Home > Chinese culture > Confucianism – and the rectification of names

Confucianism – and the rectification of names

Related to the previous post on the task of the ruler is an important project in Confucianism known as the Rectification of Names (zhengming, 正名). One of the things that a ruler and his people must do is call things by their correct names – which are not necessarily the ones that are given to them.

And so for instance you might have someone who holds the position of a government official – but look at his behaviour! he is rude, he is undignified, he is only interested in personal gain and not the good of the people. He may hold the position of government official – but it is recognised that he does not truly deserve the title of government official.

Here is a father – but look at what he does! he is a drunkard, he allows his lodgings to fall into disrepair, he does not care about his appearance. Yes, he may have a family – but everyone in the village knows that he does not truly deserve the name of father.

And so there is this concern in Confucianism for things to truly correspond to the name given to them. Here is a quote from The Analects:

Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, “There is government, when prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son.” “Good”, said the duke, “if indeed; the prince be not prince, the minister not minister, the father not father, and the son not son, although I have my revenue, can I enjoy it?”

Confucius, Analects 12.11

And so the Rectification of Names was a means by which things were either to be called their correct names (that is, the name corresponding to behaviour), or people are meant to live up to the name that they have. Either the people go about calling that government official a thief – or he behaves like a government official should!

This was important for Confucius in the task of governing the state. Unless this is done, “affairs cannot be carried on to success.” Again from The Analects:

Zilu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”

The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.”

“So, indeed!” said Zilu. “You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?”

The Master said, “How uncultivated are you, You! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music will not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know now to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires, is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”

Confucius, Analects 13.3

The Rectification of Names is important, not just so that there can be confidence in kingdom-wide communications. But that throughout the kingdom, things actually accord with their names.

From all this you can see that the emphasis is very much on outward behaviour. It would not be true to say that behaviour is unimportant in the West, nor that being is unimportant in the East. In both East and West ideally being and behaviour are consistent. But a clear point of difference is that in the West, being is primary, and behaviour secondary. You are a father regardless of how you behave. You are an official regardless of how you carry out your duties (until you get relieved of them!!). However in Confucianism behaviour is primary – it is this that determines the true name of things.

What are the implications for churches influenced by Confucianism – such as Chinese churches?

You will notice that there is an often unconscious standard that people are held up against. Youth in the church should behave like this. Pastors should dress like this and do visitation. The pastor’s wife should behave like that - the focus being on the externals – things such as deportment, gravity, dress, manner of speech, and the performance of rituals.

I know that some pastors try to break stereotypes by dressing down, going barefoot, getting an earring – sometimes in order to make a theological point. This works well with a Western audience because you are already thought of as pastor, and you can thereby change, you can redefine what it is that pastors do through your behaviour. The comment will be: “oh! I didn’t know pastors could do that – I guess they can!” Because in this context, being preceeds behaviour.

However this does not work in Chinese contexts. If a pastor were to do that, all that happens is that the Chinese will not think of you as a pastor at all – but some kind of clown. Someone who holds that title – but does not really fit it. The comment, with a derisive snort, will be: “that’s our ‘pastor’ – just look at him!” Because in this context, behaviour preceeds being.

Of course this doesn’t just apply to roles such as pastors, elders, leaders and the like – the same applies to concepts like worship, fellowship, calling. One might explain the theology behind true worship – but what will still be foremost for them will be the externals of what a ‘worshipful’ service is like. Because you are dealing with the being of things – which is only of secondary interest.

And this may explain some of the smirks, the disdain, the unwillingness to engage at a theological level that you may sometimes notice in a Chinese church…

Categories: Chinese culture
  1. 11 August 2011 at 10:08 am

    “you may sometimes notice”

    Mr Hong, you have an enormous talent for understatement.


  2. Wilson Fong
    10 September 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Hi Andrew, the only underlined phrase in your article that you based on to make your point, the original is “名不正則言不順”, one of the popular idioms in Chinese. My understanding is: “if names [official titles etc.] are not correct, words [or commands or decrees etc., by those officials] cannot be effective[ly communicated]” The rationale is that because people don’t think they have authority to do so, or their authority is not clear, and hence populace are either confused or won’t see the reason to listen or obey.

    Try double-check with others who are well versed in Chinese, and see if my translation fits the point that Confuci was trying to make.

    About pastors breaking stereotypes, I once did song leading for certain public meeting without tie and suit jacket, and later hear comments (from other churches’ brothers and sisters, overheard by my church’s brothers and sisters) indirectly. It is the environment that we need to minister in. But when going with the flow can actually help the church in its worship and mission, I won’t mind overdressing.

    Wilson Fong

  3. PATtiie
    6 August 2012 at 11:09 pm

    your so very nice Mr. Andrew :))

  1. 30 August 2011 at 11:48 pm
  2. 1 September 2011 at 12:54 am
  3. 12 December 2011 at 3:46 pm
  4. 21 March 2012 at 1:57 pm

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