The Analects of Dasan, Volume I

A Korean Syncretic Reading

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Hongkyung Kim
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When Reading Religion asked me to review The Analects of Dasan, a translation of a Korean commentary on the Analects of Confucius, I wondered if this was an appropriate forum for such a review, since many people question whether Confucianism is a religion. After all, the Analects says little about gods, other than that it is wise to keep them at a distance and concentrate instead on human affairs (Analects 7:21, 11:12). But then I remembered that the Korean who wrote that commentary, Dasan Jeong Yagyong (1762-1836)—his name is sometimes spelled Tasan Chŏng Yagyong—was not only one of Korea’s greatest Confucian philosophers, he was also one of the founding members of Korea’s Catholic community. So, I thought, this book may have something to say about the intersection of Confucianism and Catholicism in Korea two centuries ago. 

Alas, I was mistaken. Hongkyung Kim, the translator, dismisses Dasan’s early immersion in Catholicism as mostly irrelevant to how he understood the Analects. Nevertheless, there is still much a scholar of religion may find interesting and enlightening in this readable yet learned translation. After all, whether we label it a religious text or not, for over 2,000 years the Analects was treated as scripture, viewed by Confucians with the same reverence with which Christians view the Bible or Muslims view the Quran. Moreover, Dasan, in tune with his Confucian tradition, read the Analects as an instruction guide to ethical behavior. This focus on moral principles makes this book relevant for scholars of religion, since ethics and religion are usually closely related. 

The primary contribution of this translation, besides its readability, is the insight it provides into Dasan’s thinking. Both during his Christian years—Dasan was a Catholic for a few years in his twenties but abandoned Catholicism when his government began killing Catholics—and his Confucian years that followed, Dasan was driven by a core moral concern. In all his writings, Dasan tried to explicate what he thought needed to be done to cultivate a personal moral character and construct a moral society. That concern is evident in this translation of the first chapter, and about one-quarter of the second, of his commentary on the Analects, the Noneo gogeum ju [Annotations old and new on the Analects]. 

Dasan did philosophy the way Confucian philosophers normally did: he wrote commentaries on the Classics. In this case, he wrote a commentary on commentaries on the Analects. Kim has not only ably translated Dasan’s own line-by-line remarks on the Analects, he has also translated the commentaries Dasan commented on, and has even provided footnotes informing his readers where those passages can be found. In addition, lest his readers become lost in the dense thicket of commentaries and counter-commentaries, Kim pauses every few pages to summarize Dasan’s argument about the line just discussed and explain why he advocated his often creative interpretation. The wealth of information Kim provides is a treasure trove for scholars who want to explore Dasan’s philosophy in depth.

However, readers looking for an explicit examination of Dasan’s moral psychology might be frustrated by what appears on the surface to be Dasan’s obsessive concern with a philological exploration of the terminology of the Analects. Dasan evaluates, and disputes, Chinese commentaries produced over almost two thousand years of history, paying particular attention to products of the Han (221 BCE—220 CE), Song (960-1279) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. Much of the time he focuses on the exact meaning of specific words in the lines of the Analects, including trying to pin down exactly what sort of state rituals Confucius was talking about and even exactly what sort of ritual utensils Confucius proposed be used in those rituals. 

However, philology for philology’s sake was not Dasan’s primary concern. He believed that Confucius taught us how to behave properly and therefore it was important to understand the exact meaning of the words he used to teach us how to do that. Unfortunately, the English terms Kim uses to translate Dasan’s arguments sometimes obscure the reason Dasan was so determined to gain an accurate understanding of what the Analects says. 

Dasan read the Analects as a guide to moral action. As a Confucian, he considered ritual behavior to be an important part of moral action. That is why the last third of this translation consists mostly of discussions of ritual. Nevertheless, Kim argues that Dasan is primarily concerned with identifying that which is in accord with li 理, a term Kim translates as “rational principle,” though li actually refers to the patterns governing appropriate actions and interactions. Moral principles rather than rational principles provided the criteria Dasan employed to evaluate interpretations of the Analects.

Further misleading readers, Kim translated the term wen文 as “refined expressions,” though in this text wen has the much broader connotation of culture, or even “cultured behavior.” In addition, he translated zhi 質 as “natural substance,” though Dasan uses zhi to refer to a person’s internal moral orientation. Kim undermines his own translation choice when he cites Dasan defining “natural substance” as “filial piety, respect for elders, wholeheartedness, and trustworthiness” (192). Moreover, Kim downplays Dasan’s references to God, even though Kim himself admits that Dasan uses the term Tian (Heaven or God) in this work more than he uses the word li (20), and that Dasan believed that “principle derives from Heaven” (90).

Despite these quibbles over translation strategies, I nevertheless welcome this work for its contribution to a better understanding in the Western world of one of Korea’s greatest moral philosophers. I also recognize it is just a beginning. Noneo gogeum ju is a massive work. Kim says he plans to translate it in its entirety—it stretches over ten chapters—which will require five more volumes in the years ahead. I look forward to adding those volumes to my bookshelves.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Donald L. Baker is Professor of Korean Civilization in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hongkyung Kim is Associate Professor of East Asian Thought and Religions, with a focus on Confucianism and Daoism, at Stony Brook University of New York. In addition to numerous articles and book chapters, he has published three single-authored monographs regarding Korean neo-Confucianism, Daoism, and Laozi.


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