Review by
John B Henderson
Journal of Asian Studies v58 #3 (August 1999)

The text of this review is taken from Thomas Carlson's web site, where it was originally included with the permission of the author.

A common view of the Confucian Analects (Lunyu), traditionally regarded as the primary source of Confucius' thought, is that it was compiled within a rather narrow time span by Confucius' first- and second-generation disciples. This view explains inconsistencies and other anomalies in the received text primarily as products of differences in philosophical interest and opinion among these disciples. However, a few traditional Chinese scholars, most notably Ts'ui Shu (1740-1816), accounted for these inconsistencies by positing a more evolutionary view of the text that would place the composition of its later strata long after the living memory of Confucius.

In The Original Analects, E. Bruce and A. Taeko Brooks brilliantly develop this evolutionary hypothesis or "accretion theory" of the composition of the Analects. They argue that the successive heads of the Lu Confucian school, including Confucius' own lineal descendants after about 400 BC, built up the text over a 230-year period from just after Confucius' death in 479 BC to the demise of his home state of LU and its Confucian school in 249 BC. The basic unit of accretion was the chapter, with every new "birth generation" (about 25 years) adding an average of two chapters as well as an increasing number of interpolations. The Analects presents not so much the wisdom of Confucius as the history of early Confucianism.

The Brooks offer a wide array of evidence to support their "continuous accretion" hypothesis, both in the appendices to the book and in the notes and commentary to their translation and chronological rearrangement of the text of the Analects. The types of evidence include linguistic arguments, historical references, textual resemblances to lines in other late-Chou philosophical works, and developments in material and social culture known from archeology and other sources. Taken in the aggregate, this evidence not only establishes the plausibility of the continuous accretion hypothesis, but also goes a long way toward restoring the text of the Analects to its proper historical, social, and intellectual context.

Students of classical Chinese thought may be most interested in the reconstruction of the history of early Confucianism that this book presents. Peculiarly for a tradition that was later to develop a strong antimiltary bias, the Brooks characterize the root ideas of the historical Confucius presented in the one authentic core chapter, Lunyu 4, as embodying the "Spring and Autumn warrior ethos" (p.6). But in the later Confucian school, this "external warrior ethic" was replaced by an "internal personal ethic" (p.37). Not least among the changes wrought by the later school heads and descendants of Confucius is their mythological "Confucianizing" of Confucius, casting him into new and unaccustomed roles as a transmitter of antiquity (Lunyu 7), an international traveler (Lunyu 7), a ritualist (Lunyu 10), and a statesman (Lunyu 11). On the vexed question of whether Confucius inclines more toward jen (or ren) or li (ritual), the Brooks argue that whereas jen is central to Confucius (though not the humanistic jen of the later chapters), li is central to Confucianism (p.16). Where conflicts appeared among the various layers of the evolving text, the later redactors inserted interpolations and even preposed whole chapters (Lunyu 1, 2 and 3), to restore consistency. As the Brooks put it, "we need not be surprised if the Analects repeats itself, and contradicts itself, and then homogenizes itself "(p.143).

A work as innovative and ambitious as the Brooks' Original Analects is bound to provoke a few objections. Some might be discomfited by the neatness of their version of the continuous accretion theory, in which the Lunyu assumes the character of a sort of philosophical chain letter augmented at regular intervals by successive Confucian school heads. At the microlevel, the Brooks might be judged guilty of constructing a palindrome too many in their search for structure in the Lunyu sayings and in their attempts to identify interpolations. The authors' liberal use of arguments from silence might disturb some scholars, as might their generous use of some rather late and suspect sources to construct biographical accounts of Confucius and sons. Finally, the Brooks' identification of Lunyu 4:1-17 as the sole authentic transmission of the historical Confucius, a sort of holy grail of Confucian studies, is sure to provoke debate, as are their attempts to identify the authors of other chapters in the Analects.

These and other debatable points notwithstanding, The Original Analects is a remarkable book that ranks among the most significant and impressive works on Chinese thought ever published in English. The Brooks' stratification and chronological rearrangement of the Analects should affect approaches to other classical Chinese texts, as well as undermine the "timeless-wisdom-of-the-East" interpretation of classical Chinese thought. Like Confucius' disciple Ch'en K'ang, who in Lunyu 16:13 asked one thing and got three, the attentive reader of The Original Analects should be richly rewarded way beyond his or her original expectations.

JOHN B. HENDERSON
Louisiana State University

 Back to Reviews Index Page

20 March 2006 / Contact The Project / Exit to Publications Page