The Rectification of Names (Chinese: ; pinyin: Zhèngmíng; Wade–Giles: Cheng-ming) is the Confucian doctrine that to know and use the proper designations of things in the web of relationships that creates meaning, a community, and then behaving accordingly so as to ensure social harmony is The Good.[1] Since social harmony is of utmost importance, without the proper rectification of names, society would essentially crumble and "undertakings [would] not [be] completed." [2]


Confucius believed that social disorder often stemmed from failure to perceive, understand, and deal with reality. Fundamentally, then, social disorder can stem from the failure to call things by their proper names, and 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, translated by James Legge[3]

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 and that all classes of society should accord to what they ought to be".[4] 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. Without the rectification of names, different words would have different actions.

Each person has a social standing and a social name and with their social names comes responsibilities and duties. Ruler, minister, father and son all have social names therefore they 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[5]

Following orders from a person of authority means that your showing respect therefore means that you're 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).

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

  • Father to son
  • Elder brother to younger brother
  • Husband to wife
  • Elder to younger
  • Ruler to subject

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.[6]

Later Scholars

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

Of all the scholars in Chinese history, 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." [7] 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.

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. Taiwan, for example, until 2008, had 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".[8]

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.


External links

  • 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.