The Analects of Confucius

Read the introduction and the entire selection from your book and keep in mind that Confucius was writing mostly to rulers, kings and princes of his time (5BC). Most of what he discussed (He never wrote anything himself. The Analects are just a collection of sayings we attribute to him.) concerns governing of a kingdom and how to behave as a good king or what he calls, being a “Gentleman”.

1. In Book IV, 4.15 Confucius mentioned “reciprocity” a many times. What do you think he means? Why is this one of the most important virtue in Confucianism?

2. One of the main ideas of Confucianism is self-cultivation, to become a Gentleman? What kind of virtues do you need to be a cultivated man? And why are these important for society? Discuss specific passages from the readings.

3. Consider this passage: Ji Kang Zi asked Confucius about government, saying, “What do you think of killing the wicked and associating with the good?” Confucius replied, “In your government what is the need of killing? If you desire what is good, the people will be good. The character of a ruler is like wind and that of the people is like grass. In whatever direction the wind blows, the grass always bends.”

What does Confucian mean when he said the ruler is like wind and people like grass? What do these metaphors stand for?

What do you think Confucius’ response to Ji Kang Zi means? Should the wicked be killed? Do you think Confucius mean “yes” or “no” in his answer?

4. How would a government founded on Confucian principles compare to our own government?

6. What is your favorite quote from the Analects? How does it illustrate Confucius’ philosophy to you?


In Confucianism, reciprocity refers to the idea of mutual obligation or the giving and receiving of benefits between individuals, such as between ruler and subject or between friend and friend. Confucius emphasized the importance of this virtue as a means of establishing a harmonious and orderly society. He believed that if individuals treated each other with kindness and respect, and fulfilled their responsibilities to each other, then the entire society would benefit. Confucius considered reciprocity to be one of the most important virtues in Confucianism because it forms the foundation of social relationships and provides a framework for moral behavior.

Confucius believed that self-cultivation was essential for individuals to become “gentlemen” or moral and ethical leaders. To achieve this, individuals needed to cultivate a number of virtues, such as wisdom, compassion, honesty, and loyalty. Confucius believed that these virtues were important not only for the individual but also for society as a whole, as they would help to create a harmonious and just society. In Book II, 17, Confucius says, “The gentleman is one who is always ready to learn, who is not ashamed of his mistakes, and who is able to give others guidance.” This illustrates the idea of self-cultivation and the importance of being constantly mindful of one’s own moral development.

The metaphor of the ruler being like wind and the people being like grass refers to the influence that a ruler has on his subjects. Confucius believed that the actions and character of a ruler had a profound impact on the behavior of the people. Just as the wind can bend the grass, so too can the ruler shape the behavior of his subjects. Confucius’ response to Ji Kang Zi suggests that instead of resorting to violence, a ruler should focus on setting a good example and fostering a virtuous society. Confucius believed that if a ruler desired what was good, then the people would naturally follow and become good as well. Thus, his answer implies that the wicked should not be killed, but rather guided and reformed through positive example and moral leadership.

A government founded on Confucian principles would likely place a strong emphasis on moral and ethical leadership, education, and the cultivation of virtuous behavior. Confucianism places a heavy emphasis on personal responsibility and the obligation of rulers to serve as moral examples for their subjects. The idea of reciprocity would also be central, as relationships between ruler and subject, and among individuals in general, would be based on mutual obligation and respect. This would likely lead to a society that values cooperation, harmony, and justice.

One of my favorite quotes from the Analects is “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” (Book VI, 24). This quote illustrates Confucius’ philosophy of gradual self-improvement and the idea that great things can be achieved through small, consistent steps. Confucius believed that individuals should constantly strive to improve themselves and their society, and that this could be achieved through steady and persistent effort.

“The Analects of Confucius” (Translated by D.C. Lau), is a widely read and widely used translation of the text and provides a comprehensive look at Confucius’ teachings and philosophy.

“Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics” by Annping Chin is a biography of Confucius that provides a broader context for his ideas and teachings. The book delves into the social and political climate of the time and how it shaped Confucius’ views on governance and ethics.

“Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction” by Professor Brian du Toit provides a succinct and accessible overview of Confucianism as a philosophy and a way of life. The book covers the key themes and principles of Confucianism, including self-cultivation, reciprocity, and moral leadership, and provides insights into the influence of Confucianism on Chinese culture and society.