Confucius say….

For many years I have wanted to find a fortune cookie that actually had a piece of paper with “Confucius Say:…” followed by an actual quote from Confucius. I am not betting on it, one because the ‘Confucius Say’ thing is dead in U.S. fortune cookies1 and, more importantly, because Confucius has still not become a historical figure in the West. By this I mean that quotes from the big C are usually the standard “You wantee eggwoll with that?” Eastern Wisdom stuff. Just like there are lots of people who think that the main take away from Socrates is “Like sands of the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” and that the central message of Buddhism is “Every man for himself.” there are lots of people who are happy to quote Confucius without making any effort to find out what the text actually says, in a way they would never do with Emerson or Henry Kissinger.

This came to mind while reading about the Confucius Institute in the Times Higher Education supplement. Here I learned that “The wheel of fortune turns round incessantly, the Chinese philosopher Confucius said.” I didn’t remember that from Analects, or anywhere else, and while it turns up on Google lists of quotes from Confucius the locus classicus seems to be Oliver Goldsmith who cites Confucius as saying “The wheel of fortune turns incessantly round; and who can say within himself I shall to-day be uppermost”. I was actually pretty happy to find this, as it is an actual classical source for this quote2 I assume the author was using the quote to make some sort of subtle point about the differences between Confucius and foreign understandings of his ideas, but I am not quite sure what that point was.

So, what are your favourite bits of Eastern Wisdom, and have you been able to figure out where they come from?


  1. Was it ever common? I don’t remember ever seeing it. 

  2. Goldsmith counts 


  1. I recently found a lovely little blog, Fake Buddha Quotes, which has been immensely useful on social media.

    The best fortune cookie I ever got said “You will soon be contacted by aliens.” Still waiting.

    But no, I’ve never seen or actually heard of a “Confucius say” fortune.

  2. Jonathan,

    Thanks for the Buddha thing, tie that together with Hazismatter and you would really have something.

    Song Qian

    Welcome to the blog. I am glad to see you put Confucius in there, but, at least in the humanities, a journal would want a proper citation to Analects 15:10, and maybe even to a specific edition. That is sort of my point. You can’t treat Western philosophers so cavalierly in print.

  3. I always grin when the non-Chinese *Chinese* maxim: “May you live in interesting times” pops-up. Like many people I took it for being true until I wanted to use it in a piece of writing and so I diligently tried to track down the source – turns out it might have originated in an American comic book c.1950s, and so, like Fu Manchu, it has no connection to China at all!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.