the way, does anyone find it interesting that sexual desire is associated primarily with the eyes? It is far from common traditional European views that associated eyes with the highest pleasure (partly because of their distance from their object) and sexual desire with the organs themselves.

  15. Hi Franklin,

    While you wait for Manyul’s response– which is sure to be more informed than my own!– I thought I would just add a few thoughts. If you checked my blog, I have written at least 3 posts on this topic of love, sex and virtue, and I think I have gone as far as I can on the topic…. Basically, I think with just those brief 2 lines, it would be next to impossible to come to a categorical interpretation– and my own approach has been to just suggest what it is NOT saying (ie, this is _not_ a Victorian/Roman lament against the dangers of love, sex and romance).

    Regarding 色… I am going through Shirakawa’s oracle bone script dictionary and I do not see beauty as “visual beauty” there. That is such a Buddhist association and I wonder how the kanji was used at the time of Confucius in terms of “visual beauty”… (someone here might have alreday enlightened me but alas I cannot recall)

    To my reading “se” signifies the 1) emotion of two people embracing (“romance”) 2) the expression of a person’s face (comportment) and 3) color (in terms of dying color to cloth especially). In this way I am not completely convinced about a categorical visual element at that time– especially when compared to the emotional aspects, for example.

    In terms of “eyes” though, I wrote this post on lunar virtue and the “eye of 徳” with Manyul in mind about the way that “seeing” is related to virtue. Not coincidentally “a virtue” in Japanese is called 徳目– this, to me, is the really interesting point: that is, virtue as not something known a priori but rather is understood contextually perhaps– by looking– and how this is reflecting in the vocabulary.

    In any eent, they had a perfectly good kanji already to signify “beauty” so 色 can only carefully or in very limited contexts be translated as beauty…

    Anyway, I look forward to Manyul’s response.

    Sam, if you are reading here, I ran across this today and thought of you:

    ‘I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.’ John Muir

  16. Hi Peony,

    Thanks for directing me to that discussion and to your blog. The visual association with de is interesting, because de is associated with hearing in contrast to seeing in the Wu Xing (五行), which presents hearing as higher.

    I know little about early uses of the character se. I was just thinking that in lists of the senses and their objects in Warring States texts, se is always coordinated with the eyes (as the ears with sheng 聲 and the mouth with wei 味). At least in those cases, se is particularly visual. When it connects to desires (e.g. when Xunzi says, 目好色,耳好聲,口好味,心好利), I assume it means loving not just any colors or visual appearances, but beautiful appearances.

    Aside from other meanings of se, limiting se to a visual element is also complicated by what seems to be an assumption that emotions usually appear in our bodies or faces, and so they can be literally seen.

  17. Hi Franklin,

    I thought your comment was extremely interesting– and of course you are right that the emotional content is assumed to be visual. I think that is probably true– though like you suggested maybe not for the Western tradition (?)

    As far as sound and “de”– I remember reading about the jade pendants that scholars wore (and their number was decreed by rank). The sound of the several pendants “ringing” (玲玲)against each other as they walked was supposed to convey the “sound of their virtue” I always loved that and if my son had been a daughter I wanted to use that kanji 玲 (rei) for her name….She was a he so he got kanji of a very different sort!

    Hopefully, Manyul will be “ringing in” here as well! In the meantime, I tried to write something about translating filial piety in English… If you are interested I just uploaded it.


  18. Hi Frank,

    I think you and Peony are right about Analects 2.8 — comportment, 色, is the issue, and the sentiment is that it is both difficult and important to have the correct comportment while tending to affairs or deferring at dinners. Still, that marks an important aspect of “form” in the rituals, which could at the same time be taken as something secondary to the emotional content that the form is meant to express. So, I still lean toward 德 in Analects 9.18 and 15.13 as indicating that depth of (emotional) content versus the more “surface” aspects of form (色).

    I’m still not quite convinced by the idea of 好色 as pan-textually formulaic for “enjoying sex,” or something of the sort. In the Mencius 1B passages, 好___ is clearly used, intra-textually, as something of a rhetorical refrain–a verse to verse formula here–with the blank being filled, in order, by 樂, 勇, 貨, and finally 色. But that seems pointedly about the variety of “好s” that Liang Hui Wang harbors as exclusive privileges of rulership. Mencius wants to spread the love around, as it were (“…內無怨女,外無曠夫…”), but also the music 樂 and wealth 貨.

    But what about 勇 in 1B3? The other 好s seem aesthetic at first, but what does it mean to “enjoy bravery”? As Mencius takes it, it seems to me, the king enjoys *displaying* valor. That makes me think what’s more important for the king’s other 好s is not the passive enjoyment of some auditory, visual, or other aesthetic experience, but the displays–of music, wealth, and his beautiful 妃. So, even in Mencius 1B5, I’m not sold on 好色 as “loving beauty” or “enjoying sex”; it seems more like “enjoying display-of-beauty.” But that seems to lean toward what I see as “surface” phenomena–displays. I’m being tentative here because I’m thinking out loud right now. Let me know what you think.

    On the other hand, I do like your idea of the Analects 9.18 & 15.13 sentiment as suggestive of a visceral (carnal?) love of 德, which is of course lacking in all whom the master has met.

  19. In Mencius 1B.5, at any rate, I don’t think an interpretation of se 色 as anything other than “sex” is persuasive. The issue is not beauty, of course, since the resolution that Mencius recommends–the king should share his love of se with the people by helping his subjects marry–would not apply. Surely some ugly people will have to get married too, and yet everyone should be blissfully happy if the king followed Mencius’s advice.

    As for what se “means” in Analects 9.8 and 15.13: I think it should be obvious that, without much of a context, there are multiple legitimate interpretations. I can’t honestly believe that Confucius’s audience would have understood se in that line as anything other than sex–you have to look at usage in contemporary literature as well–but surely there is no single correct understanding of the text.

  20. Hi Paul,

    (Sorry, all, I numbered the Mencius 1B passages continuously from the Mencius 1 text in front of me–it’s been corrected above.)

    I understand your point about how the king should share his love of se, though I still think it’s not exactly a slam dunk for the “sex” reading. Some ugly people will have to get married too, but the point (on my reading) would be that the people should be able to pursue their love of beauty, or possibly sex, as well. The subtext of the conversation seems to be the level of burden that Hui’s rule, and his pursuit of his 好s in particular, has placed on the people–to the extent that the people don’t have the leisure to enjoy anything, whether in some direct way (their own wealth), vicariously (the musical enjoyment of the king and his enjoyment of his hunting grounds), or as an effect (the peace brought about by the king’s own valor and the subsequent opportunities for pursuit of romance(?) and marriage).

    I absolutely agree that the meaning of se in Analects 9.18 and 15.13 is underdetermined by its immediate context. I just don’t see sex represented elsewhere in the compiled text except in a very well-articulated and age-specific reference to it in 16.7. On the other hand, something like “comportment” as the meaning of se riddles the Analects (see my comment 2).

  21. Also, I would add that 色 is different from 美. This is to say that the opposite of “se” is not “ugly”

    Manyul, I still am going with romantic love in some cases and “facial expressions” (comportment) in others. While I do remain open to seeing virtue as giving priority over “se” (in the original passage) I do not see them as being antagonistic to each other and am very friendly to Franklin’s line of thinking above– of course that type of reasoning is always irresistible 🙂

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