The Wrecking Of Names

Confucius said the most important thing was ‘rectifying names’. What did he mean?

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From the exhibit Q Confucius, by Zhang Huan

If he ever got power (which he never did) Confucius said his first priority would be the ‘rectification of names’. Like a boor, I never quite understood this. As The Analects said:

13.3 Zilu asked, “If the Duke of Wei were to employ you to serve in the government of his state, what would be your first priority?” The Master answered, “It would, of course, be the rectification of names (zhengming ).” Zilu said, “Could you, Master, really be so far off the mark? Why worry about rectifying names?” The Master replied, “How boorish you are, Zilu! When it comes to matters that he does not understand, the gentleman should remain silent.

I felt like Zilu (Master Kong’s usual rhetorical punching bag) because I simply didn’t understand the point. Even when the master explained:

If names are not rectified, speech will not accord with reality; when speech does not accord with reality, things will not be successfully accomplished. When things are not successfully accomplished, ritual practice and music will fail to flourish; when ritual and music fail to flourish, punishments and penalties will miss the mark. And when punishments and penalties miss the mark, the common people will be at a loss as to what to do with themselves. This is why the gentleman only applies names that can be properly spoken and assures that what he says can be properly put into action. The gentleman simply guards against arbitrariness in his speech. That is all there is to it.”

This is a whole web of connections I struggle to understand with my modern muck brain, but which were obvious and very important to the ancients. Sanskrit grammar is very precise because they wanted to perform rituals with absolute precision. The language is like an oral programming language, it even includes specific sounds for powers of ten. This ritual programming was thought to actually work, and in a deep sense they were right. Words do have power, be it through laws, edicts, signatures, birth certificates, passports, computer programs, etc. With think of rituals as these archaic things, but we still use them for inaugurating governments, for marking birth and death, for all the most important things in life.

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Indrajit (Indi) Samarajiva is a Sri Lankan writer. Follow me at www.indi.ca, or just email me at indi@indi.ca.