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Confucian Key Terms

Junzi 君子

"Gentlemen," "superior man," noble person, paradigmatic individual, exemplary person.

Confucius is responsible for altering the meaning of this term from denoting political status to indicating moral status. That is, what had meant mere prince, literally the son (zi) of a lord (jun), was altered to mean one worthy of high station by virtue of moral achievement. For Xunzi, as for other Confucians, "junzi" may be reasonably glossed "exemplary person," for the junzi is one who fulfills the critical role of teacher and model in Xunzi's moral scheme. Xunzi writes:

"Sages speak volumes and make classifications; junzi speak seldom but serve as exemplary models (fa)."

"The learning of the junzi inters through his ears, adheres to his thoughts and feelings (xin), spreads to his four limbs, and is embodied in his actions. Every word, every subtle movement, may be taken as a model and pattern."

"Junzi measure themselves with a stretched cord [i.e. strictly]. . . . Thus, they may be taken as a model worthy of emulation everywhere."

"Junzi achieve the utmost moral power (de). Though silent, they serve as an analogy. Though not bestowing gifts, they are held dear. Though showing no anger, they have influential power stemming from their prestige."


The last quotation is reminiscent of Confucius remark: "The moral power of the exemplary person is the wind; that of the petty person is grass. When the wind blows over the grass, it will surely bend." This statement occurs in the context of Confucius encouraging a ruler to be good (shan) and govern properly, for in so doing he would be a model for the people. However, junzi are supposed to be modest about all this (see 107/31/13-14; K: 31.2).

On the Confucian account, junzi serve the role of models (fa) of ritual propriety (li), and appropriate (yi) conduct. Paul Goldin's translation of junzi as "noble man" is a clever attempt to suggest both the earlier political meaning as well as the later moral meaning. However, it does not directly reveal the function of junzi as moral exemplars. In addition, when Confucius changes "junzi" from a political and hereditary concept to a moral one, the concept junzi, at least arguably, looses its gender.


Last Date Modified: 05/18/2010
Kurtis Hagen, e-mail: hagenkg@plattsburgh.edu