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What are the Analects?

Imoportance of Rongo
“The Master said, ‘At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts.’” This is a famous passage from the Analects, our theme for this week. These are the words of Confucius, a philosopher of ancient China, in which he describes his own life. The Analects are a book of conversations between Confucius and his disciples. It was compiled by Confucius’ disciples after his death. Why do we still read and study the Analects?
Here are a few reasons: Because the Analects are the source of Chinese written culture which Japan imported through Korea. Because the Analects are a fundamental text to know the culture of China and its people. Because the Analects have exerted an incalculable influence on Japanese culture for the last 1,500 years. Because the wisdom they contain has been used to change the course of history. Because no book is more familiar to Japanese people than the Analects. We could list countless such reasons for studying the Analects. Its importance for understanding Japanese culture is also hard to overstate. However, in today’s world, scientific progress and economic growth are considered the priorities, so even the Analects have come to be seen by some as obsolete.
But Confucius once stated: “Study the old if you would know the new”; so perhaps we should to take another look at this little book which for so long has been considered indispensable reading by so many. For those of you who have never read the Analects, I hope that by looking at some rare versions of the book from different periods, you will get a good sense of the way this book has been read and interpreted through Japanese history. But first of all, I hope that through the ink, paper, and brushwork of these ancient books you can feel the energy that ancient cultures have passed down to us.

Have you ever heard of the Analects of Confucius (Ch. Lun yu; J. Rongo)? Do you know what they are? And why should studying the Analects help you to understand Japanese culture?

Below is the text of a famous passage from the Analects that Prof. Takahashi introduces in the video. This quote still frequently pops up in everyday conversation in Japan. What do you think about this quote? Is there a similar saying in your country?

Original Chinese text


Japanese reading:


Modern Japanese translation:


English Translation

The Master said, “At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.” (Analects, II: 4; trans. James Legge)
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Sino-Japanese Interactions Through Rare Books

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