Why do many Americans still say “Confucius say”?

Confucius valued careful and serious speech. One passage in the Analects says that a person can be judged as wise or unwise on the basis of a single sentence. So how is it possible that for many Americans, the first thing they think of when they hear the name of the Chinese teacher is “Confucius say,” followed by a silly one-liner?

It turns out the trend can be precisely dated. In the late 1930s, a newspaper columnist named Walter Winchell began attributing some satirical statements to Confucius, and soon the device was picked up by radio hosts like Jack Benny. From there it spread rapidly, so that as this remarkable story from a February 1940 edition of Life magazine tells us, “In every city and village from coast to coast last week, Americans were stopping other Americans and chortling, ‘You know what Confucius say?'” Many major newspapers began to carry a “Confucius say” column with content solicited from readers, sheets with the maxims were sold in Times Square, and there was a popular song with the title recorded by Guy Lombardo.

As far as I know (and please correct me if I’m wrong), this was the first time Confucius was introduced into mass American culture. This first impression seems to have stuck with us, so that “Confucius say,” despite not only its inaccuracy but also its extreme offensiveness, is ubiquitous even today.  I hear it from students, in email forwards from colleagues, and even occasionally in news commentary. (Anyone can get a sense of its pervasiveness by doing a Google image search.) I can’t help but think that this popular caricature may be in some measure responsible for the prejudice in American academic philosophy against Chinese thought– but that is the subject of another post.

A few things I’d be interested to hear about from this blog’s readership. If you have studied or taught Chinese philosophy in the U.S, what has been your experience with “Confucius say”? How do you respond to it when you hear it? What do you think is the best way to counter this impression of Confucius in the your students’ imaginations?

28 replies on “Why do many Americans still say “Confucius say”?”

  1. I’ve taught a few sections of Chinese philosophy over the years (at CUNY and at Duke) and no student has ever volunteered a joke or even asked about it, but perhaps this is because they did not want to cause offense.

    Just a few weeks ago, I brought this issue up myself for the first time when we started the Analects. (Like you, I was curious.) I was trying to draw a contrast between the enormous historical impact of the figure of Confucius with the trite and offensive way he has been portrayed in American culture. Several students seemed aware of the “Confucius say” phenomenon, but it didn’t seem at all culturally relevant to them. And I got the sense that many had never come across it. Maybe it’s dying out?

    • I always figured it was something racist because my dad made those jokes in a very stereotypical Asian voice

    • Not just vaguely racist, but the accent and practice of saying “Confucius say” was likely spread specifically by the popularity of the Charlie Chan mystery series in print and on television during the 1950s. By the time I was growing up in the U.S. in the 1970s, I heard grade school kids saying that in the accent.

  2. It must be related to the dim notion that Chinese verbs aren’t conjugated–and the even dimmer notion that this means the language must be primitive. William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894), the doyen of Sanskrit studies in his day, once offered this “translation” of Mencius 1A.1:

    King speak: Sage! Not far thousand mile and come; also will have use gain me realm, hey?

    Haun Saussy discusses this in Great Walls of Discourse.

  3. My guess is that this started not as a satire of Confucian thought or even Chinese culture, but of a certain type of pompous Chinese American elder who always lectured younger people – just as his counterpart in the U.S. might begin a 1-on-1 lecture by saying “The Good Book says…” And then it got out of hand.

    But that’s just a guess.

  4. It could possibly be due to the portrayal of Chinese people speaking pidgin’English in movies in the 20th century. A great example were all the Charlie Chan mystery movies of the 1930’s and 40’s. Or even Steve McQueen’s “The Sand Pebble.” Big impact on cultural stereotyping but a younger generation would not have a cultural anchor to pin it too. Just a thought.

  5. Thanks, everyone, for these comments.

    To Hagop– to be fair, it’s pretty rare that I have heard one of the students at my university say this as a joke. But from what I have been able to tell many of them have at least heard the phrase before, a fact which I had attributed to its renewed existence as an internet meme. Your own experience makes me more optimistic, however– hopefully you are right and the expression is dying out among the Millennials.

    To Paul, Mark, and Jack: thanks for the different theories. The most surprising thing I found in my brief research was just how popular this expression came to be in 1939 and 1940. I knew it had been around for a while, but I didn’t know that it had really taken off for a couple of years. Maybe Jack’s reference to Charlie Chan helps explain the timing of things?

  6. I wonder if it is connected to Lin Yutang. His Wisdom of Confucius came out in 1938, and I think (our library is missing its copy) he translated 子曰as “Confucius says” That would be a perfect place for Walter Winchell to pick up the meme, if not the content.

    As for students knowing it, most don’t. One mine did however open a presentation with a picture from this site

    the presentation went downhill from there.

  7. This kind of stereotyping goes back long before the 1930s. A good example is Bret Harte’s poem “Plain Language from Truthful James,” which contains the famous lines “…that for ways that are dark and for tricks that are vain, the heathen Chinee is peculiar.” Ironically, this poem was meant to be read ironically — it tells of a Chinese gambler who outfoxes two white gamblers who try to cheat him — but the phrase became proverbial, and the damage was done. But even toxic words have a half-life; I’d bet that few or even none of today’s college students have heard of Bret Harte’s poem.

  8. I am not familiar with American culture, but it seems that people in contemporary China (especially netizens) frequently use “子曰” (as well as faked “Plato said”, “Thatcher said”, “Clinton said”, etc.) before one-liners.

  9. One form of comedy is incongruity. Normally if a wise person said “Confucius say,” he would follow it up with something wise and deep and meaningful. But if instead you follow it up with something funny or silly, that’s unexpected and therefore even more funny. Another form is repetition, so once the surprise wears off, it’s still funny because it’s a repeating gag. It’s not really demeaning to Asian culture unless you take it that way because it’s not really about Confucius at all. You could easily substitute some other wise or serious person, as in “As Plato once said, ‘Never tie your shoelaces together before going on a long hike.'”

    • Thanks for the input, Jeanette. I agree that humor has forms and that the ones you mention are indeed part of the allure of this particular set of jokes. I even agree that most people don’t repeat them to address Confucius’s status in any direct way. I’m not sure why they are not demeaning or offensive, however, because of their comedic form. Plenty of comedy is offensive or demeaning even if strictly “good comedy” according to comedy standards. I guess I think if people choose the Confucius joke over the Plato joke when they tell it, something about making light of East Asian culture is part of the motivation in most cases. There may be exceptions.

  10. Hi Jeanette, You’ve made me think, and I think you make some good points. I wouldn’t say the genre of joke is highly demeaning. But I also think it’s not harmless:

    Confucius is regarded with a kind of religious veneration by many people, including many people who live in the West or in between. To capture the way the genre of joke appears to these people, Jesus might be a better comparison than Plato. On the other hand, religion is characteristically mistaken and dangerous, so there’s that.

    Implicit in the genre, I think, is a kind of denigration of Confucius as a purveyor of one-liners only: not because the genre implies that he was, but because it plays off the idea that the positive use of his work is to quote one-liners.

    Last and mainly, I think the genre is problematic not so much because it demeans Confucius (and thereby Asian culture), but rather because it demeans those who might appeal to Confucius. Compare “As Plato once said” with “Confucius say.” There is even a standard Chinese accent to use in pronouncing “Confucius say” (deriving from the Charlie Chan movies and not resembling any real Chinese accent, I think).

    On the other hand, it seems to me that the point of the genre is simply to frame a unique kind of bawdy one-liner; I imagine it is rarely motivated by racial or cultural prejudice.

    • Maybe a better comparison would be with “Jesus spoke, and said” jokes in a country where Christians are in the distinct minority.

  11. Hi Manyul,

    I’m in no position to know for sure about motivations. I’m not sure I have personally encountered a joke of this kind since elementary school in the 1960s, when I heard and repeated a couple and had, I think, no thoughts whatsoever about East Asians or East Asian culture. Nor do I remember ever seeing such a joke on television or hearing one on the radio (other than what I’ve sought out on YouTube in connection with this thread originally and now); though I might have.

    There are other reasons for choosing Confucius rather than Plato to frame that kind of one-liner. One reason is that the Confucius genre already exists (repetition, as Jeanette says). Another is that Confucius, unlike Plato, is indeed known for brief adages. There is no practice of quoting, in conversation, a comment by Plato on everyday conduct; what would be one of Plato’s views about that?

    • Hi Bill. I guess I’m treating “motivation” fairly broadly. Take something like “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Willis?” which quotes from the show Diff’rent Strokes. I think that’s, broadly speaking, racially motivated, which has to do with the overtly racialized theme of the original show. Your reference to Charlie Chan is relevant here — the Confucius Say jokes don’t completely trace to that movie character, but I think it had a large cultural influence on the joke genre’s popularity. And, as with Diff’rent Strokes, the movie franchise was overtly racial (racist, too).

    • Just to clarify, “racially motivated” in a broad sense means something like “brings into play/relevance the referenced racialization.” So, it is the Gary Coleman character’s race that is referenced and part of the humor content, just as Confucius’s race (or racialized accent, in particular) that is referenced and part of the humor content. Jokes are so complicated.

  12. Thanks!

    This def—

    “racially motivated” in a broad sense means something like “brings into play/relevance the referenced racialization.”

    —seems to make “motivation” independent of both (a) what was in the speaker’s mind, and (b) causal factors that led to the joke? Also I don’t understand “racialization” here – racialization of what? And relevance to what? And I don’t understand the key move from “referenced” to “brought into play/relevance”: what’s the difference between them?

    I haven’t seen “Different Strokes” and the Willis line doesn’t ring a bell, but to me the key point seems to be this: it is understood here and now that black/white race stuff is such a huge problem that everyone is responsible for avoiding certain triggers and patterns. The race issue is already in play, so pulling a trigger with no intent regarding the race issue would be culpable negligence, a fault in the motivations of the speaker, like letting a child play near a well with no intent that it fall in.

    • Thanks, Bill; that’s thought provoking. I don’t think I agree with your (b) — bringing into play or relevance the referenced racialization actually connects the telling of the joke to one of the causal factors that led to the joke — namely, the context in which referencing a racialized accent, gesture, or appearance was thought to be humorous. I guess “racializations” of accents, gestures, or appearance seems fairly straightforward to me — they are usually affects that are packaged with racial categories to form tropes or stereotypes — basically, short-hands, for referring to an idea (usually evaluative) about a group of people.

      With (a) — what was in the speaker’s mind — that seems unclear to me in talking about motivation. I could be moved to make a joke because I think it is funny (a belief in my mind), but the race-referencing aspects or the racist aspects of the joke might not occur to me. Nonetheless, the race related aspects play a causal role in my telling the joke because they play important roles in my thinking that it is funny in the racist social context in which I live. Does that mean the race related aspects of the joke are “in my mind” when I tell the joke? I’m not too sure what that means unless I have some account of something’s being in a person’s mind.

  13. Thanks Manyul, and sorry for the delay.

    It looks like in my trying to understand your definition, each of the two fixed points I was counting on were wrong: that “racialization” was supposed to be some kind of process or change, and that bringing the referenced X into play/relevance meant a change from something’s being merely referenced to its being relevant – both false assumptions on my part. Now I think that by being relevant you just mean being referenced, and “bringing the referenced X into play/relevance” means referencing X. Those mistakes led me to think your definition was all about consequences only.

    Maybe there’s a lingo that college leaders use in managing student culture, which I wouldn’t know; or maybe I was just being a bad reader.

    In substance I think you’re saying that the signifiers in the Willis and Confucius jokes are publicly bound up with race (and therefore racism?), as common knowledge, so that when one uses them there’s approximately no such thing as not having those things be part of one’s intent. That’s kin to what I was saying.

    I think the term “racial motivation” came in only in connection with the Willis joke; the issue about the Confucius joke was quite different. I had said, regarding the Confucius joke, “I imagine it is rarely motivated by racial or cultural prejudice,” and you said “something about making light of East Asian culture is part of the motivation in most cases.” I’m not sure the idea of “racially motivated” as you define it has any direct relevance to that issue.

    I suppose we agree on these things:

    – One can use terms that make even overt reference to a “race” or a culture or cultural form (as e.g. you do above), without being “racially motivated” or motivated by racial or cultural prejudice, or making light of the culture (though the whole idea of “race” approaches racism).

    – One can poke fun at something (e.g. a culture or cultural form or even, under certain conditions, a race) without committing a wrong—without being guilty of culpable disrespect or overall disparagement.

    – It is saliently presumptively (though not necessarily absolutely) immoral these days to say or suggest something negative about a whole “race” as such.

    – It is a basic responsibility to be critical about cultural forms, to evaluate them comparatively—especially it is a main responsibility of intellectuals in many fields of the humanities and social studies, hence students. Principled neutrality among cultures is illiberal; liberalism is a cultural form.

    – It is tricky to discuss the value of cultural forms without being disrespectful of people; it takes practice, so it needs freedom and encouragement.

    – Eliding race and culture is half an inch from being racist, or rather from being racism. Casually eliding them is much closer.

    I suppose we agree on those things.

    I’m also inclined to think that insofar as the Confcucius joke refers to culture, it tends to be Chinese rather than East Asian culture. I think lots of people haven’t heard that Confucius is relevant throughout East Asia.

  14. I’ve heard too many Americans say “Confucius say” with a caricatured Chinese accent for me to believe that there are no racist overtones (or that the figure of Confucius is just a place-holder).

    The origin is pretty obvious: Pidgin English. I just did a quick search, and, as I expected, you can find plenty of “Confucius say” in Charlie Chan movies. And I’m prepared to call those racist.

  15. Its racist. “Confucius said” would be appropriate rather than mimicking a stereotypical idea of “chinky” speech. The quote from “Different Strokes” is a false equivalency because “Whatchu talkin about, Willis” is the ACTUAL quote. The words “Confucius say” are not quoting Confucious, they are caricaturizing him. Its demeaning.

    Also, Ive noticed besides the satirized statements intentionally misattributed to Confucius for the sake of humor (which in itself isnt inherently racist simply the manner in which its done) I see people mistakenly attribute any or all random nuggets of wisdom to ancient Chinese philosophy or Confucius. This sort of racism isnt malacious, but it still reinforces stereotypes rather than truly understanding Confucianism. At times these quotes directly contradict the philosophy if you are educated on the subject or the way the Chinese language works or even Chinese history in general.

    • Now if I were to speak outside my normal dialect to mimick the speech sayind “Dat man Gary Coleman say (insert whatever here)” then that would be racist. The actual quote, if it was written by TV show writers in order to reinforce a negative image or stereotype then it would be racist but for different reasons. If it came on a show today id be more likely to say nah, as that particular dialect isnt exclusive to black people stereotypically. Its more of an ethnic thing regarding American slang. Any white southerner coyld say the exact same words and it would seem normal. However, times were different in the 70s so it may very well have been placed in the script similar to reasons blackface was used way back when, especially if the white people on the show are all depicted as being grammatically correct.

  16. I don’t know if anyone else did this and mentioned it above, but , out of curiosity, I did a Google ngram search for “Confucius say” (it searches millions of books for word or phrase use). Poking around in the results it looks like discussion of the usage starts in the 1950s.

    There is a 1957 issue of *The Electrical Workers’ Journal* that struck my fancy. The relevant article begins, “A few years ago, it was the current rage to give forth with a quotation, learned or frivolous, prefaced by “Confucius Say.” Remember? Well — that brings us to the subject of “our” page this month. I recently received a little booklet entitled “Chinese Proverbs — the Sages and their Sayings.” They are most thought-provoking. I thought I’d pass a few on to you, with what I hope are appropriate comments.”

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