On the use of word 子 (Son) as an honorific

A passing thought around the use of 子 as a form of honorific: In the Bible, we have the Hebrew conception of the son of man (ben-adam), often applied to Jesus in the New Testament. From a Christian theological perspective, that is used to emphasize a part of his identity as a man, with a respect. In Literary Sinitic, the character for son (子) is used as a form of honorific as in 孔子, 莊子, 荀子, 孫子, etc. There’s also the superlative honorific form 夫子 as in 孔夫子. It is usually applied to an accomplished teacher who has created a new school of thought, or to someone who has simply left a legacy or scholarly works deserving respect. Anyway, I found it interesting that in both, this word, “son,” is used to denote respect. Of course, by its very nature of the meaning of the word, there’s the sense of continuity and connection to our own early forefathers, thereby also implying another form of horizontal connection between the teacher in question and the rest — that we are all related as a big family. The emphasis on personhood seems somewhat related to the concept behind the use of the word 仁, which is often taught as the very core of Confucianism. The etymology may be related to two characters representing person as in 人人, which says a person ought to be a person, in qualitative terms. Again, the main point here is not a mere person, but a virtuous person. Even the Latin root word, vir, from which we have virtue, means a man, or a person. It’s essentially saying the same thing as 人人 is. I don’t know if we have a continuity of such understanding in the use of these words in modernity, but it’d be interesting to find any culture that may have continued in this type of tradition.


原: 史記, 呂不韋傳; 資治通鑑, 等等

奇貨可居 (기화가거,qíhuòkějū,きか-かきょ) special item [is of a] good purchase
Something that deserves an investment. A good opportunity. A worthy item to purchase for future.

During the Warring States period, even though the country of Jo (趙) was in a decline, the capital city of Handan (邯鄲) was still flourishing with a lot of trade with other countries. Yeobulwi (呂不韋), a grand merchant (豪商) of the country of Han (韓), also frequented Handan for business. One day, by chance, he found out Jacho (子楚: 異人), who was a bastard son of Prince An-guk (安國君) of Jin (秦), was being held as a hostage in that city.  At the time, Jin often invaded Jo so Jacho was despised, and he was treated badly. Yeobulwi saw this situation as an opportunity, and decided to help Jacho by first visiting his residence, which was a shabby place. Yeobulwi said, “King Soyang (昭襄王) is of old age, and your father is set to become the next king of Jin. But Queen Consort (正妃), Lady Hwa-yang (華陽夫人), has no sons, and there are over twenty sons born through concubines. Among them, who do you think would be the next Crown Prince? Surely, the confidence isn’t on your side.” Jacho wasn’t sure of the intent of this conversation and replied, “There isn’t anything anyone can do about that, is there?” Yeobulwi suggested that he would help Jacho with money, so he could send gifts to the Queen Consort to win her favor, while recruiting talented people around him. Yeobulwi promised that he would also go to the country of Jin and try to help appoint Jacho as the Crown Prince. At this, Jacho held Yeobulwi’s hands in gratitude and said, “If things work out as you’ve said, then let us rule Jin together.”

Finally, Jacho was installed as the Crown Prince with the help of Yeobulwi’s wealth and scheme. And, as Yeobulwi had strategized, Jacho succeeded as King Jangyang (莊襄王, 250-247 BC) of Jin in year 250 BC. As he had promised, Yeobulwi was appointed a minister as soon as he was enthroned, and Yeobulwi was able to gain unprecedented power and wealth.

Before all of these happened, Yeolbulwi had given one of his dancers to Jacho as a wife, and a son, named Jung (政), born to her became the Crown Prince, and later, he would become the Emperor Si (始皇帝). However, there was a report that this dancer who was wed to Jacho was already pregnant with Yeobulwi’s child, and the child who later became the Emperor Si was actually Yeobulwi’s son. 

Anyway, King Jangyang reigned only for 3 years and died. Crown Prince Jung succeeded him, and Yeobulwi was entrusted with even more power as the Chief Councillor, and he was even called uncle (仲父: next in line to one’s father) by the king. He enjoyed fame and held in one hand the power over Jin, and this was all because he discovered a precious gem in a pitiful place and paid dearly for it (奇貨可居). 

We often are affected by myopia, and miss the future opportunities that could be returned to us. A wise person knows to sacrifice little now for a greater return later. And, to do so with boldness as well. Such force of volition in decision making isn’t common among people, especially in this day and age of information overflow. So, it may take a lifetime of practice to learn to see what is not apparent in our daily transactions


原: 史記, 孟嘗君列傳; 經濟類編, 卷三十二/19 中

狡兎三窟 (교토삼굴,jiǎotù sān kū, こうと-さんくつ), smart rabbit [has] three holes
Semper paratus (“always be prepared.”) Always have a back-up plan.

During the Warring States period (戰國時代) a retainer (食客) of Lord Maeng-sang (孟嘗君), named Pung-hweon (馮愋, 馮驩) received an order to collect the loan payments from the state of Seol (薛). He went and gathered everyone who were in debt to Lord Maeng-sang and then to the joy of everyone gathered there, he proceeded burn all of their documents of obligation. Pung-hweon came back and explained that by burning all those loan contracts he had gained gratitude and indebtedness (恩義) from people.

A year later, Lord Maeng-sang had angered King Min (泯王) of the country of Je (齊), and then he was driven out from his post to the outer parts of the kingdom. At this time, the people of Seol came out to be with Lord Maeng-sang to comfort him for 100 miles. This was the first help by Pung-hweon.

Then Pung-hweon went to the capital city of Wi (魏) and persuaded King Hye (惠王) that his country will made stronger by receiving Lord Maeng-sang. King Hye was convinced, and sent 1,000 pounds of gold and cartloads of gifts. Such gifts were sent to him three times, but following Pung-hweon’s advice, Lord Maeng-sang denied the offer, and did not receive those gifts. King Min, hearing of this, became fearful, and sent a servant with an apology, and reinstated Lord Maeng-sang to his post as a local sovereign. This was the second help provided by Pung-hweon.

As a third help, Pung-hweon advised Lord Maeng-sang to build an ancestral shrine of Je in the land of Seol. As long as the shrine existed, King Min would not be a threat to him, so Lord Maeng-sang’s authority was reaffirmed this way.

The world has always been in chaos and it is full of difficulties, so one must overcome a lot of difficulties in order to succeed in the world. People often say it is now the world of infinite competitions. Once must be well equipped in order to compete with others, and that also means one must also be prepared sufficiently for overcoming difficulties in life. And it can also produce anxiety if you have all your eggs in one basket. If one thing fails, there has to be another ready in place. This is true not only individually, but at the national level as well. There has to be some protective measures in place in case of emergencies.


原: 孔子家語, 三恕/4 中

有坐之器 (유좌지기,yǒuzuòzhīqì,ゆうざの-き), nearby [of] bowl
Moderation in all things. Heart should not be emptied nor be overflowing.

Gong-ja was visiting an ancestral shrine (祠堂) of Hwan-gong (桓公) of the country of Ju (周). Inside was a bowl (儀器) used in ritual ceremonies, and it was fixed in a way so that it could tilt freely. Gong-ja asked the keeper of the shrine, “What is this bowl for?”  And he replied, “It is a bowl you always look at nearby (有坐之器)”  At this, Gong-ja nodded and said, “I did hear about the bowl. It tilts to the side if it’s empty, and it stands upright only if it has just enough water, and if it’s completely filled, it would spill over.”


原: 武信君 蒯通傳, 史記, 後漢書 等等
金城湯池 (금성탕지,jīnchéng tāngchí,きんじょうとうち), metal fortress boiling pond
A word to refer to an impregnable place or thing

Emperor Si-hwang (始皇帝) of Jin (秦) had unified the kingdoms, but it started to decline soon after his death. The families (宗室) and those who had served (遺臣) in old kingdoms rose up to overthrow Jin. Many claimed to be a king in their own right, and the governing system of Jin (郡縣制) was being dismantled completely. It was during this time a man named Mu-sin (武信) had subdued the old territory of Jo (趙) and people called him Lord Mu-sin (武信君). Koi-tong (蒯通), an unappointed advisor (論客), saw all this take place, and told Seo-gong (徐公), a ruler (縣令) of Beom-yang (范陽), that the disgruntled people under his rule are about to rise up against him. Seo-gong asked what Koi-tong had in mind, and Koi-tong said that he will go to Lord Mu-sin and convince him that he should make a good example of how someone who surrenders to him would be treated by accepting your surrender, and treating you with extremely generosity. The logic was that if Seo-gong surrendered and he was treated poorly, other fortresses with become even more impregnable (金城湯池) in defending their places. So, that way, Lord Mu-sin will not suffer loss of war, and others will see how you were treated, and instead of suffering great losses themselves, they will find that it’s better to surrender. Seo-gong sent Koi-tong to Lord Mu-shin.  Lord-Mushin, amazed at the wisdom of Koi-tong, invited Seo-gong with the utmost respect and had him go abroad to tell people of this. People of Beom-yang was spared from a war, so they praised Seo-gong, and other regions hearing of this also surrendered to Lord Mu-sin.  It is said that over 30 fortresses had surrendered in the region of Hwa-buk (華北) alone.


原: 春秋左傳, 哀公, 哀公十一年/2 中

良禽擇木(양금택목,liáng qín zé mù,りょうきんたくぼく), good bird chooses tree

A wise person chooses a person or a place that recognizes and will help to cultivate his talents.

While Gong-ja (孔子) was staying in the country of Wi (衛) Gongmun-ja (孔文子, 孔圉) came to inquire him about his plans to attack Dae-suk-jil (大叔疾), but Gong-ja replied that he has learned about ancestral rites, but he know nothing about waging wars. Immediately, after, he told his disciples to get ready to leave Wi soon. Hearing about this, Gongmun-ja quickly came back to explain he didn’t have other ulterior motives and pleaded him to stay. At this, Gong-ja decided to stay longer, but a person from the country of Noh (魯) came to implore him to come back and he went back to his home country.

Before taking on a job to work for any company, or stay at any place, it’s a worthwhile effort to consider what type of place it is. If it’s a rotten tree that will fall by itself soon, or if it’s a small branch that won’t be able to withstand the weight of your nest, then it’s better not to settle down from the start.


原: 論語, 八佾/8

繪事後素(회사후소,huìshìhòusù,かいじこうそ), painting work after white
Horse before carriage. Essentials or canvas come first before formalities or decorations.

This is from a passage where Gong-ja reminds his disciples that a person ought to develop his character first before adding on other stylistic things (文飾).

Jaha (字: 子夏, 卜商) asked, “What does this text mean? ‘Dimples from a beautiful smile are pretty, pupils from beautiful eyes are clear. It is like painting with white silk (素以爲絢).'” Gong-ja (孔子) replied, “You paint after you prepare a white canvas (繪事後素).” To which, Jaha asked again, “So etiquettes/formalities (禮) come after?” And at this, Gong-ja expressed his great pleasure with Jaha’s reply and said that he is now ready to discuss poetry (詩).

Jaha realized that formalities (depicted as a painting (絢)) are expressions of the heart (depicted as a white canvas (素)), and the principle of poetry is the same. This is why Gong-ja praised his reply, and considered him ready to discuss poetry.

The mainstream interpretation of this was reinforced by Zhu-ja (朱子, 朱熹, 1130-1200) of Song (宋) dynasty, but a different interpretation was given earlier during later Han (漢) dynasty by Jung Hyeon (鄭玄, 127-200) who read this as painting white (素) after painting with colors (繪), so as to filling in the spaces between colors with white.


原: 列子, 湯問


愚公移山(우공이산,yúgōngyíshān,ぐこういざん), Wu-gong moves mountains
No matter how difficult, it can be done with persistence and diligence

There lived a 90-year old man named Wu-gong (愚公) whose residence was between two tall mountains, Mt. Tae-haeng (太行山) and Mt. Wang-ok (王玉山). He’s always found it difficult to travel to and fro other towns, so he gathered his family members to discuss creating a level road all the way to Ye-ju (豫州) and south of Han-su (漢水). However, his wife objected saying how an old man like him would be able to remove the dirt from the mountain and where to put the dirt, and to this, he replied nonchalantly, “I’ll just dump it in the Bohai Sea (渤海).”

Soon, Wu-gong with his three sons and grandsons started working. It was no easy task, since the travel to dump dirt at Bohai Sea would take a year. One day, an old friend Ji-su (智叟) tried to persuade Wu-gong to stop the work because of the age. To this, Wu-gong simply replied that his sons will carry out the work, and then his grandsons, and then later generations will continue the work until two mountains disappear. Ji-su went away shaking his head, however, the mountain spirit (蛇神) guarding those two mountains were shocked to hear this, and reported this to the Jade Emperor (玉皇上帝, aka God of Heaven). He was moved by Wu-gong’s persistence, and ordered to relocate Mt. Tae-haeng to Sak-dong (朔東) and Mt. Wang-ok to Ong-nam (雍南).

(蛇足: This is why they say there used to be two mountains in Gi-ju (冀州) but nowadays, there is not even a small hill there.)


原: 論語, 里仁/15

原: 論語, 衛靈公/3

一以貫之(일이관지), one [/with] through/[threaded] — understanding many through one or a grand principle

From Yi-in (里仁): Gong-ja (孔子) said, “Sam (參, 曾子), my way is through only one thing.” To which, Jeung-ja  (曾子) replied, “Yes, indeed.” After Gong-ja left the room, literati (門人) asked Sam what the master meant. Jeung-ja answered, “My master’s way is only of faithfulness (忠, as being wholehearted) and compassion (恕, as in compassionate understanding of others).”

From Wi-ryeong-gong (衛靈公): Gong-ja asked Sa (賜, 字: 子貢), “Do you see me as someone learned in many things, and be able to recall them well?” Ja-gong (子貢) replied, “Yes, are you not?” Gong-ja answered, “No, I merely see all things through one.”

It’s debatable as to what this penetrating through one thing (一以貫之) may truly mean, but one way to understand this is that, as already mentioned, faithfulness and compassion is a mere way to achieve this, and looking through the greater context it’s only natural to interpret humaneness (仁) as the way (道) through which all things can be reflected on.


原:  孔子家語, 三恕/10

子曰: 由!是倨倨者何也?夫江始出於岷山,其源可以濫觴 …

濫觴 (남상), [enough to] run over a small glass [for liquor]

A warning to disciple, Jaro (仲由, 字: 子路), who once showed off a fancy dress. Gong-ja (孔子) reminded him that the source of a great river Yang-ja (楊子江) is no more than enough to run over a small glass.