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« Inclusive Care | Main | Why History Matters »

February 07, 2009


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Touché Professor! And your translation is ambiguous enough to make for endless centuries of debate too... and how is the love of integrity not "like" the love of a beautiful woman.... :)

But yes, Confucius would have been shocked indeed.
(but remember-- just to be clear-- the orginal discussion was never about breaking the law, right?)

I'm using the Ivanhoe/Van Norden collection this semester, and their translation of 9:18 is "I have yet to meet a man who loves Virtue as much as he loves sex." They left off 15:13.

Oddly, none of my students asked about that verse....


re: your students....because they were thinking about sex....

Hi Jonathan,

That was my friend Beijing's prefered translation as well (indeed, he seems to be a friend of Ivanhoe's so that would account for a lot). I dislike the translation because, really isn't 色 about so much more? Maybe that is why I don't read this as a "lament" the way Sam does...but only a call for moderation in things.

And, Sam-- the silence on the part of Jonathan's students, is what I was trying to get at in terms of what would the sage say today. However, I was never imagining a situation like you have presented...The minister of nuclear affairs?

Sorry, but se 色 really can't be sex or romance; it's much broader, even in the 15.13 and 9.18 contexts. I think the "sex" translation is just flat out wrong--there isn't any independent evidence that sexual license was a temptation Confucius worried over; nor, by the way, was concubinage an option for anyone other than the emperor or possibly a very powerful warlord. This line of translating seems to be a projection of more modern (say, from the 18th century onward) genres of moralizing texts onto the Analects.

In any case, here is an Analects example (2.8) that I think helps to set 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?'"

Confucius seems much more concerned, throughout the Analects, in the contrast between mere, or rote, behavior that mimics real piety, righteousness, or ritual and genuine possession of those characteristics. I think that transfers also to distractions that form a category of "surface" pleasure. 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 is not appreciating beauty and instead being led to "cheap" delights.

Thanks for stopping by.
I will defer completely on matters of translation. But here's a question. While I am ready to agree with you that for Confucius in his own time, sex was not necessarily the problem, what happens if we try to apply a Confucian sensibility to our own time? (I realize not everyone will accept that sort of project, but bear with me...). I imagine that a modern Confucian would have a certain worry about sexual license, given the change in sexual behavior of the past century or so in the US. While Confucius may not have worried too much about sex in his time (as opposed to distraction more generally), a modern extrapolation of The Analects might reasonably yield a certain concern about sexual practices today. Does that sound right?


My pleasure to stop by. I'm still not sure that the sensibility is about one arena or type of activity *as opposed to another*--e.g. in antiquity, between ritualized life and licentious free-for-all. I think the sensibility in the Analects is 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, as you put it for de 德, "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 色.

I don't know, maybe there are better examples (though a knock against Kenny G is always a bonus if not gratuitous), but something of that sort is what I think is going on in Confucius's difficulty with se.


55% say yes but how many would actually DO so?


People are people

It cracks me up to think how people impose personal values on others rather than accept each person as being a person...

*sigh* society is so boring in its "forms" of shape ... all to keep order so it may happily keep going as is.

So it goes

the yin yang inter-play of being a person and maintaining a society... Best to leave it as play and follow joy


I agree with you 100%

My only hesitation 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 it could be DB's Confucian Romance context that I linked to in my Post)...

Indeed, I agree that 色 is "illusion"... Not beauty. Not sex. Like so many other ancient concepts, I think 色 had wide possible definitions and semantic usuages. So, how to make a call?

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 doesn't 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.

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、お花in japan etc.).

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