Being a gentleman, according to Confucius

Something I found in the Analects of Confucius while researching another post. The ideal person in Confucian thought is the gentleman, a kind of gentleman-scholar, faithful to others, sincere in deeds, and never giving up in his efforts of self-cultivation. Earthly gains have little place here.

This is reflected in the Analects of Confucius, where he states:

[3:7] Confucius said: “The Gentleman has nothing to compete for. But if he must compete, he does it in an archery match, wherein he ascends to his position, bowing in deference. Descending, he drinks the ritual cup. This is the competition of the Gentleman.” (trans. Prof. A.C. Muller)

Or later in the same book 3:

[3:16] Confucius said: “In archery it is not important to pierce through the leather covering of the target, since not all men have the same strength. This is the Way of the ancients.”

The points made in both statements is that for the true Confucian gentleman, the importance is not to strive and make earthly gains such as prizes or medals, but to be composed at all times and a good sport. In other words, a man of principle, not a man of petty gains.

The reason why I brought this up is a recent experience I had with my wife. We had a friend of mine from college come over recently for Christmas, who continues to do Kendo. My wife also did kendo for quite a while too both in Japan and briefly in the US, so they talked together for a bit. My friend was telling us a story about a match where a high-ranking person was unexpectedly defeated by a lower-ranking person, and how the person seemed pretty confused and distraught after the match. My wife commented that in Japan, such an obvious look of defeat would never occur, even after the match.

I was struck by this comment because I never thought that showing emotion in defeat like that to be anything wrong. To her, doing something like that would reflect poorly on the person who lost, as a sign of weakness or lack of self-control. I forgot about this conversation until I stumbled upon the quotations in the Analects above (again, looking for something else) a few days later, and I kind of made a connection.

Japan, like much of East Asia, is deeply influenced by Confucian ethics and conduct, so when you read the quotations above, you can see that the ideal behavior is to be a gentleman at all times, and not to be so obvious in your striving with others, or to be a sore loser. The path of the gentleman is certainly difficult, as Confucius frequently alludes to in the Analects (i.e. no one seems able to put it into practice in his era), and it runs against the grain of what one wants to do, but no one gains respect by being self-centered or selfish, when you think about it. Self-control and self-cultivation, difficult as they are, are more praiseworthy. How many famous, respectable people do we know in history who were praised for their selfishness?

This notion also reflects in Buddhism as well, when the Buddha speaks of the moral precepts and the benefits of adhering to them. One is praised by the wise, and gains self-respect, as well as a life of fewer complications. :)

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8 Comments on “Being a gentleman, according to Confucius”

  1. Tornadoes28 says:

    I love those quotations. I really need to do some reading about Confucius (but that means I have to lay down my J history books). I think it is ok to be intense about competition to a certain degree and even be disappointed when one loses but I do think that American’s get to intense often and lose their perspective. A real negative sign of American’s obsession with winning is when you hear the stories of parents going crazy at their children’s little league or soccer games, arguing, fighting, and generally making fools of themselves.

  2. Doug says:

    The Analects of Confucius is pretty short, so I don’t think it would be a really big commitment on yoru part. Honestly, I think the first half is the really good, quotable half, while the second half is more disorganized and wordy. Either Prof. Muller’s translation online or Prof. Watson’s translation in book form are my favorites. I’ve read other translations that were too archaic and the Wade-Giles-style Chinese readings too clunky, so these two are preferred for me.

    The think I like about Confucian teachings is that they’re generally pretty practical without getting too heavy into religion or philosophy. It’s a nice set of ethics, without clashing with one’s religious beliefs, so I like the idea of broadcasting them more and more to a Western audience who might appreciate them. I suppose I may make similar posts in the future, as I already bookmarked other quotations I liked for reference. :)

  3. Tornadoes28 says:

    Thank you for the recommendations. A couple of years a ago I read a book called “Confucianism and Tokugawa Culture”. It’s a very good book which explored the impact of Confucianism on the policies of the Tokugawa shogunate. But I was not too familiar with Confucianism at the time. I will have to read the Analects and then re-read the book. I recommend it however.

  4. Doug says:

    Oh, very cool. I have wondered about this too. I studied it in college somewhat (with regard to the “Mito School” and such), but like you I wasn’t familiar with Confucianism. Given it’s huge impact on Asian culture, it gets really glossed over in social studies or world-philosophy/religion courses. That’s a shame. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t consider myself a Confucian kind of guy, just that its impact is greatly underrated on so many cultures because it’s not a religion per se.

    P.S. Added that book to my Amazon wishlist. Thanks! ;)

  5. Tornadoes28 says:

    Another excellent book on Confucianism and Tokugawa Japan is “Tokugawa ideology: early constructs, 1570-1680″ By Herman Ooms. I have not yet read this one and although it was published in 1989, I have heard good things about it.

  6. Doug says:

    Thanks, I’ll probably check out that one too.

  7. naoko says:

    I have been wondering about this topic since I got a boy…in recent Japan, parents should not say to their kids like “Be a man” or “Be a lady” as it sounds ‘gender discrimination’ and we are supposed to listen to kid’s excuses enough when they make some mistakes. In my childfood, I could never excuse to my father. If I did, he got mad at me more! It was so frustrating. However, it made me reflect on my mistakes more deeply, I think. Thinking of my boy, he tends to say too much about himself, and it sounds namby-pamby to me…

  8. Doug says:

    Ha ha ha, my wife says the same thing about me. ;)

    I learned to have more 遠慮 from her, and I think it’s a good thing. 遠慮 I think is a sign of maturity. A person can have an adult body, but still think like a child. Does that make sense? I think Confucius is telling people to “grow up!”

    P.S. Your post was treated as spam again. I apologize for the delay in replying.

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