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Confucius and the Confucians

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Confucius and his followers typically contrast the conduct of the good or cultivated man (gentleman) or the wise man (sage) with the small or petty-minded man. The context for these statements is usually either personal situations or government office, but they often apply very well to modern management situations. Chinese Schools
Quality and Human Nature

Confucius on 

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Chinese Schools

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The Confucian literature comes in two main waves. The first wave was under the Zhou dynasty (c1100 - 256 BCE). Besides Confucius himself (551-479), the two main figures whose writings have survived were Mencius (d 289) and Xunzi (d 235). There are significant disagreements between these two.

The second wave (sometimes known as Neo-Confucianism) was under the Song dynasty (960 - 1279 CE), and included Zhou Dunyi, Chang Zai, Cheng Hao, Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi. For reasons of intellectual politics, the Neo-Confucians preferred Mencius to Xunzi; they elevated Mencius to being second after Confucius, and all but ignored Xunzi.

Apart from the Confucians, we may also mention the Legalist school, of which the most illustrious member was probably Han Fei Zi (d 233 BCE).

Note: there are of course many other important schools of Chinese thought, including Buddhism and Taoism. We may extend our analysis to these schools in future.

In the text, I have used pinyin transliteration for all names except Confucius and Mencius. (Confucius and Mencius were the only two Chinese thinkers to be given Latinized names, because they were the ones translated by the first Jesuit missionaries.) Many books published in the West still use the older Wade-Giles transliterations in their titles, however, and I have retained these spellings when referring to such books. This has led to some discrepancies in spelling.

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Quality and Human Nature

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One of the key debates between Xunzi and Mencius was about human nature. How to account for the apparent moral differences between people: the fact that some people are wicked and some are not. Are we born wicked and selfish, but some of us acquire goodness through cultivation [Xunzi]? Or are we born good, but some of us somehow lose this goodness (permanently or temporarily) [Mencius]?

The Neo-Confucians plumped for the basic goodness of human nature. As they saw it, the basic human blueprint was for a healthy and morally upright person. Poor character was like physical disability or illness; it meant that there was a defect, such that the person fell short of the blueprint. Unlike other creatures, however, human nature allowed for self-improvement. This meant that it was in principle possible to overcome defects (unless of course these defects incapacitated the self-improvement mechanism itself).

The Neo-Confucians therefore equated the good with the natural. Their arguments moved fluidly between IS and OUGHT. (In Western intellectual circles, arguments from IS to OUGHT are regarded with disfavour, thanks to David Hume. These arguments ARE invalid, so we OUGHT not to use them.)

It is easy to see how the Neo-Confucian notion of goodness applies to the manufacture of physical goods. It is natural (and therefore good) for an object to conform to its blueprint. Nature, in the Chinese sense, is perfect; and so perfection is natural. In the West, we tend to the opposite view: imperfection is in the nature of things, and perfection belongs only to mathematics and God. We therefore hesitate to strive for perfection: this hesitation is (or represents) an important phenomenon, both psychologically and culturally.

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Confucius on Planning

veryard projects > people > confucius > planning

Confucius said: "People who do not think far enough ahead inevitably have worries near at hand." [Analects, §15.12]

Confucius said: "Few lose out on account of prudence." [Analects, §4.23]

Confucius said: "Donít wish for speed; donít see small advantages. If you wish for speed, you wonít succeed; if you see small advantages, great things will not be accomplished" [Analects, §13.27]

Focus on future

Confucius said: "Donít talk about what is already done; donít remonstrate about what is already over; donít criticize what has already happened." [Analects, §3.21]

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Confucius on Management

veryard projects > people > confucius > management

Clear direction

Confucius said: "Cultivated people are easy to work for but hard to please. If you try to please them in the wrong way, they are not pleased. When they employ people, they consider their capacities. Petty people are hard to work for but easy to please. Even if you please them by something that is wrong, they are still pleased. When they employ people, they expect everything." [Analects, §13.25]


Confucius said: "To go to war with untrained people is tantamount to abandoning them." [Analects, §13.30]

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Confucius on GroupThink

veryard projects > people > confucius > groupthink

Confucius said: "If a country is just, one speaks independently and acts independently. If a country is unjust, one acts independently but speaks conventionally." [Analects, §14.4]

Confucius said: "A cultivated person does not promote people on account of what they say, nor ignore what is said because of who is saying it." [Analects, §15.23]

Confucius said: "When everyone dislikes something, it should be examined. When everyone likes something, it should be examined." [Analects, §15.28]

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Confucius on Improvement

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Confucius said: "If you can correct yourself, what trouble would you have in government? If you cannot correct yourself, what can you do about correcting others?" [Analects, §13.13]

Confucius said: "If you make a mistake and do not correct it, this is called a mistake." [Analects, §15.30]

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Confucius on Audit

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Confucius said: "At first the way I dealt with people was to listen to their words and trust they would act on them. Now I listen to their words and observe whether they act on them." [Analects, §5.10]
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veryard projects > people > confucius > references

Extracts from the writings of all streams of Chinese thought, including the important Neo-Confucians, can be found in Chanís excellent anthology. Wing-Tsit Chan. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. 

Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963

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I have taken translations of Confucius from both Cleary and Dawson. Confucius, The Analects. trans Raymond Dawson.

Oxford: OUP, 1993

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The Essential Confucius. trans Thomas Cleary.

New York: Harper Collins, 1992

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This page last updated on February 6th, 2004
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