Skip to main content

Modeling the Contested Relationship between Analects, Mencius, and Xunzi: Preliminary Evidence from a Machine-Learning Approach

  • Ryan Nichols (a1), Edward Slingerland (a2), Kristoffer Nielbo (a3), Uffe Bergeton (a4), Carson Logan (a5) and Scott Kleinman (a6)...

This article presents preliminary findings from a multi-year, multi-disciplinary text analysis project using an ancient and medieval Chinese corpus of over five million characters in works that date from the earliest received texts to the Song dynasty. It describes “distant reading” methods in the humanities and the authors’ corpus; introduces topic-modeling procedures; answers questions about the authors’ data; discusses complementary relationships between machine learning and human expertise; explains topics represented in Analects, Mencius, and Xunzi that set each of those texts apart from the other two; and explains topics that intersect all three texts. The authors’ results confirm many scholarly opinions derived from close-reading methods, suggest a reappraisal of Xunzi’s shared semantic content with Analects, and yield several actionable research questions for traditional scholarship. The aim of this article is to initiate a new conversation about implications of machine learning for the study of Asian texts.

Hide All
Ames, Roger T. 2001. “New Confucianism: A Native Response to Western Philosophy.” In Chinese Political Culture: 1989–2000, ed. Hua, Shiping, 7099. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.
Barbrook, Adrian C., Howe, Christopher J., Blake, Norman, and Robinson, Peter. 1998. “The Phylogeny of The Canterbury Tales .” Nature 394(6696):839–40.
Bergeton, Uffe. 2013. “From Pattern to ‘Culture’?: Emergence and Transformations of Metacultural Wén.” PhD diss., University of Michigan.
Blei, David M. 2012a. “Probabilistic Topic Models.” Communications of the ACM 55(4):7784. doi:10.1145/2133806.2133826.
Blei, David M. 2012b. “Topic Modeling and Digital Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities 2(1). (accessed September 24, 2017).
Blei, David M., Ng, Andrew Y., and Jordan, Michael I.. 2003. “Latent Dirichlet Allocation.” Journal of Machine Learning Research 3:9931022.
Boltz, William G. 2007. “The Composite Nature of Early Chinese Texts.” In Text and Ritual in Early China, ed. Kern, Martin, 5078. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Brindley, Erica. 2009. “‘Why Use an Ox-Cleaver to Carve a Chicken?’ The Sociology of the Junzi Ideal in the Lunyu .” Philosophy East and West 59(1):4770. doi:10.1353/pew.0.0033.
Brooks, E. Bruce, and Brooks, A. Taeko, trans. 1998. The Original Analects: Sayings of Confucius and His Successors. New York: Columbia University Press.
Brown, Miranda, and Bergeton, Uffe. 2008. “‘Seeing’ Like a Sage: Three Takes on Identity and Perception in Early China.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 35:641–62.
Campany, Robert. 1992. “Xunzi and Durkheim as Theorists of Ritual Practice.” In Discourse and Practice, eds. Reynolds, Frank and Tracy, David, 197231. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Chen, Jack W., Borovsky, Zoe, Kawano, Yoh, and Chen, Ryan. 2014. “The Shishuo Xinyu as Data Visualization.” Early Medieval China 20:2359. doi:10.1179/1529910414Z.00000000013.
Cheng, Anne. 1993. “Lun yǚ” 論語 [Analects]. In Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, ed. Loewe, Michael, 313–23. Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California.
Ching, Julia. 1997. “Son of Heaven: Sacral Kingship in Ancient China.T'oung Pao 83(1–2):341.
Clark, Kelly James, and Winslett, Justin T.. 2011. “The Evolutionary Psychology of Chinese Religion: Pre-Qin High Gods as Punishers and Rewarders.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79(4):928–60. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfr018.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mark. 2002. “Traditional Taxonomies and Revealed Texts in the Han.” In Daoist Identity: History, Lineage, and Ritual, eds. Kohn, Livia and Roth, Harold David, 81101. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
Dietrich, Eric. 2011. “There Is No Progress in Philosophy.” Essays in Philosophy 12(2):329–44.
Draper, Paul, and Nichols, Ryan. 2013. “Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion.” Monist 96(3):420–46.
Eno, Robert. 1990a. The Confucian Creation of Heaven: Philosophy and the Defense of Ritual Mastery. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Eno, Robert. 1990b. “Was There a High God Ti in Shang Religion?Early China 15:126.
Youlan, Feng (Yu-Lan, Fung). 1952–53. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Pèiróng, 傅佩榮. 2011. Lúnyǔ sānbǎi jiǎng 論語三百講 [The Analects: Three hundred lectures]. Taipei: Liánjīng chūbǎn gōngsī.
Goldin, Paul R. 2011. “Persistent Misconceptions about Chinese ‘Legalism.’Journal of Chinese Philosophy 38(1):88104.
Goldstone, Andrew, and Underwood, Ted. 2014. “The Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies: What Thirteen Thousand Scholars Could Tell Us.” New Literary History 45(3):359–84. doi:10.1353/nlh.2014.0025.
Hall, David L., and Ames, Roger T.. 1987. Thinking through Confucius. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Hou, Yufang, and Frank, Anette. 2015. “Analyzing Sentiment in Classical Chinese Poetry.” In Proceedings of the 9th SIGHUM Workshop on Language Technology for Cultural Heritage, Social Sciences, and Humanities, 1524. Beijing: Association for Computational Linguistics and the Asian Federation of Natural Language Processing. (accessed July 15, 2016).
Hsu [Xu], Zhuoyun. 1977. Ancient China in Transition: An Analysis of Social Mobility, 722–222 B.C. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Hunter, Michael. 2014. “Did Mencius Know the Analects?T'oung Pao 100(1–3):3379. doi:10.1163/15685322-10013p02.
Hutton, Eric L., trans. 2014. Xunzi: The Complete Text. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Ihara, Craig K. 1991. “David Wong on Emotions in Mencius.” Philosophy East and West 41(1):4553.
Ivanhoe, Philip J. [1993] 2000. Confucian Moral Self Cultivation. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Ivanhoe, Philip J. 2008. “The Shade of Confucius: Social Roles, Ethical Theory, and the Self.” In Polishing the Chinese Mirror: Essays in Honor of Henry Rosemont, Jr., eds. Littlejohn, Ronnie and Chandler, Marthe, 3449. New York: Global Scholarly Publications.
Jockers, Matthew L. 2013. Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Kern, Martin. 2015. “Speaking of Poetry: Pattern and Argument in the ‘Kongzi Shilun.’” In Literary Forms of Argument in Early China, eds. Gentz, Joachim and Meyer, Dirk, 175200. Leiden: Brill.
Kline, T. C. 2000. “Moral Agency and Motivation in the Xunzi .” In Virtue, Nature and Moral Agency in the Xunzi, eds. Kline, T. C. and Invahoe, Philip J., 155–75. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Lau, D. C., trans. [1970] 2005. Mencius. New York: Penguin.
Loewe, Michael, ed. 1993. Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide. Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California.
Makeham, John. 1996. “The Formation of Lunyu as a Book.” Monumenta Serica 44(1):124.
Marshall, Emily A. 2013. “Defining Population Problems: Using Topic Models for Cross-National Comparison of Disciplinary Development.” Poetics 41(6):701–24. doi:10.1016/j.poetic.2013.08.001.
McCallum, Andrew Kachites. 2002. “MAchine Learning for LanguagE Toolkit (MALLET).” (accessed July 15, 2016).
Mohr, John W., and Bogdanov, Petko. 2013. “Introduction—Topic Models: What They Are and Why They Matter.” Poetics 41(6):545–69. doi:10.1016/j.poetic.2013.10.001.
Moretti, Franco. 2000. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review 1:5468.
Nelson, Robert K. 2015. “Mining the Dispatch.” (accessed July 15, 2016).
Nichols, Ryan. 2015. “Early Confucianism Is a System for Social-Functional Influence and Probably Does Not Represent a Normative Ethical Theory.” Dao 14(4):499520. doi:10.1007/s11712-015-9464-8.
Overmyer, Daniel L., Keightley, David N., Shaughnessy, Edward L., Cook, Constance A., and Harper, Donald. 1995. “Chinese Religions—The State of the Field Part I: Early Religious Traditions: The Neolithic Period through the Han Dynasty, ca. 4000 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.” Journal of Asian Studies 54(1):124–60.
Wanli, Qu. 1983. Shījīng quánshì 詩經詮釋 [Explanatory notes to the Book of odes]. Taipei: Guójiā túshūguǎn chūbǎnshè.
Rhody, Lisa M. 2012. “Topic Modeling and Figurative Language.” Journal of Digital Humanities 2(1). (accessed July 15, 2016).
Schmidt, Benjamin M. 2012. “Words Alone: Dismantling Topic Models in the Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities 2(1). (accessed July 15, 2016).
Slingerland, Edward. 2000. “Why Philosophy Is Not ‘Extra’ in Understanding the Analects .” Review of The Original Analects by E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks. Philosophy East and West 50(1):137–41.
Slingerland, Edward. 2003. Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China. New York: Oxford University Press.
Slingerland, Edward, and Chudek, Maciej. 2011. “The Prevalence of Mind-Body Dualism in Early China.” Cognitive Science 35(5):9971007. doi:10.1111/j.1551-6709.2011.01186.x.
Slingerland, Edward, Nichols, Ryan, Nielbo, Kristoffer, and Logan, Carson. Forthcoming. “The Distant Reading of Religious Texts A ‘Big Data’ Approach to Mind-Body Concepts in Early China.Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
Twitchett, Denis Crispin, and Lowe, Michael. 1986. The Cambridge History of China Volume 1: The Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 BC–AD 220. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Underwood, Ted. 2012a. “Topic Modeling Made Just Simple Enough.” The Stone and the Shell, April 7. (accessed July 15, 2016).
Underwood, Ted. 2012b. “What Kinds of ‘Topics’ Does Topic Modeling Actually Produce?” The Stone and the Shell, April 1. (accessed July 15, 2016).
Van Norden, Bryan W. 1992. “Mengzi and Xunzi: Two Views of Human Agency.” International Philosophical Quarterly 32(2):161–84. doi:10.5840/ipq199232212.
Van Norden, Bryan W. trans. 2008. Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Xiānshèn, Wáng 王先慎, ed. 2006. Hánfēizi jíjiě 韓非子集解 [Collected commentaries on the Hanfeizi]. Beijing: Zhōnghuá shūjú.
Weingart, Scott. 2012. Topic Modeling for Humanists: A Guided Tour. (accessed July 15, 2016).
Wills, John Elliot. 2012. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
Wilson, Thomas. 2014. “Spirits and the Soul in Confucian Ritual Discourse.” Journal of Chinese Religions 42(2):185212. doi:10.1179/0737769X14Z.00000000013.
Wong, David B. 1991. “Is There a Distinction between Reason and Emotion in Mencius?Philosophy East and West 41(1):3144. doi:10.2307/1399716.
Fuguan, 徐復觀. 1969. Zhongguo renxing lun shi: Xian Qin pian [History of Chinese views on human nature: The pre-Qin period]. Taipei: Commercial Press.
Zhang, Longxi. 2012. The Concept of Humanity in an Age of Globalization. Göttingen: V&R Unipress.
Zipf, George Kingsley. 1949. Human Behaviour and the Principle of Least Effort. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Journal of Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-9118
  • EISSN: 1752-0401
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-asian-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 10
Total number of PDF views: 72 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 634 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 19th February 2018 - 24th April 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.