Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Rectification of Names (zhengming, 正名)

Confucius famously says in Analects 13.3 that the first thing to do in conducting state affairs is to “rectify names” — or “correct terms.” Otherwise, he says, “speech will not follow” (yan bu shun 言不順), with the result that “affairs will not be accomplished” (shi bu cheng 事不成), with the result that “rites and music will not flourish,” with the final result that “punishments and rewards will not be appropriate.”

You could ask a lot of questions here as to what this all means. The one I’ll ask is whether this has anything to do with Analects 12.11–as a lot of people seem to think–where Confucius is asked about governing and he says, very tersely, “jun jun, chen chen, fu fu, zi zi” (君君臣臣父父子子). The way most people seem to render this is some version of “A lord should lord, a minister should minister, a father should father, and a son should son,” where the verbal occurrence is usually embellished (plausibly, I think) with “should act like a proper______.” There are a couple of things that bother me about this, however:

  1. I don’t see how 12.11, so construed, is about “names” or “terms” (ming). It seems ostensibly about lords, ministers, fathers, and sons on the one hand and on the other about roles or actions–not about the terms or titles for such people or such roles (or actions). To be about names or terms, at least one of the instances of each pair, the noun or verb–assuming that is how we should construe the grammar–would have to be a mention as opposed to a use. But, how are we to read 12.11 then?
  2. Suppose a lord does not act like a proper lord, a minister like a proper minister, and so forth. Why would that threaten to undermine correct or effective speech, as 13.3 states? I could almost see how improper use of the terms–for example, calling someone a lord who is not actually a lord–could undermine correct usage, if the practice caught on or was enforced. But the fact that someone who is in fact, legitimately, a lord isn’t living up to the name or title, doesn’t have an effect on the correct usage of the name or title; correct usage is necessary to make that judgment in the first place. And, if he isn’t legitimately a lord, then his not living up to the title is just to be expected and doesn’t pose a problem. So, 12.11 can’t really be about making sure people live up to their (properly) applied titles if it is to be relevant to 13.3.

Any thoughts? I could probably clarify my worries, but I’ll let you tell me that before I do.


January 28, 2008 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius


  1. Maybe the music analogy would help. If a violinist (lord) plays the part of the flutist (minister) we have a whole different concerto. This would be the point you made about undermining correct usage. In the same manner, if a violinist played his part poorly or refused to play, the whole composition would be affected. Similarly, if the lord fails to act as a proper lord, he damages the composition of social order and hence, “affairs” [movements?] can not be accomplished, “rites and music will not flourish” [audience walks out on the performance?] and finally “punishments and rewards will not be appropriate.” [the musicians that played their part will be “punished” along with the poor players by the poor audience reaction].

    Maybe the metaphor is stretched a little thin here, but I think this gets at least part of what Confucius is saying in these passages.

    Comment by Thomas J Wood | January 28, 2008 | Reply

  2. First, regarding #2, I think “yan bu shun” in 13.3 implies more about the speech’s bona fide quality than its effectiveness. Noting that “xin”, the character for trust or sincerity, is made up of the person radical and the character for speech, I would venture to hypothesize that “yan bu shun” can also be construed as “yan which has not the quality of yan that makes up the character xin”.

    Second, Prof. Jeffrey Riegel in SEP thinks that “zhengming” actually refers to “rectifying behavior of people so that it exactly corresponds to the language with which they identify and describe themselves”; if that be the case, then it will make the connection between 13.3 and 12.11 much more apparent, and using that connection, we can interpret that when a lord does not act like a proper lord, a minister like a proper minister, etc, then that would undermine the bona fide quality of his speech.

    Comment by Felix Sadeli | January 28, 2008 | Reply

  3. In my opinion, Confucius believes, as L. Austin did, that speaking is always acting or, put it more precisely, that any uttered word that does not immediately become into action is a word that should not be uttered.
    The rectification of the names comes from an empirical and materialistic conception of language; it leads into the fair checking of punishments which implicitely demands the armonization of social relationships. The Confucian art of linguistic taxonomies is an art of the characterization of the conduct patterns and the social positions. It is the necessary condition for any ritual action since this ritual action depends mainly on the appropriateness between the object and its designation, between the position of one subject and his duties which are clearly expressed in their appearence, their ceremonial attributes and their gestures.
    In this very same sense, such a regulation of the conducts by means of the right designations is again stated by Confucius in a similar congruent tautology that provides us one of the best examples of this normative and ritual use of language: Lunyu XIII.8.
    More than an abstract reflection on reality and its representations, zheng ming leads into the problem of language as a full system of clasificating ritual conducts. Only from this view it is possible to understand why this terms leads, within the real of political administration, into an explicit gauge of punishments.
    Anyway, since I am just a small sinological fish from Spain, I am affraid that my own words are pretty far from being right: they should be appropriately rectificated.

    Comment by Albert Galvany | January 28, 2008 | Reply

  4. A fascinating problem. My two cents below, on point #1 raised in the post.

    As to 12.11, someone should study the role of conversational implicatures in classical Confucian texts like the Analects and the Mencius. 12.11 looks like a tautology, and thus flouts Grice’s first maxim of Quantity: “Make your contribution as informative as is required….” In Mencius too we find uninformative remarks like “Simply desire what you desire”. The reader is expected to infer that something informative is being conversationally implicated in 12.11, and “…should behave like a proper…” seems helpful.

    In any case, I don’t see why in order for a remark to be about names, one has to MENTION the name in the remark, rather than USE it. When one uses a term carefully, applying it to certain instances but not to others, the extension of the term becomes clear, and this careful exercise can demostrate the “correct” use of names. An example is Mencius, who seems consistently to use “king” in his dialogues to refer to (what he takes to be) true kings. A particularly pointed example in Mencius is 1B8 (Lau trans.): “…I have indeed heard of the punishment of the ‘outcast Zhou’, but I have not heard of any regicide.”

    Mencius’s remark does not mention names, and literally say nothing about correcting names, but the reader may infer that that is the point of the remark, either by conversational implicature or other means.

    According to the later Mohists, a name comes with a standard (fa), the standard being used to determine the extension of the names. Confucians who call for the rectification of names seem to be calling for the use of moralized standards in the application of names, standards that would prevail in an ideal Confucian community.

    Comment by Boram Lee | January 28, 2008 | Reply

  5. I appreciate Felix’s bringing in Riegel. Riegel’s view is representative, however, of what I find puzzling. If the idea is to rectify people’s behavior and attitudes so that they correspond to the terms that describe them, why is the slogan to “rectify names”? There are other slogans available that match Riegel’s idea better; in fact, in 13.6 and 13.13, the idea of correcting or rectifying “one’s self,” or “one’s own” actions, is formulated for us: zheng qi shen (正其身). That would make more sense as a match for what Riegel suggests, and also would match more clearly 12.11’s concern. So, I think 12.11 is more relevant to 13.6 and 13.13 than 13.3.

    Rectifying *names* seems to be about something else than rectifying people’s behavior–it is doing something to names, or terms. I think as Thomas suggests and Albert says, rectifying names has to do with the ritual function of language. Correcting ritual terms is required for correcting ritual speech, which further is required for conducting interpersonal, ceremonial, and official affairs correctly; that is required for keeping music and rituals correct, and finally, that keeps punishments and rewards appropriate. Boram’s point about regicide in Mencius is an illustration of that last part, I think.

    That all said, what is it that Confucius thinks ought to be done to names or terms, to correct *them*? Are we to think of this as some kind of orthographic enterprise, something like correcting wayward spelling or pronunciation? Obviously spelling is not an option. Could it be about the imposing orthodoxy with respect to character-writing? Maybe someone has some ideas about this that tie up all these loose ends…

    I await suggestions.

    Comment by Manyul Im | January 29, 2008 | Reply

  6. First, a suggestion on the interpretation of yan bu shun 言不順 in LY 13.3: “Correcting names” is often discussed in the context of getting people to follow instructions properly, so as to carry out tasks, fulfill their social roles, or obey penal codes. It also comes up in the context of carrying out or living up to a doctrine or teaching. Given this background, I suggest that yan2 bu4 shun4 here refers to following or obeying (shun4) instructions, doctrines, and so forth. The point is that people can’t follow instructions if they can’t properly distinguish the referents of the words in the instructions. If the use of names is not unified, people may be left unable to move hand or foot for fear of inadvertently violating a penal code that they do not understand.

    I agree that 12.11 is not explicitly about correcting names. However, 12.11 emerges from the same network of ideas about the relation between names and “stuff” (shi2 實) and the action-guiding function of language as the doctrine of correcting names. As Boram suggests, names were associated with models or paradigms; the name is properly used only of things relevantly similar to the model. Relevant similarity might in turn by judged on the basis of a list of distinctive features. For social roles such as ruler, subject, father, and son, these features were probably thought to include certain norms of conduct. If you don’t live up to the norm, you don’t deserve the name. (Imagine the heartbroken child of a drug-addicted, deadbeat dad saying, “You’re no father to me!”) On the other hand, if you don’t live up to the norms associated with the name, people need not treat you as the proper bearer of the name, either. The Mencius regicide example is an instance of this — regicide is wrong, but that “fellow” was no king, so killing him was not regicide.

    For society to function properly, all must live up to (the norms associated with) their names, so a ruler must be a proper ruler, etc. (I read 12.11 as four subject-verb pairs; some people read it as four verb-object pairs — “use the term ‘ruler’ of the ruler” etc.)

    Manyul asks, if a lord doesn’t act according to the norms associated with the title “lord,” how does that affect the use of language? I think the answer is that the action-guiding, normative aspects of language break down. Being a lord entails living up to certain norms. If lords stop living up to the norms, yet are called “lord” anyway — as is likely — then the association between the norms, the job title “lord,” and the social role of being a lord gradually breaks down. People, including lords, gradually stop seeing lords as answerable to the norms associated with the word “lord.” Multiply the breakdown across the major social roles, and society falls into disorder, according to some Chinese thinkers. Does linguistic communication break down as well? It could, insofar as people could end up using the word “lord” on the basis of different norms or standards.

    I disagree with the remark of Jeff Riegel’s that Felix quotes. “Correcting names” I think is using names of the right things, not modifying conduct to fit the norms associated with names. I agree that early Chinese texts, especially the Lushi Chunqiu, call for people to do both, but only the former is properly called “correcting names.” So here I am trying to “correct names” with respect to the phrase “zheng ming,” by pointing out that it properly refers to one thing, not another. This is my guess as to the answer of Manyul’s question about what “Confucius thinks ought to be done.”

    I tend to agree with those who suggest that the explicit doctrine of correcting names is a late addition to the Lunyu and mainly a theme of late -4th-century and -3rd-century discourse. It doesn’t show up explicitly in early Mohism or Mengzi. We find it in a few Guanzi passages, in the later strata of the Mohist canons, and then it’s an important doctrine in Xunzi and the Lushi Chunqiu, neither of which associates it with Confucius.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | February 7, 2008 | Reply

  7. Chris,

    That’s interesting; I think you’re right that what Riegel and lots of other people carelessly describe as rectifying behavior to match the name-norms gets things backward. The project is to rectify *naming* so that the terms are used only of the matching realities. That would take care of the puzzle about why it is zheng ming rather than, say, zheng xing (行, or some other term, roughly, for actions). And really, the translation of zheng ming should be “rectification of naming,” construing ming as a gerund.

    Still, why–and this is for Chris or anyone–do you think getting the naming right is more important than just spelling out the norms? Why, to put it more specifically, is the emphasis on getting the term or concept mastery correct rather than getting the right normative doctrines circulated? Is there some bias against the latter, more discursive project? If so, why?

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 7, 2008 | Reply

  8. Well, the Lunyu passage suggests that correcting names is only a first step, doesn’t it? Grasping the right norms is surely important as well. The idea, I think, is that getting the naming right is a precondition for both spelling out the norms intelligibly and following them. We might also point out that getting the naming right is itself part of observing the norms.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | February 7, 2008 | Reply

  9. Chris,

    Right, correcting names is a first step, but grasping the right norms is different from spelling them out explicitly. Confucius seems to me uninterested in doing the latter. It seems more like he, and Mencius as well, thinks that grasping the right norms is more like non-discursive concept mastery. The meanings of terms are “thick” and they are internalized somehow through practice or intuition.

    Maybe that just says something about the pedagogical genre of the writings that we have–they aren’t meant to spell out but to convey, roughly, the kinds of things one should say and do, through the examples of Confucius, his disciples, and in the case of Mencius, of Mencius. But this raises a similar question: why not convey, discursively, what kinds of things one should do, think, feel, and say more directly? Would that just be bad pedagogy or would it go against the “epistemology” of concept mastery?

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 8, 2008 | Reply

  10. I think perhaps I slightly misunderstood your earlier question(s). The question as I now understand it seems to be: Why the emphasis on correcting names, *without,* or as opposed to, a corresponding emphasis on spelling out the rules (rules being explicit articulations of norms) in which the names can be expected to figure?

    I agree with your tentative response but would supplement it with a few points. First, to some extent, the rules are already spelled out in books of rituals and penal codes. The rules governing the performance of various roles in social institutions, such as the family or government, are also probably already known to most people, though they may not be written down anywhere. So the Lunyu can take all this background for granted (perhaps LY 10 gives us a glimpse of some of it).

    Also, in their intellectual context, I think the Lunyu writers just don’t feel the need to develop and defend explicit theories or articulations of their dao (as the Mohists do). They are concerned instead with its practice.

    Their primary goal, I think, is to train people to be junzi. The aim is to develop certain practical dispositions and abilities — various forms of knowing-to and knowing-how — and they don’t think you do that by spelling out and discussing rules. You do it by learning practical skills through model emulation. As you say, the point is to convey how one acts, through various examples of positive (and sometimes negative) role models.

    I think both of your answers to your last question are right. To the Lunyu group, conveying what to do discursively may seem ineffective pedagogy, in that a discursive grasp is not the aim. Ability or skill is, in line with what you’re calling the epistemology of concept mastery. We don’t teach a child the concept of “horse” by discussing the features of horses; we show her a picture and point out how horses are different from dogs, cows, tigers, and so on. Also, presumably the Lunyu is directed largely at an audience of students who are in daily contact with a teacher, who fills in any needed blanks as the student progresses.

    We don’t want to suggest, though, that they considered filling their text with detailed, discursive explanations and then decided that would be bad pedagogy. Rather, just as a contingent matter of intellectual culture or style, it probably never occurred to them to do things that way. After all, at the time the Lunyu began to be compiled, the discursive essay had not yet been invented.

    To you and me, of course, there’s no reason a person who wants to learn piano shouldn’t *both* have lessons with a teacher *and* read books about music theory. So the practical focus doesn’t entail that a thinker should exclude discursive treatments. And of course a later writer such as Xunzi has a lot more to say about points on which the LY is reticent.

    Still, though, one explanatory factor is surely that the LY group think you don’t become a good person by having a lot of discursive knowledge. You become one through practice.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | February 8, 2008 | Reply

  11. “jun jun, chen chen, fu fu, zi zi” (君君臣臣父父子子)

    I agree that the way many interpret this passage–“Let the ruler be a ruler” etc.–makes it hard to see how it’s about naming. So either the passage isn’t about rectifying names, or there must be another way to understand this passage.

    Hansen goes with the latter option, and believes there is a rather straightforward way in which this passage is about naming. He takes the order of the pairs to be verb-noun, verb-noun, etc., and claims that the passage should be read:

    “ruler” rulers, “minister” ministers, “father” fathers, “son” sons.

    Put differently:

    apply the name “ruler” only to true rulers, “minister” to true ministers…

    I’ve always liked that reading, and it seems to be something you’d be open to, based on your comments above. But I’m curious to know what others think of it.

    Comment by Hagop Sarkissian | March 16, 2008 | Reply

  12. Hagop, I’ve always admired the ingenuity of this parsing of 12.11 but preferred the traditional reading.

    But first, there’s an ambiguity in the Hansen parsing (Daoist Theory, p. 67f and 382n.35). It might mean any of these (in order of what strikes me as grammatical naturalness):

    (1) “minister” all true ministers
    (2) “minister” all & only true ministers
    (3) “minister” only true ministers.

    (3) suggests that the problem is that folks are giving too much attention to the wrong people, while (1) suggests that the problem is that folks aren’t giving enough attention to the right people. For me that makes (1) a philosophically more plausible reading of the Hansen parsing than is (3).

    As Hansen points out, Confucius’ interlocutor in the passage doesn’t seem to hear Confucius’ remark with the Hansen parsing. That seems to me a very powerful argument against the Hansen parsing.

    On the traditional reading, Confucius is making a familiar sort of point (not a point of asort that even a disciple finds incredible over in 13.3). That fits the fact that Confucius makes the point briefly to the foreign duke in 12.11.

    True, on the traditional reading there’s a difficulty about how sons’ sonning is part of government. But this problem wasn’t apparent to the duke. That suggests it’s not really a *prima facie* difficulty with the traditional reading. Perhaps the solution is a broad reading of ‘governance’ (zheng) in this place, to mean something like the ordering of society.

    Comment by Bill Haines | March 20, 2008 | Reply

  13. Nowhere does zhengming apply more clearly than in the designation of climate “change”. I have started a campaign to call a spade a spade and to refer to this as what it is: climate chaos. Once the term that properly describes the unfolding reality becomes commonplace, awareness of the threat can only spread like wildfire. Only thus can we expect to have a real shot at ensuring the survival of civilization. see: http://www.ecobuddhism.org/multimedia/videos/hamilton

    Comment by Alfredo L de Romaña, Montreal | January 25, 2012 | Reply

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