Rectification of names

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Rectification of Names (Chinese: ; pinyin: Zhèngmíng; Wade–Giles: Cheng-ming). Confucius was asked what he would do if he was a governor. He said he would "rectify the names" to make words correspond to reality. The phrase has now become known as a doctrine of feudal Confucian designations and relationships, behaving accordingly to ensure social harmony.[1] Without such accordance society would essentially crumble and "undertakings would not be completed."[2] Mencius extended the doctrine to include questions of political legitimacy.[3]

Mohism and Legalism[edit]

Because the rectification of names in the Analects of Confucius appears to have been written later, it arguably originates in Mozi (470–391 BC).[4] The scholarship of Herrlee G. Creel argued for its further development through "Legalist" Shen Buhai (400–337 BC) before the Confucian usage for the same reasons.[5] However, professor Zhenbin Sun considers Mozi's rectification consonant with the Confucian usage; Mozi considered it an important factor in the resolution of sociopolitical issues, and not simply legal affairs.[6]

The Mohist and "Legalistic" version of the rectification of names is Fa (法).[7] Mozi advocated language standards appropriate for use by ordinary people.[4] With minimal training, anyone can use Fa to perform a task or check results.[8] Seemingly originating in Guan Zhong, for Guan Zhong and the Mohists, Fa recommended objective, reliable, easily used,[9] publicly accessible standards, or models, opposing what Sinologist Chad Hansen terms the "cultivated intuition of self-admiration societies", expert at chanting old texts. However, it could complement any traditional scheme, and Guan Zhong uses Fa alongside the Confucian Li (禮). What Fa made possible was the accurate following of instructions.[7] For the most part Confucianism does not elaborate on Fa, though the idea of norms themselves are older and Han Confucians embraced Fa as an essential element in administration.[10][7]

Rejecting the Confucian idea of parents as a moral model as particular and unreliable, the driving idea of the Mohists was the use of Hermeneutics to find objective models (Fa) for ethics and politics, as was done in any practical field, to order or govern society. These were primarily practical rather than principles or rules,[11] as in the square and plumb-line.[12] The Mohists used Fa as "objective, particularly operational or measurement-like standards for fixing the referents of names",[13] hoping that the natural standards (Fa) of language (names) would yield some objective way (dao) of moral reform.

Measuring to obtain a clear standard,[8] Fa compares something against itself, and then judges whether the two are similar, just as with the use of the compass or the L-square.[14][8] This constituted the basic conception of Mohists practical reasoning and knowledge. What matches the standard is the particular object, and thus correct; what doesn't is not. Knowledge is a matter of "being able to do something correctly in practice" — and in particular, being able to distinguish various kinds of things from one another. Evaluating correctness is thus determining whether distinctions have been drawn properly. Its aim is not an intellectual grasp of a definition or principle, but the practical ability to perform a task (dao) successfully.[14] Fixing the content given moral model, they proposed emulation for the establishment of order.[15]

Evolving out of the Mohists and school of logicians,[16] reformer Shen Buhai insisted that the ruler must be fully informed on the state of his realm, using Fa as administrative method to sort out informational categories or define functions ("names").[17] Shen Buhai and later Han Fei (280–233 BC) used this variation on the rectification of names for appointment, matching the words of the official, or his name/title/legal contract, with his performance.[5] Han Fei bases his propositions for lingual uniformity upon the development of this system,[4] proposing that functions could be strictly defined to prevent conflict and corruption, and objective rules (Fa) impervious to divergent interpretation could be established, judged solely by their effectiveness.[18]

By contrast, the Zhuangzi says that "great words are overflowing; small words haggling"(2.2), the true self lacks form(2.3), the mind can spontaneously select (2.4), asks whether language is different from the chirping of birds(2.5), and rejects assertion and denial(2.7), saying "to wear out one's spirit like powers contriving some view... without understanding that it is all the same is called 'three in the morning'".[19]


The Analects states that social disorder often stems from failure to call things by their proper names, that is, to perceive, understand, and deal with reality. His solution to this was the "rectification of names". He gave an explanation to one of his disciples:

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. 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. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.

— Confucius, Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4–7, Analect 13.3, translated by James Legge[20]

The teaching of Confucius consist of five basic relationships in life:

  • Ruler to subject
  • Parent to child
  • Husband to wife
  • Elder brother to younger brother
  • Friend to friend

In the above relationships, Confucius teaches that righteous, considerate, kind, benevolent, and gentle treatment should be applied by the former to the latter. And that with the application of such practices in day-to-day life, societal problems would be solved and righteous government would be achieved. The carrying out of these relational duties would equate the proper channeling of li and the correct use of zhèngmíng congruent to Confucius' teachings leading to the envisioned path of his doctrine; a moral and efficient society and individuals who have achieved the ascension to superior human beings through the principles of li and jen. The proper operation of oneself ultimately depends on the role of zhèngmíng; essentially a circle of dependency in terms of the practice and application of principles and ways.[21]

In Confucianism, the Rectification of Names means that "things in actual fact should be made to accord with the implications attached to them by names, the prerequisites for correct living and even efficient government being that all classes of society should accord to what they ought to be".[22] Without the rectification of names, different words would have different actions. This essentially means for every action, there is a word that describes that action. The belief is that by following the Rectification of Names, one would be following the correct/right path. The rectification of names also calls for a standard language in which ancient rulers could impose laws that everyone could understand to avoid confusion.

Each person has a social standing and a social name. With their social names comes responsibilities and duties. Ruler, minister, father and son all have social names therefore need to fulfill their required social duties of respect (The rectification of names). For example, in the study of Chinese culture a child only speaks when a parent permits them to speak.[23]

Following orders from a person of authority means that you are showing respect, therefore that you are following the Rectification of Names without explicitly acknowledging it. Confucius' belief in the Rectification of Names is still practiced in today's society, for example when a teacher asks a student to address a visitor, that student will follow the instructions.


Nets are for catching fish; after one gets the fish, one forgets the net. Traps are for catching rabbits; after one gets the rabbit, one forgets the trap. Words are for getting meaning; after one gets the meaning, one forgets the words. Where can I find people who have forgotten words, and have a word with them?

— Zhuangzi, Ch. 26

Xun Zi wrote a chapter on "The Rectification of Names" developing a theme that had been introduced by Confucius saying: "Let the ruler be ruler, the subject subject; let the father be father, and the son son."[24] Chapter 22, "on the Rectification of Names", claims the ancient sage kings chose names (Chinese:名, Pinyin:míng) that directly corresponded with actualities (Chinese: 實, Pinyin: shí), but later generations confused terminology, coined new nomenclature, and thus could no longer distinguish right from wrong.

Xun Zi not only wrote that chapter on the topic of the rectification of names but went as far as to develop/expand the rectification into a system of logic.[25] Xun Zi, who believed that man's inborn tendencies need to be curbed through education and ritual, countered to Mencius's view that man is innately good. He believed that ethical norms had been invented to rectify mankind. Other philosophers and logicians such as Guanzi, Mozi, and Gongsun Long developed their own theories regarding the rectification. Li in itself can be seen as the root of all this propriety and social etiquette discussed in the rectification of names as the cure to society's problems and the solution to a moral and efficient government and society.

Modern applications[edit]

The concept of rectification of names is one of the most basic mottoes of Chinese philosophy. It has been applied to a broad range of issues and mainly resides in the field of politics. This basic yet powerful precept has served as a means for the toppling and reforming of dynasties. In today's society, the rectification of names is being used popularly with government decisions.

Backed by strong public demands, Taiwan during Democratic Progressive Party administrations puts effort into reviewing the names of state-owned enterprises and government entities to preserve their unique identity from Chinese influence.[26] For those who still practice the traditional Confucian approach to ethics and social morality, the rectification of names has an impact in the way society is structured. According to Xuezhi Guo, "Rectification of names also implies the promotion and development of an elaborately differentiated system of status based on social obligations".[27]

Further reading[edit]

  • "A Short History of Chinese Philosophy", Fung Yu-lan, 1948. ISBN 0-684-83634-3 Reprint 1976 Ch. 4 pp 41 ff in the paperback edition.
  • A rose by any other name would smell as sweet
  • Call a spade a spade


  1. ^ Oldstone-Moore, Jennifer (2002). Confucianism. New York: Oxford University Press, Incorporated. pp. 54–60.
  2. ^ Taylor, Rodney L.; Choy, Howard (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Confucianism. 1 (1 ed.). New York: The Rosen Group, Incorporated. pp. 48–50.
  3. ^ Eno, R. "Legalism and Huang-Lao Thought" (PDF). Indiana University.
  4. ^ a b c Chad Hansen. Philosophy of Language in Classical China.
  5. ^ a b A.C. Graham 1989. p. 284. Disputers of the Tao.
  6. ^ Zhenbin Sun 2015. p. 18. Language, Discourse, and Praxis in Ancient China.
  7. ^ a b c Chad Hansen, 1992 pp. 348–349 A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought
  8. ^ a b c Bo Mou 2009 p. 143. Routledge History of Chinese Philosophy Volume 3.
  9. ^ Bo Mou 2009 p. 143. Routledge History of Chinese Philosophy Volume 3.
  10. ^ Zhongying Cheng 1991 p. 315. New Dimensions of Confucian and Neo-Confucian Philosophy.
  11. ^ Bo Mou 2009 pp. 143–144. Routledge History of Chinese Philosophy Volume 3.
  12. ^ Chad Hansen, University of Hong Kong. Lord Shang.
  13. ^ Chad Hansen. Shen Buhai.
  14. ^ a b Fraser, Chris, "Mohism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  15. ^ Bo Mou 2009 pp. 145,147. Routledge History of Chinese Philosophy Volume 3.
  16. ^ Makeham, J. (1990) pp. 87,89. The Legalistic Concept of Hsing-Ming: An Example of the Contribution of Archaeological Evidence to the Re-Interpretation of Transmitted Texts. Monumenta Serica, 39, 87–114. doi:10.1080/02549948.1990.11731214. JSTOR 40726902.
  17. ^ Creel, 1974 pp. 33, 68–69. Shen Pu-hai: A Chinese Political Philosopher of the Fourth Century B.C.
  18. ^ Jacques Gernet 1982 p. 91. A History of Chinese Civilization.
  19. ^ R. Eno 2010. Indiana University, Early Chinese Thought p. 374. Zhuangzi.
  20. ^ Legge, James (1971). Confucian analects: The great learning, and The doctrine of the mean. Dover Publications. pp. 263–264.
  21. ^ Hopfe, Lewis M. (2006). Religions of the World. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall. pp. 178–85.
  22. ^ Steinkraus, Warren (1980). "Socrates, Confucius, and the Rectification of Names". Philosophy East and West. 30 (2): 261–64. doi:10.2307/1398850. JSTOR 1398850.
  23. ^ Bailey, Benjamin (1997). "Communication of Respect in Interethnic Service Encounters". Language in Society. 26 (3): 327–356. doi:10.1017/s0047404500019497. JSTOR 4168775.
  24. ^ Staal, Frits (1979). "Oriental Ideas on the Origin of Language". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 99 (1): 1–14. doi:10.2307/598944. JSTOR 598944.
  25. ^ Goldin, Paul R. (2018). "Xunzi". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  26. ^ Cripps, Karla; Deng, Shawn (2020-04-15). "Taiwan's largest airline considers a name change". CNN. Retrieved 2020-07-05.
  27. ^ Guo, Xuezhi (2002). The Ideal Chinese Political Leader. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, an imprint of Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 30.

External links[edit]

  • Daniels, Victor. "CONFUCIUS: A Brief Summary of Central Principles" 23 May 2005. 28 Oct. 2008.
  • "The rectification of names" History and literature. Cultural china. 27 Oct. 2008.
  • Nuño Alberto Valenzuela Alonso, "Rectificar los nombres (Xun Zi / Zheng Ming): Un capítulo fundamental en el pensamiento confuciano". Traduccíon estilizada y literal, notas exegéticas y estudio de Nuño Valenzuela Alonso; edición bilingüe chino - español; prólogo de Eric Hutton (University of Utah, USA) y Pedro San Gines (Universidad de Granada, Spain). Published; Madrid. Miraguano Ediciones, 2019, Spain. ISBN 978-84-7813-483-0.