Analect 3.8 quotes from the Book of Songs, 碩人 - Shuo Ren which is Airs of Wei 57 in Waley's version.   『巧笑倩兮,美目盼兮,素以為絢兮。』 But the last 5 characters do not occur in the Book of Songs as we have it.

Confucius seems to read that quote as saying something about black and white in the woman's eyes or complexion.   And Waley translates the poem in the form we do still have, where he interprets  盼 in the phrase 巧笑倩兮。 美目盼兮。as somehow referring to black and white.  

The Chinese Text Project website indeed finds a phrase in the Shuowen, and then in the Kangxi dictionary associating the character  盼  with 目黑白分明也。But I think that comes from interpretations of the Analects.  I do not see any examples of usage in the Pre-Han and Qin texts on that site, except for Analect 3.8, where  盼 seems to mean that.  Most often it means "hoping," and most often that is hoping for a son.  They do once give 之馬之目盼則為之馬盼 as meaning a horse's eyes, and the horse, are blind.

I know from experience that I may well be missing something on the Chinese Text Project website.  But what is the reason for thinking that 美目盼兮,素以為絢兮 means a woman's eyes are distinctly black and white? It seems to me more natural to associate it with "longing" in, or for, the woman's eyes.

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    盼 does not appear to be associated with 盼望 until the Yuan Dynasty, and the character 盼 lacks paleogrpahic samples for us to determine specific on. "Black and white", well, I would have guessed it came from a verse-reading from 巧笑倩兮, and assuming that a stark contrast between the black and whites of eyes is somehow "美" in that era. Language-wise, maybe read 盼 as cognate to 分 (distinguish, contrast). – dROOOze Feb 25 at 6:47
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    Perhaps 盼 is also a 亦聲字 (e.g. 授, 坪; the phonogram is also semantically relevant). However, would Shuowen Jiezi have included '分亦聲' in its definition if that were the case? – L Parker Feb 25 at 7:28
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    @dROOOze It seems to me that both 太玄經 - Tai Xuan and 韓詩外傳 - Han Shi Wai at ctext.org/pre-qin-and-han?searchu=盼 are Han sources for 盼 as hope. Is that wrong? – Colin McLarty Feb 25 at 16:02
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    Oh, thanks for finding that - I didn't look deep enough. I'm a bit wary of Han & earlier appearances of 盼 though - unless it was a professional transcription from excavated texts, what appears as 盼 might be a misreading of 盻 (and this goes the other way too). – dROOOze Feb 25 at 17:08
  1. This is not a Waley phenomenon. The majority of English translators of Shih-ching (in the absence of 素以為絢兮) follow strictly the preachings of Shuowen Jiezi when interpreting 盼 in 美目盼兮, to varying extents of literality.
Legge 1871:95 How lovely her eyes, with the black and white so well-defined!
Legge 1876:104 With dark and lucid eyes, showed face beyond compare.
Jennings 1891:83 Beautiful eyes, so dark, so bright!
Waley 1937:80 The lovely eyes so black and white.
Karlgren 1950:38 Her beautiful eyes are well-defined black and white.
Pound 1954:28 Clear white, gainst black iris.

Legge and Waley also translated III.8 of The Analects in the same manner. Some other translators of The Analects choose to interpret the quote (in the presence of 素以為絢兮) more liberally, but still do not use the more common verbal meaning 'to look' except Lau 1979. Note even in Lau's interpretation the much derived meaning 'to hope for' is not adopted.

Lyall 1909 Her lovely eyes, So clear and bright
Soothill 1910:191 Her bewitching eyes shew their colours so clear
Lau 1979 Her beautiful eyes glancing

My take on this matter is that 素以為絢兮 may be a Confucian (in the sense that the dialogue between Confucius and Tzu-hsia that follows it centres on not the quoted poem, but 絢 as a metaphor for 禮) annotation of the preceding verse 美目盼兮; or a piece of yishi (逸詩, lit. lost poem). If the former be the case, the contrast of colour between 素 and 絢 may also help justify interpreting 盼 as 'black and white well defined'. See more of 素以為絢 here. Another weaker (and potentially flawed) justification is that in order for the couplet 巧笑倩兮,美目盼兮 to have matching parts of speech, 盼 should be adjectival.

  1. This article, however, unearths several annotations of the phrase of concern that provide a different explanation:



Apparently, not every source listed above agrees with the Shuowen Jiezi school. Especially striking is the interpretation of Ma Rong, an Eastern Han scholar and a contemporary of Xu Shen. But this was not published until the Qing Dynasty in the Ruan ke annotation, which may weaken the credibility of the quote.

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    Oh! I would no more fault Waley for this, or for anything, than I would fault the sun for today being cloudy. But I do believe Waley and many others follow Shuowen in following traditional Confucian readings of analect 3.8 here more than following the text of the poem. – Colin McLarty Feb 25 at 13:25

in 論語集解義疏 volume 2, by 何晏 (p108-110 of the pdf), the remark stated:


mr 馬 [a scholar in han dynasty] said (馬融曰), . . . “盼” means “the appearance of moving eye [seeing]” (動目貌), . . . the [origin of the] last verse is lost (其下一句逸也)

judging from the question, i think that you’re “lost in translation” 😿 the english translation provided by ctext.org is, imo, misleading.


roughly, in drawing, one first lay down the colours (凡畫繪先布衆采), then use white to separate them (然後以素分其間), in order to make the pattern (以成其文—->紋). the metaphor is (喻): thought a pretty woman smiles often and is smart (美女雖有倩盼美質), it’s still need (亦須) good manners (禮) to perfect it (以成也)

therefore, the text in analect 3.8, i would interpreted it as:


子夏 didn’t understand the meaning of the three verses, he asked confucius “what does it mean” (子夏問曰:「『巧笑倩兮,美目盼兮,素以為絢兮。』何謂也?」)

confucius answered with a metaphor [of drawing, that in drawing, lay down colours first, then apply white colour] (子曰:「繪事素。」)

子夏 get the meaning of this metaphor immediately, said “[so, it’s] good manners (禮) [is what we need] afterwards? (乎)

confucius only answered with a metaphor of drawing; however, 子夏 was smart enough to understand “white” imply “good manners” (以素喻禮). so confucius exclaimed that “he can discuss with him about the book of odes” (子曰:「起予者商也!始可與言詩已矣。」)

have fun :)

  • Wonderful. He Yan's 動目貌 parallels a common phrase for impressive eyes in Ancient Greek: "Glancing eyed" (can be a man or woman). You are surely right about the literal words of 3.8 but the heavily interpreted version seems to be very old in Confucian tradition. – Colin McLarty Feb 25 at 13:43
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    @ColinMcLarty, indeed i checked several interpretations of analect 3.8, of 宋, 清 dynasty, the one i provided is the most straightforward, and easiest to comprehend 😸 – 水巷孑蠻 Feb 25 at 13:48

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