It is claimed here that Confucius said:

Signs and symbols rule the world, not words nor laws.

Is this true? If so, in what work did he say this?

3 Answers 3


It is not true. The Analects do contain "If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success" (Legge translation) and more to that effect. He does not say words or symbols or anything like that "rule the world."

I take it that correctness of names is per se a semiotic issue. For more on this in the Analects, and in other Confucian classics, and in commentaries on them, search "rectification of names."

But the closest you are likely to come to finding a modern sense of semiotics in ancient Chinese philosophy is the puzzle of whether "white horse is not horse" which might be better rendered "white horse is not (the same concept as) horse" or maybe "a white horse (is not just the same thing as) a horse." Most commentators take this to arise from a school of logicians who would be rivals to the Confucian school.

Only a few ancient or classical texts on this survive. There are very many modern interpretations of this topic, which entirely disagree with one another. Start with https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_a_white_horse_is_not_a_horse

Another Analect also resembles the quote in a way. The correct way of ruling the world is for the ruler to do little but stay fixed in virtue: "He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it." Virtue here is tightly tied to keeping the rituals, and in this sense to symbols. But ritual does not rule the world. Ritual leads to a world that rules itself.

The false quote is really incoherent in Confucius'/Kongzi's terms. For him as for many Chinese people to this day a word basically is a character, it is a written sign or symbol. The pronunciation varies with time and region. Plus the pronunciation of a single character is ambiguous due to extensive homophony. So pronunciation merely represents the character which is the real word.

If I may be permitted, since we are discussing words, I would suggest that in today's world, with much international travel, it would be better to use the Chinese name Kongzi rather than the latinate "Confucius." With great respect for the western scholars who first went to China and used latinate names, I feel it is better now to use the term more familiar to Chinese people.

  • 1
    What I'm really getting at is this: Did Confucius have a sort of semiotics?
    – Geremia
    Jun 17, 2016 at 14:31
  • 1
    I wonder to what degree the Confucian notion that language should be "in accordance with the truth of things", and the "rectification of names", is similar to the notion of natural kinds (and the idea that our categories and classification schemes should reflect them) in Western philosophy?
    – Hypnosifl
    Mar 14, 2020 at 19:14

I believe the quote is apocryphal. Some of the sentiment might be compatible with Confucianism but there are several problems for supposing Kongzi would have said this or that this would be found in a work people classically attributed to Confucius. (It is well known that the texts attributed to Confucius were not written by Confucius)

  1. There's not much talk of "signs" or "symbols" in the Analects
  2. This is more abstract than most of the claims we find in classical Confucian texts. Nearly all of them involve interactions (much in the same way that Plato's dialogues involve interaction).
  3. It's hard to grasp by why "words" don't qualify as symbols or signs. Kongzi comments several times on concepts like the rectification of names from Analects 13 (mentioned in Colin's answer).

What is somewhat Confucian about it can be found in Analects 13.18:

The Duke of She informed Confucius, saying, "Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact." Confucius said, "Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this."

It's a very live topic of debate as to how this means Kongzi thinks we should relate to law, but one group of interpreters would see Confucius as not being pro-law. (There's a Dao issue from 2007 or 2008, Frontiers of Philosophy in China from 2014 or so, and a smattering of articles elsewhere on the topic).

A key general component is the importance of ritual -- made popular in the West by Henry Fingarette's Secular as Sacred

  • What I'm really getting at is this: Did Confucius have a sort of semiotics?
    – Geremia
    Jun 17, 2016 at 14:31
  • 1
    Not under any normal understanding of the term... See Tu 1985 "Jen as Living Symbol" from Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation for an idea of how something in the Analects might reflect semiotics.
    – virmaior
    Jun 17, 2016 at 14:45
  • Basically, li (often translated as ritual) expresses jen (humanity, love, Goodness), but there's absolutely no presentation of this as a theory of semiotics in the ancient Confucian texts.
    – virmaior
    Jun 17, 2016 at 14:46
  • Could li mean a customary sign?
    – Geremia
    Jun 17, 2016 at 15:48
  • Surely, li signify feelings and express things like "respect" and "welcome" but whether any classical Chinese writing would conceptualize them as a "sign" (a term that really doesn't exist in classical Chinese) seems difficult to motivate.
    – virmaior
    Jun 18, 2016 at 0:25

I just looked it up and it does say in the Analacts, volume VII, book XIII, chapter III: "whatever a wise man states he can always define, and what he so defines, he can always carry into practice; for the wise man will on no account have anything remiss in his definitions."

He talks about government in particular here, and when you think about the philosophy that is behind the symbols then this statement does start to become relevant to this matter.

So when someone like Trump or Merkel or some entertainer uses occult symbolism, you can pretty much guarantee that they know very well what they are doing - otherwise they would not have reached the status that they now have.

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