Confucius and Speech Acts

In a lecture on the rules of speech acts, one of my professors recently quoted Confucius. Believe it or not, I have seldom run into this kind of thing. The only other time I can recall Confucius coming up was in a discussion on sex back in Hangzhou. (The quote then was “食色性也.”) Anyway, this time it was:

> 质胜文则野文胜质则史

Now I’m no scholar of ancient Chinese, but seeking to better understand the teacher’s point after class, I asked the teacher himself as well as a few scholarly friends about it. The explanations I got were varied because four of the characters are open to a lot of interpretation: 质, 文, 野, 史. The characters with relatively fixed meanings are 胜, meaning “exceeds,” and 则, which indicates a result, and means something like “will be.”

One common interpretation of the quotation refers to writing. In this case it means something like:

> When content exceeds rhetoric, [writing] will be rough. When rhetoric exceeds content, [it] will be pretentious.

The quote can also be applied to people, in which case you also get a translation rather similar to the above.

My professor used the quote in a less orthodox way. He was talking about history, which could be divided into the emperor’s “official history” (史) as well as the people’s oral tradition (野), which was a less stable method of recording actual events, but which didn’t overlook certain unpleasant events that the emperor didn’t want to record. I find this idea much harder to translate, because it’s harder to assign specific meanings to 质 and 文, but I guess it goes something like this:

> When events outweigh revision, legend results. When revision outweighs events, an unbalanced history results.

My, that’s a very clumsy translation. (Hey, I’m on vacation!)

The essence of the quote lies in the part my professor didn’t quote:

> 文质彬彬,然后君子。

That is, when 文 and 质 are in balance, the results are ideal.

See for an interpretation of the quote in Chinese. Ancient Chinese is one of those gaping voids in my Chinese education, so any corrections or revisions are welcome.

In the next couple days I will elaborate on the point my professor was making when he spouted this Confucian wisdom.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Great post, John. Your previous posts made your grad school experience seem boring, but reading your analysis of that saying made me wish I had been able to take at least a few regular university courses in China.

  2. You’re an inspiraton John, as always. I think you will have a much easier time of analyzing the ancient works, because you have access to the western civilization’s studies.
    Whereas some of your classmates will certainly be hampered….

    Enjoy your holiday. I’m taking mine starting tomorrow afternoon.

  3. I’m ashamed.
    Your chinese is better than me at this point.
    My goodness, so ashamed…

  4. Thanks guys, but my Chinese is not all that. I had hoped someone would give better translations or more insight into the quotation. Brendan? Gin? DJW?

  5. “食、色,性也。”
    Actually, this quote’s related to Mencius (not his quote but mentioned in his work mencius)
    And 色 here is Desire, including sex but even more.

  6. a book called rhetoric in ancient china ,is very helpful for you to understand fully what confucius means by 文,质,

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