Gems of Chinese Literature/Yüan Mei-Did Confucius write the Annals?

Gems of Chinese Literature  (1922)  translated by Herbert Allen Giles
Did Confucius Write the Annals?[1] by Yüan Mei


a.d. 1715-1797

[An official who got into trouble with his superiors and went into retirement at the early age of 40. Chiefly known as a poet, he wrote prose in a fascinating style, and his witty and amusing letters are widely read. He also composed a famous cookery-book, which amply entitles him to be regarded as the Brillat-Savarin of China.]

I have received a copy of your book, entitled “Some difficult points in the Annals,” which I regard as a specimen of accurate scholarship. Based upon the works of Tan Chu and Chao K‘uang, it certainly surpasses both of them; and as for the work of Hu An-ting, the less said the better. Nevertheless, my humble opinion, with which I invariably end up, is that the book we know as the Annals of Lu is not the work of Confucius.

Confucius said of himself,[2] “I edited, but did not write,”―the writing of Annals being the business of the official historiographers. Now Confucius was not an official historiographer, and “he who does not hold an office cannot direct its administration.”[2] How could he usurp the function of the historiographers, and without authority do their work for them? There is the saying, “By the Annals I shall be known, by the Annals I shall be blamed,”[3] as though Confucius was taking up the attitude of an uncrowned king, which not only the Master himself would not have done, but which the Prince and his Ministers, and the official historiographers, would not have tolerated. Further, Confucius said, “What I have written, I have written; what I have cut out, I have cut out. Tzŭ-yu and Tzŭ-hsia cannot add a single phrase;”[4] yet though he laid down his pen at the capture of the ch‘i lin,[5] the Annals continued to be written from the 14th to the 16th year of Duke Ai, when Confucius died and the record came to an end. Whose pen was it that provided the Annals of those three years? Whose were the additions? From this it is clear that the Lu State had its own historiographers, and that the preservation or loss of its Annals had nothing to do with Confucius.

Of all books in which we can put our trust, there is none like the “Discourses.” It contains the teaching of the Sage; and taken together with the Canons of History, Poetry, the Book of Rites, and the Canon of Changes,―in regard to which last Confucius said that were his life prolonged for fifty years, he would devote them all to its study,―it may be said that not one of these works makes the slightest reference to the Annals.

When Han Hsüan-tzŭ was invited to the Lu State, he saw the Canon of Changes with its diagrams, and also, the Annals. In the “Records of the Ch'u State” we read of Shên Shu-shih, tutor to the Heir Apparent of king Chuang, teaching his pupils the Annals and in the “Records of the Chin State” we read of Yang-shê Hsi being celebrated for his familiarity with the Annals. That is to say, before the age of Confucius all the various States had for a long period written Annals of their own.

There is a possibility that Confucius, on his return from Wei to Lu, in moments spared from his work on the “Odes,” may have read the Annals and perhaps have made some improvements. Whether Kung-yang or Ku-liang[6] quoted from the unimproved text or not, we cannot know; what is certain is that Confucius did no “writing.”

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  1. See under K‘ung Fu-tzŭ (Confucius). It was Mencius who first attributed these Annals to Confucius, and he makes the Master say, “By these Annals alone will men know me; by these Annals alone will men blame me.” They were written at a time when morality was at a low ebb, and their object was, as Ssŭ-ma Ch‘ien tells us, to frighten rebellious Ministers and unfilial sons. They are known to the Chinese by the picturesque name of “Springs and Autumns,” which means nothing more than “Annals,” a more convenient term.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Thus recorded in the “Discourses.”
  3. Condensed here in the Chinese to four words, “Know me, blame me,” which could only be understood by those familiar with the quotation given above.
  4. The authority is the historian, Ssŭ-ma Ch‘ien (q.v.).
  5. A fabulous animal, known to collectors of curios as the kylin. It was regarded as an evil omen, and Confucius announced that his own end was at hand. Two years later he died (479 b.c.)
  6. Two writers of commentaries on the Annals of Lu. Inasmuch as their works were not committed to writing until perhaps two hundred years after the death of Confucius, their value is reduced considerably. Specimens of both have been given.