Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Religious Beliefs

What is meant by the term “rectification of names”?

If Confucius were here today he would surely be aghast at the way inflated language seems to have taken over ordinary conversation. “I was so tired I was literally dead on my feet.” No, you weren’t, he might say. Drop the “literally” and your expression will have far more impact, even though your surrounding culture insists that more is better. He would be amazed to hear restaurant staff introduce themselves as “your food and beverage counselor” or hear store cashiers and stockers identified as “sales associates” and “inventory specialists.” But Confucius would worry less about such trivial matters than about the very same deep social issues he agonized over in his own time. When a man fails to show respect to his parents, do not call him a son. If he fails to guide his children, he is unworthy to be called a father. If a woman does not attend to her family faithfully, one can hardly call her a wife or mother. If a man is unfaithful to his wife, do not call him a husband. Of greatest political import is his insistence that no unjust ruler deserves the name “emperor.”

Beneath this apparently nit-picking criticism Confucius was getting at a profound truth: Over the long haul, imprecise speech allows injustice to go unnoticed because it can be hidden behind acceptable names. Euphemism can erode one’s sense of right and wrong and desensitize a person to violence. Eventually we persuade ourselves that “misspeaking” is not a lie, or that stealing is nothing more than the redistribution of wealth. Confucius believed that language matters because it not only reflects, but can even change, the way we think.

Confucius envisioned a society shaped by ethical education and the moral example of just rulers, and he saw recourse to military institutions as a symptom of a society in decline.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Religion Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App