Rectification of names

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The Rectification of Names (Chinese: ; pinyin: Zhèngmíng; Wade–Giles: Cheng-ming) is originally 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]


Confucius believed that social disorder often stemmed 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

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.[5]

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".[6] 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.[7]

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

A broader example, the only way to be a true/real ruler even in name is by following "the way of the ruler"(The rectification of names).

Later usages


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

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."[8] 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. 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.

In Legalism

In Chinese Legalism the terminology "rectification of names" is more about engaging in passive observation to determine facts and the quality of ministers, seeing whether the results of projects accord with their statements.

The Han Feizi states: "The way to assume oneness starts from the study of terminology. When names are rectified, things will be settled... If (the ruler) does not show off his sagacity, the inferiors will reveal their earnestness and uprightness. He appoints them to office in accordance with their words, and thus lets them choose their tasks. He confers upon them powers in accordance with their needs and thus lets them raise their ranks. Thus, he rectifies their names first, then works with them, and finally makes them accomplish the tasks." Chapter VIII. Wielding the Sceptre

Modern applications

The concept of rectification of names is one of the most basic mottoes of Chinese philosophy to date. 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.

Until 2008 Taiwan put effort into reviewing their historical records and weeding out any affiliation with China to insure their isolated identity. The Democratic Progressive Party administration had been editing grade school history textbooks to refer to Chinese history as "Chinese history" instead of "this country's history" and removing the honorific title "Father of the country" from references to Sun Yat-sen, leaving only his name. (Berman Feb 7, 2007) 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".[9]

Further reading

"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.


  1. Oldstone-Moore, Jennifer (2002). Confucianism. New York: Oxford University Press, Incorporated. pp. 54–60.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Taylor, Rodney L.; Choy, Howard (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Confucianism. 1 (1 ed.). New York: The Rosen Group, Incorporated. pp. 48–50.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. James Legge (1971). Confucian analects: The great learning, and The doctrine of the mean. Dover Publications. pp. 263–264.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Hopfe, Lewis M. (2006). Religions of the World. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall. pp. 178–85.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  9. Guo, Xuezhi (2002). The Ideal Chinese Political Leader. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, an imprint of Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links