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How should junzi be translated?

LI MENG | 2020-08-26
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A Qing Dynasty portrait of Confucius, who first invested the term junzi with an ethical significance Photo: FILE


Junzi (君子) is a key concept in traditional Chinese culture. How to translate this term in cross-cultural communication has been a popular topic in the translation field. For a long time, “gentleman” has been the most frequent English translation of junzi and vice verse, evidenced by many English versions of the Chinese classics, such as The Analects of Confucius translated by the English sinologist Arthur David Waley (1889–1966), The Wisdom of Confucius by the Chinese scholar Lin Yutang (1895–1976), and Confucius: the Unwobbling Pivot & the Great Digest by the American poet Ezra Pound (1885–1972). The film “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1948), which received the Oscar for best picture, was translated into “君子协定” (“Junzi Xieding”) when it was introduced into China. In fact, however, there are significant cultural differences between the terms junzi and gentleman. 
 
Junzi 
In ancient China, the term junzi was originally associated with social status. According to the explanation given in the Shuowen Jiezi (the early 2nd-century Han Dynasty Chinese dictionary), the character “君” (jun) means a respected status. Its meaning is derived from the meanings of the characters “尹” (yin) and “口” (kou). “尹” (yin) is interpreted in ancient China to mean “someone who rules or has control over human affairs” while “口” (kou) means “to give commands orally.” Therefore, a junzi is someone who possesses force or power and has the ability to issue orders. During the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE), the term junzi was applied to aristocratic men in the feudal states, evidenced by Shangshu (Classic of History, the earliest compilation of documentary records related to events in ancient China): “The superior man (junzi) rests in this, —that he will indulge in no luxurious ease. He first understands how the painful toil of sowing and reaping conducts to ease, and thus he understands how the lower people depend on this toil (for their support).” The Han Dynasty scholar Zheng Xuan noted that the term junzi mentioned in Shangshu referred to members of the aristocracy. The pre-Qin classic Zuozhuan (Zuo’s Commentary) also mentions that junzi work with their heads while xiaoren (petty people, the antithesis of junzi in Chinese culture) take manual jobs, revealing that the major differences between junzi and xiaoren were created through social stratification at that time. 
 
Between the Shang and the Zhou dynasties, influenced by the idea that only virtuous rulers were allowed to rule under the Mandate of Heaven, the moral character of the ruling class was highlighted. Most social resources were in the possession of the ruling class, who were well educated and were the supposed exemplars of virtue and talent. 
 
The term junzi also appears in some poems from the Shijing (The Book of Songs, the first anthology of Chinese poetry); however, they are invested with emotional rather than political overtones. In the poems, the term junzi is often used to describe a person who is as good as a junzi (even though he is a civilian), a way to express admiration or longing for this person. In the poem “The Grasshoppers,” junzi is used to express how a woman misses her husband—“As my dear one (junzi) is not there,/ I’m full of strain and care.” Another poem titled “Delighted” suggests a woman’s love for a musician through the usage of junzi: “Delighted is my man (junzi)—/ A reed-flute in left hand;/ His invitation’s my command./ We’ll enjoy ourselves as we can.” 
 
Late in the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE), the meaning of junzi significantly changed. It became a common label for a moral person who led with character and conduct, emphasizing the moral nobility or superiority of junzi. As stated in the Lunyu (Analects), Confucius stresses that a junzi is a man of good character—regardless of his birth or his social status. For example, “When natural substance prevails over ornamentation, you get the boorishness of the rustic. When ornamentation prevails over natural substance, you get the pedantry of the scribe. Only when ornament and substance are duly blended do you get the true gentleman (junzi)”; “A gentleman (junzi) takes as much trouble to discover what is right as lesser men (xiaoren) take to discover what will pay”; “A true gentleman (junzi) is calm and at ease; the Small Man (xiaoren) is fretful and ill at ease.” Since then, junzi has come to represent a collection of idealized personality traits to which intellectuals aspire in a Chinese cultural setting. 
 
Gentleman 
In terms of etymology, the word “gentle” has its origins in the Latin word gentili. The term gentle evolved from the ancient French word gentil in the early 13th century, denoting a man belonging to the peerage. When it came to the 15th century, the term denoted all members of the nobility. During the 16th century it was increasingly used; good manners and knowledge became requirements of being a gentleman. In addition to the nobility, a fair number of doctors, clergymen, lawyers and renowned scholars were also classed as “gentleman.” The 19th century saw an increasing number of industrialists and entrepreneurs, who formed the majority of the middle class. They tried to convert economic success into political power, arguing that a man who rose from humble beginnings could still make himself a gentleman through perseverance and hard work. This altered the stereotype that only a man of noble birth could become a gentleman and stressed the importance of individual learning and cultural accomplishment. The qualities of a gentleman of the time included courage, pragmatism, freedom, competitiveness, a good taste in art and manners. However, wealth was still the best form of access to the gentry. 
 
The modern “gentleman” should be well mannered, which means that social graces and customs play a crucial role in making a gentleman. As defined by The New Oxford English-Chinese Dictionary, a gentleman is “a chivalrous, courteous, or honourable man, a man of good social position, especially one of wealth and leisure.” 
 
Differences 
Clearly, the meanings of the terms junzi and gentleman have acquired a variety of usages and meanings over time. Originally, both were the labels of a high social rank. As time has passed, there has been a growing difference between the connotations of these two words. 
 
The term gentleman is usually associated with economic strength. The gentry emphasize the ownership of private property. However, since Confucius invested the term junzi with an ethical significance, it has been more used as an indication of people who are spiritually wealthy, regardless of their birth, social status and economic conditions. 
 
Furthermore, the term gentleman attaches great importance to proper manners and behavior, while the term junzi pays more attention to a person’s inner world. A gentleman is usually dressed very well, behaves politely and treats women like ladies, while Confucianism, on the contrary, doesn’t care much about personal image. What followers of Confucianism value the most is self-cultivation. 
 
Because of the cultural differences inherent between the West and China, it is hard to find an equivalent term for junzi, a term rich in meaning, in Western culture. This is a phenomenon known as a cultural gap. Therefore, a better translation of junzi should reflect its cultural differences. Using the approach known as “transliteration plus explanation,” a suitable translation of “君子” could be “junzi (virtuous man).” As Chinese culture goes global, the term “君子” will become better known by more foreigners. The term may be directly translated into junzi without the explanation, a way of translation used for many Chinese words, such as kungfu and fengshui. These terms have been widely accepted and recorded in Western dictionaries. 
 
Li Meng is from Huaqiao University. 
 
edited by REN GUANHONG