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Analects-of-Confucius_Confucius quotes

What Confucius Say About Self-Improvement

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Confucius (551–479 BCE), the first great teacher of China, was also one of the greatest and most influential philosophers in the world. Recorded in the Analects of Confucius, his teachings and philosophy are the foundations of Asian culture and society. 

Though the world is changing rapidly, humanity remains the same. Now, even after more than 2000 years, what Confucius say are still applicable to us today.

Here we select eight quotes from the Analects of Confucius that might give you some philosophical reflection upon your daily life, and help you see things clearer in this fast-paced world.

Confucius painting
Confucius ©

1. To tell, as we go along, what we have heard on the way, is to cast away our virtue. 道聽而塗說,德之棄也。

Just as in the saying, “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on,” rumours travel faster than the truth. Possibly this is even more the case nowadays. In our digital age, information travels in an instant, and we are easily controlled and used by the media without even knowing it. So we really should think twice before we “like” a tweet or forward a news—just in case we accidentally become accomplices in rumour or deceit.

2. When the year becomes cold, then we know how the pine and the cypress are the last to lose their leaves. 歲寒,然後知松、柏之後凋

In Chinese culture, real gentlemen are usually described as pine trees—while they don’t have eye-catching flowers, in the coldest winter when every other form of greenery has withered away they are the ones that will endure the harsh weather and retain their greenness.

Indeed, perseverance is a precious and important value for each one of us. An upright person will be steadfast with his or her principles no matter the circumstance. In a world as chaotic and changeable as ours, can we stand up for what is right? Can we hold tight to our beliefs?

What Confucius say about pine and cypress

3. See what a man does, mark his motives, examine in what things he rests, how can a man conceal his character?「視其所以,觀其所由,察其所安。人焉瘦哉?人焉廋哉?」)

Here Confucius gives us a method for discerning whether someone is good for real: first you look at his actions. However, it’s possible that he did something wrong out of a good intention, so you must also observe his motive. But then you never know if he is only pretending to be nice, so you need to examine his values and interests, and only then will you be able to discern whether he is genuinely good.

What Confucius say about discerning goodness in others also reminds us that to be good people ourselves, we need to start from the inside.

4. Desire to have things done quickly prevents their being done thoroughly. Looking at small advantages prevents great affairs from being accomplished.(「欲速則不達,見小利則大事不成。」

Nowadays everything comes in an instant, or we expect and desire it to. We eat instant meals; we get things online in less than two minutes; we post a tweet in seconds…. Sometimes we should slow down a bit and consider more what we really want. If we indulge ourselves in constant instant gratifications, we might not accomplish anything meaningful or lasting in the end. 

5. The business of laying on the colors follows (the preparation of) the plain ground.(「绘事后素」) 

This may sound a bit too obvious a statement. Some people believe that Confucius is saying that everything needs a solid foundation to build upon. But it might have a deeper meaning here, because what follows this is a student’s question: “Li then are a subsequent thing?” 

This conversation sounds off-kilter, yet Confucius was very satisfied with his student’s reaction. Confucius has been advocating for “Li,” ceremonies, manners, and attitudes, his whole life. But Li demonstrates only outward appearances (such as the instant response “Good, thank you” when one is asked how one is doing.)

While manners and ceremonies matter deeply for us to make our way in the world, the most important thing is to have a pure heart. If one’s inner core is not clean, then everything added afterwards, even the expression of good manners, will ultimately result only in further mess.

What Confucius say about painting
©Birmingham Museums Trust/Unsplash

6. Tsze-kung asked, saying, “what do you say of a man who is loved by all the people of his neighborhood? The master replied, “we may not for that accord our approval of him.” “And what do you say of him who is hated by all the people of his neighborhood?” The Master said, “we may not for that conclude that he is bad. It is better than either of these cases that the good in the neighborhood love him, and the bad hate him.”(子貢問曰:「鄉人皆好之,何如?」子曰:「未可也。」「鄉人皆惡之,何如?」子曰:「未可也。不如鄉人之善者好之,其不善者惡之。」)

There are some people Confucius calls “thieves of virtue.” Those people are popular not because they are truly good; on the contrary, they’re simply good at pretending to be good. For example, in order to not offend anyone, they would stay neutral in a moral conflict when the right and wrong is as clear as crystal. They seem to be “good people” but are actually messing with communal moral values. In fact, they can even be more harmful than those who are plainly wicked.

Sometimes we mistake popular things as good things or famous people as good people. And we automatically stay away from things that are labeled “wrong” by the general public. We think we made the choices, but in fact we are simply following a trend. Next time a new fad starts, we should probably pause for a moment and see who’s behind it in order to make good choices of our own.

7. When we see a man of worth, we should think of equalling them; when we see a man of a contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves.見賢思齊焉, 見不賢而內自省也。」)

This is a straightforward statement that really teaches us how to be upright and honest. It is too easy to admire a popular man or to look down on an unworthy one. But that doesn’t help us grow. We will only get better by fixing ourselves, not by comparing ourselves with others.

What Confucius Say from Analects of Confucius
©Yapo Zhou/Unsplash

8. What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others. 「己所不欲,勿施於人」

And finally, this is what Confucius says can be the guide for a person throughout life. In fact, most people are probably familiar with this, as it is the golden rule of the world. The principle of “treating others as one wants to be treated” is inherent in most religions and cultures. But of course, just like most maxims, it’s always easier said than done. Try to stand on others’ perspective when you encounter difficulties–you might be able to see a different picture.

After all, it’s not so easy to follow the doctrines of Confucius: we need sometimes to consider other people first and forgo our own personal desires. The process could be difficult and even painful, but what we earn in the end might be insights a lot more precious than material gains.

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