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Lunyu 論語, The Analects Poli, Maddalena


The Lunyu 論語, generally translated as The Analects, is a collection of sayings by or attributed to Confucius 孔子 (traditional dates 551–479 BCE), a ritual master who lived during the Eastern Zhou 東周 dynasty (770– 221 BCE). These dialogues, often very brief and generic, were understood as indications on how to conduct oneself properly in society. A significant change that emerges from the Lunyu is the use of junzi 君子 (literally meaning “son of a lord”) to indicate a person who acts morally, regardless of birth (Goldin 2020: 49). This is tied to what seems a guiding principle in the Lunyu, in spite of its lack of a sustained argument. Many of the sayings attempt to establish a moral system that takes humans as yardstick, and leaves the veneration of spirits on the side. Some of the central virtues are humanity (ren 仁), morality (yi 義), and reciprocity (shu 恕). Yet, Confucius avoids giving any hard definition for any of these (Goldin 2020: 39, 41), for reasons unknown. Precisely because of the generic nature of these statements, a plethora of commentaries and interpretations has been and continues to be produced. Confucius’ influence on the contemporaneous and following generations is attested primarily in two ways: one, his views are object of debate among other intellectuals. Most famously, Mozi 墨子 criticized ideas attributed to Confucius, while Mengzi 孟子 and Xunzi 荀子 included them in their own philosophical systems. Secondly, his sayings circulated across time and space, as archeological recoveries indicate: sections of the Lunyu dating to first century BCE have been recovered in modern North Korea at Pyongyang, in Dingzhou, China (both discussed in van Els 2018), and in what constituted the north-west frontier of the Han empire (Sanft 2019). What we read today is based on a 17th century edition by Jin Pan 金蟠, based on the Lu 魯 Lunyu, one of the three major editions of this text mentioned by the Treatise on Arts and Letters 藝文志, the oldest extant bibliography included in the Book of Han 漢書. The other two versions are the Qi 齊 Lunyu, and the gu Lunyu 古論語, so named because it was written in ancient script, guwen 古文. According to the Shiji 史記, the guwen Lunyu was recovered in the wall of the once house of Confucius, when Prince Liu Yu 劉餘 (d. 127 BCE) demolished parts of it to expand it during the second century BCE. The Treatise further lists nine more textual lineages (jia 家) for this text, which are named after the scholars who taught them. It remains unclear if the differences rested in the content or the interpretations of these scholars. With the starting of the Han dynasty, the Qi and Lu Lunyu continued to circulate while others stopped being mentioned. Although it was elevated to a classic only during the Tang 唐 dynasty (618–907), the Lunyu was already influential during the Han 漢 dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). While of the Pyongyang Lunyu only a cursory study has been made available to scholars, studies on the Dingzhou Lunyu suggest that still by 50 BCE, the Lunyu was not a closed collection yet. Two more discoveries will cast more light on the subject: a cache of looted manuscripts purchased by the Anhui University in 2015, which includes philosophical writings with some parallels to the Lunyu (yet to be published), and the scientifically excavated material from the tomb of the Marquis of Hai Hun 海昏後. This was the title taken by Liu He 劉賀 (?–59BCE) after being deposed in 74 BCE. Initial publications on the Hai Hun texts describe 500 very poorly preserved strips of Lunyu material, including the chapter Zhi dao 知道. The Zhi dao is one of the two chapters (the other being the Wen wang 問王) that, according to Ban Gu 班固, characterized Qi Lunyu. However, the manuscript does not include the Wen wang, hence editors are reluctant to identify it as an exemplar of the Qi tradition. Furthermore, given the presence of other otherwise unattested chapters, they speculate on whether this may be a personal selection of chapters made by Liu He or his teacher. In support of this idea, the editors indicate that the material features of this manuscript suggest that the chapters were circulating independently, and that there is no reference to it as the Lunyu (the editors use the expression “Hai Hunhou Lunyu” as a matter of convenience, Zhu Fenghan 朱鳳瀚 2020). What this exactly entails for the textual history of the Lunyu remains open to debate, one that must await the publication of the Hai Hunhou corpus.

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