1928: Qian Mu on Confucius and the Status of His Doctrine

Qian Mu (錢穆 aka Ch’ien Mu) was one of the top Chinese classical scholars of the 20th Century. Here an introduction to Confucius Qian Mu gave to students in Suzhou in 1928. We see in his presentation how he locates Confucius among the most important currents of thought and major religions in China during the 1920s: individualism and socialism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. He urges his students to treasure and not despise Confucius and his philosophy as some Chinese did at the time and remarks that some German scholars respect Confucius thought very highly.

Qian Mu’s 1928 lecture, like Hu Shih’s letter to his son written a year later 1929: Hu Shih’s Letter to his Son: Be the Best Person You Can Be, gives us a flavor of its time. [Hyper-parenthetically, when I looked at the Chinese language Wiki articles on Qian Mu (naturally the Chinese language ones on China are often more detailed and better) I discovered Li Ao’s comment — apparently Hu Shih and Qian Mu couldn’t stand each another. New culture guy vs. Old culture guy?]

Qian Mu is one of the most respected commentators on the two millenia-old Analects 《论语》of Confucius. While some translations of the Analects are simply that — translations of the text — it is best read together with several of the commentaries that explain the text and have become intertwined with the text. Like the New Testament of the Bible, the Analects was written by the disciples of Confucius after his death and not by Confuius himself. Parts of the Analects, especially the later chapters have a different flavor than the earlier ones (perhaps like the Biblical Apocrypha written later than the earlier chapters; reflecting debates or jockeying for influences among schools founded by Confucius’ disciples). Like China today, in ancient China strict censorship of influential texts and promotion of the ideological line in favor at the imperial court were common.

Quite possibly some commentators re-interpreted Confucian thinking so that it would be more in line with the core of the imperial court with the Emperor at its center. Even more likely, they simply took Confucius words and interpreted them according to what his words and phrases had come to mean in their own times as the great sea of the ever-changing Chinese language exchanged currents of thought with its neighbors and in more recent centuries, Europe. Another parallel with the Bible is that a schools of textual analysis arose in both China and the Biblical criticism in the West (particulary Germany) to better understand the layers involved in the composition of their respective ancient texts. Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide Edited by Michael Loewe gives a look at scholars at work.

While textual criticism has tended to raise doubts, especially intriguing in the case of China is how the semi-mythical stories of the earliest Chinese dynasties have become somewhat less mythical as the ‘myths’ as archaeological work has confirmed some parts of them. Columbia Professor Li Feng’s Early China: A Social and Cultural History makes this point eloquently.

On YouTube you can watch Princeton Professor Benjamin Elman, who did considerable work on Qing Dynasty philology and textual analysis, speak on “Philologists as Rogues?”

One translation of the Analects that explicitly incorporates various commentaries (other translators may rely more on this or that commentator but may not tell you) in explanations of the translated. The best I have seen is Yale Professor Annping Chin’s Confucius: The Analects

From Yale Professor Annping Chin’s Confucius: The Analects Penguin Classics.

Many things keep changing in language: an examples is the meaning of the word junzi 君子 was changing in Confucius’s day from meaning ruler to a larger use that gradually took over as a cultured person or “gentleman”. Princeton Professor Yu Ying-shih wrote an article in Chinese about this decades ago that I translated last year as Yu Ying-shih on The ‘Gentleman’ and the Confucian Ideal. As we try to understand an ancient text we need to take care about how the tectonic plates of language have shifted beneath the feet of the many generations (or shifted because those generations did the lingusitic shifting!) since they were composed.

Other online Analects translations available online and other refereences:

Many lectures by top Chinese scholars are available on YouTube. Below, a presentation by Taiwan University’s Pei-jung Fu (傅佩荣) on the Analects. Qute a wealth of material. I’ve taken notes on a few talks by Chinese scholars on international relations, for example 2013: Chinese Scholars Debate “Elites, Populists and the Future of China”, 2020: Shen Zhihua on State of Chinese Research on Relations with Neighboring Asian Countries and “History and Experience of the Chinese Communist Party’s Engagement with the United States”: A Lecture by Professor Zhang Baijia.


A Brief History of Confucius and the Status of His Doctrine


We know that today is the birthday of Confucius. Why is it his birthday? It is because it is written in the Book of Gongsang: “In the twenty-first year of the reign of Duke Xiang of Lu, Confucius was born in the eleventh month of the year Gengzi 庚子[37th year of the 60 year cycle] .” And in Guliang Zhuan, it is written, “In the twenty-first year of the reign of Duke Xiang, in the tenth month of the year of the reign of Duke Gengzi, Confucius was born.” In these two books, the dates and days of Confucius’ birth are the same, but the months are different. If we use the calendar to calculate, we know that there is no Gengzi in the eleventh month, so it is the Gongshang Zhuan that has a month difference.

In addition, the chapter “Family of Confucius” in the “Records of the Grand Historian” states that Confucius was born in the 22nd year of Duke Xiang of Lu, which is another year different from the “Guliang Zhuan”. According to the calendar, the tenth month of the twenty-first year of Duke Xiang was the twenty-first day of the tenth month. After a detailed discussion, it was decided that the chronology in the Historical Records was more correct, so it was decided that Confucius was born in the twenty-second year of Duke Xiang of Lu, that is, on the twenty-seventh day of the tenth month.

However, October in the Zhou Dynasty was the eighth month of the Xia Dynasty calendar. The lunar calendar used today is the Xia calendar. Today is the 27th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, so today is Confucius’ birthday. The 22nd year of Duke Xiang of Lu is 2,475 years ago, so today is the 2,476th year of Confucius’ birthday. We can also know that Confucius was born six years after Buddha Shakyamuni.


In addition to the Analects of Confucius, the most ancient book that records the facts of Confucius is the Confucian Family Sayings. Unfortunately, this book has been lost. The current version was shown to be a fake by Wang Su of Wei during the Three Kingdoms, so there is much that cannot be relied upon. The more reliable one is “The Family of Confucius” in “The Records of the Grand Historian”. In addition, there is also the book 《洙泗考信录》”Su Si Kao Xin Lu” compiled by Cui Shu 崔述 of the Qing Dynasty, which is the most detailed. Then there is the second chapter in my 《论语讲义》 [Essentials of the Analects of Confucius] [1], which can also be used as a reference.

When Confucius was thirteen years old, when Shakyamuni was nineteen years old, it was the year when he became a monk. Confucius said, “I was ten and five years old and aspired to study.” He also said, “I was young and lowly, so I performed lowly tasks.” This was his situation in his youth. Confucius was twenty-four years old just when Buddha Shakyamuni was thirty years old and became a preacher. When Confucius reached the age of twenty-seven, Tanzi 郯子 came to Lu, and Confucius asked him about the system for selecting and supervising officials. By that time, Confucius had acquiered an excellent reputation. By the age of thirty-four, Meng Xizi, the great ruler of Lu, urged his two sons to go to Confucius to learn li propriety and said, “Confucius takes after the sages and will be a great man in the future.”

When Confucius was thirty-five years old, Duke Zhaoge of Lu wanted to liquidate the Ji clan, but failed to do so, and so there was great turmoil in the state of Lu so Confucius fled to Qi. After six or seven years, he returned to the state of Lu. However, the three old dominant families of Lu still held on to power and their household ministers still ruled and so Lu was still very chaotic. Confucius then revised the Poetry, the Book, the Rites and the Music, and gave lectures about education. The generation of disciples of Confucius exemplified by Zi Lu, Yan Yuan, Zi Gong and Min Ziqian came to study with Confucius at that time.

When Confucius was fifty-two years old, Duke Ding of Lu appointed him a minister at his court. At the meeting of Jigu, the Marquis of Qi tried to rob the Marquis of Lu, but Confucius fought him off and recovered the land of Wenyang in Lu. At that time, Confucius and his disciple Zi Lu, seeing that the three dominant families of Lu were strong and the government was divided, decided to “take the three capitals“.  At that time, Confucius was fifty-four years old. Later, the two capitals of Jisun and Shusun fell, but the third, Mengsun could not be taken and so Confucius left the state of Lu.

When Confucius was fifty-five years old, he went to Wei. At this time, the ruler of Wei was the Duke of Ling, and he could not employ Confucius. At the age of fifty-seven, he went to Wei and passed through the state of Song on his way, suffering many hardships. At the age of fifty-nine, he went to Chen. When he was sixty-three years old, Wu invaded Chen, and Confucius went to Chen to Cai, where he went hungry for seven days. He met Duke Ye of Chu in the land of Cai. He returned to Wei that year. Later, when he returned to Lu, he was already sixty-eight years old, but the ruler of Lu still could not employ him, so Confucius did some more lecturing. At that time, Zi You, Zi Xia, Zi Zhang, and Zeng Shen were all young men who came to study with him.

At the age of 73, Confucius died in the fourth month of the summer, that is, in the forty-first year of King Jing of Zhou and the sixteenth year of Duke Ai of Lu, 479 years before the Western calendar.

Buddha Shakyamuni died at the age of eighty, one year after Confucius. Jesus was born 479 years after the death of Confucius, and Muhammad became the prophet of Islam 1100 years after Confucius’ death. We all know that there are four major figures of faith in the world; those four are the above-mentioned Buddha, Jesus, Muhammed, and Confucius. But among the four, except for Confucius, all were religious people who established religion based on God’s way, placing their faith in the heavenly kingdom of the next world. Confucius was the one who taught merely the truth of being a human being in the real world and so gained people’s faith.  Jesus and Muhammad came later. Although Siddhartha Buddha was around at the same time as Confucius, his religion has long existed in India in name only. The Indians today only believe in their Brahmanic religion. Therefore, according to the present world, Confucius is the one whose faith is widespread today and very ancient compared with other religious associated with the great figures of ancient times.


Confucius truly was someone who sought to reconcile. Other schools of thought liked to go to extremes. Here is Confucius’ analysis.

(1) Reconciliation of Knowledge and Emotion

The spirit of religion is that it can move our emotions. The reason why Confucius’ doctrine inspires the same faith as a religion, is that Confucius moves our deep feelings. Confucius, however, was a scholar, not a religious man. Therefore, his doctrine does not focus on the emotional side. Ten years after Confucius’ death, a great philosopher called Socrates came out of Greece, who was also a learned man in the strict sense, so he said, “Morality is knowledge.” This shows that he favored the spirit of knowledge.

In European thought, there are about two schools of thought. One is Greek thought and the other is Hebrew thought; that is, the philosophy of Socrates and the religion of Jesus. Confucius included these two schools together. Kant of Germany, the new philosopher of modern Europe, pioneered “knowledge” and “twelve categories“. When he discussed morality, he spoke of the “supreme order”. He also favored the intellectual side. Socrates in ancient times and Kant in modern times can represent the European scholars. Both of them stressed knowledge and neglected emotion: they were in opposition to the religionists.

Confucius’ knowledge was certainly profound, but he also talked about emotions. His disciple Zigong asked him, “Are you Confucius not a sage?” Confucius said, “I do not dare to be a sage, but I never tire of learning and teaching.” When Zigong heard this, he said, “If you are not tired of learning, you are wise. If you do not tire of teaching, you are benevolent. If you are benevolent and wise, you are not a saint!” We should know that “wisdom” is knowledge and “benevolence” is emotion. The great sagesse of Confucius is in his reconciliation of knowledge and emotion. Unlike European philosophers, who only talk about knowledge, not emotions. Their religions are dedicated to emotions, regardless of knowledge. This stirred up endless disputes between religion and science. 

Western philosophers, of course, also have deep emotions. For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France, Friedrich

Nietzsche in Germany, and Leo Tolstoy in Russia were all very emotional and highly influential in modern thought. However, a reading of Rousseau’s book Confessions suffices to reveal the uneasy feelings that persisted throughout his life. Rousseau went mad in the end. Nietzsche later in life also had a nervous breakdown. All his thoughts were written down as he lay on his pillow so how could they be very reliable! People say that he was madly calling for the morality of the strong because he himself endured lifelong weakness. In his life, Tolstoy also went through many regrets, changes and unhappiness in his thoughts and in his life.  In the end, he sought his own death. This is all because he was a man of great emotions but lacked sufficient knowledge to master them; in the end he did not lead a proper life.

This was not the case with Confucius, who reconciled his emotions with his knowledge. That’s why his life was very smooth. It is not that Confucius did not talk about knowledge, but unlike the Westerners who talk about knowledge, he was not dull or cold. The knowledge of the Westerners is hard.  They have minds but no heart. The knowledge of the Chinese is soft; it holds both mind and heart.  If we were to liken people to beasts, then Westerners would be wolves and Chinese would be dogs. Dogs are tractable; wolves are fierce and ruthless. The Westerners are lions, and the Chinese are elephants. The elephant is kind while the lion is violent.

Confucius was the one who advocated “gentle, kind and frugal”, so he was able to reconcile knowledge with emotion, and religion with learning.

(2) Reconciling the two worlds of the present and the future

When we talk about the world, there are two worlds, the present and the future. Religious people are specialized in speaking about the future world, so Jesus and God live in one world, and Sakyamuni Buddha’s world is heavenly nirvana. The Tao they preach only persuades people to look to the next world. This is something that Confucius definitely did not preach.

Look at Zi Lu’s question to Confucius about “serving ghosts and spirits”. 季路問事鬼神。Confucius answered saying, If you cannot serve man, how can you serve ghosts and spirits?

When he asked about death, Confucius answered saying “How can one know death before knowing life?” 「未知生焉知死?」

We can know that Confucius’ world is the world of human beings. He also said. “It is impossible to associate with birds and beasts, as if they were the same with us. If I do not associate myself with people [humankind], then how could I associate myself with anyone?”

Then the world of human beings is his heavenly nirvana. The filial piety, discipleship, loyalty, faith, rituals, music, etc. that he spoke of are the conditions that call human beings to the world of bliss. The world of bliss lives only in our own warm hearts.

So religion removes human beings from the present world and orients them towards the future world. Confucius’s objective is to take our hopes for the future and calls on us manifest them in the here and now. This is the second kind of reconciliation of Confucius.

(3) The Reconciliation of Socialism and Individualism

Friedrich Nietzsche, whom I mentioned earlier, represents individualism; Leo Tolstoy represents socialism. Those who speak of socialism inevitably efface the individual; those who speak of individualism refuse to take society into account. These are the polar extreme of modern European thought; there is no room to reconcile them. They have suffered greatly from this ideological pain. In the doctrines of Confucius, however, these two points are reconciled.

Confucius taught loyalty, forgiveness, filial piety, and discipline, which are the socialism of “being human”. But loyalty, forgiveness, filial piety, and discipline are only our own feelings. I only do what I am comfortable with and what is good for me, never be driven by outside obligation or compulsion; is this not individualism “for me”? Confucius only spoke of loyalty, forgiveness, filial piety, and brotherhood.  He saw that there is no conflict between the individual and society.

Jesus said, “He who believes in me, that one will go to Heaven.” He who believes in me for the Father goes to heaven for the Father. He who believes in me for his Son, he who believes in me for his Son goes to heaven. He is separating out individual interrelationships, there remains only the personal relationship between the individual and God.

Confucius is different. The doctrine of Confucius only stops at “kindness” for the father, “filial piety” for the son, “love” for the brother, and “respect” for the disciple. “. Confucius spoke only of human relationships. He organized the ethics of society as a whole, and since human emotions are the main focus of his doctrine, and so there is no need for a God, and there was no rift between the individual and society. This is the doctrine of Confucius.

Confucius was able to reconcile all three.


Over two millennia — 2,476 years — have passed since the birth of Confucius. Confucius’ thought seems to be very simple, but if we study it carefully, we discover that it is infinitely previous. Recently, Chinese people have come to think that the doctrine of Confucius is old-fashioned and of no great use. Everyone today wants to study fashionable Western philosophy. What they do not realize is that those Westerners themselves want to study Confucius! Nowadays, there are two schools of thought in German Sinology, the Confucius and Lao Zi schools. The school of German sinology that believes in Confucius is a social youth movement. When they meet, they first read several chapters from the Analects of Confucius.  They treat it with great respect like the Bible.  Are we in our country not unkind and unwise that we despise Confucius when they have such ardent faith in him? Therefore, we should revere Confucius and see to it that his doctrines flourish. This is what I wish for all of you.

(Lecture on the birthday of Confucius at Suzhou High School in the seventeenth year of the Republic of China (1928), originally published in the eleventh issue of the Suzhou High School Journal.)

* * *

[1] Editor’s note: This manuscript is entitled “A Brief History of Confucius and the Status of His Doctrine,” and is the text of a speech given by the author at Suzhou High School in the 17th year of the Republic of China. It is now included in this book as the first chapter to fulfill the author’s last wish.








孔子五十二岁,鲁定公用他做司寇。夹谷之会,齐侯想用兵劫鲁侯,被孔子斥退,并且归还鲁国 汶阳的田土。当时孔子和他的弟子子路,见三家强梁,政出多门,便主“堕三都”,那时孔子五十四岁,后来堕掉季孙、叔孙的两个都城,孟孙氏就不肯堕了,孔子也就离开鲁国。




























(民国十七年苏州中学 孔子诞辰讲词,原载《苏中校刊》十一期。)

[1] 编者按:即今《四书释义》一书中之《论语要略》。第二章为“孔子之事迹”。

[1] 编者按:此稿今已检得,名《孔子略史及其学说之地位》,乃民国十七年作者在苏州中学之演讲稿。现收入本书为篇首,以完作者遗愿。

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated, with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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