11/02/2012 12:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Are Some Quotes That Have Been Significantly Misinterpreted?

This question originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Faye Wang,

There's a widely misunderstood quote by Confucius: 民可使由之,不可使知之.

The traditional translation goes as so:"(as a ruler) you can control your people but you can't let them know the purpose of your policies." It's a very Machiavellian ruling scheme and has always been used against Confucius and his ethics.

However, a more modern interpretation believes that the sentence break is wrong, thus changing the meaning completely. You see, classical Chinese didn't have punctuation, it relied on whoever is reading it to break the sentence properly. So the old break goes:


(if people can be controlled, let's control them)


(but you can't let them know your purpose)

The new sentence break goes:


(if people understand, let them do what they want)


(if people don't understand, we need to educate them)

As you can see, this changes the meaning completely. Confucius is not Machiavelli talking about how a ruler should scheme against his people, but rather he's talking about enlightening the ordinary people and giving them freedom.

I personally agree with the second interpretation; it goes well with Confucius's other teachings, and the sentence break seems neater than the traditional one.

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