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寡人 and other ways of rulers referring to themselves


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fireball9261 says:

gbevers, "之 - go" is one way to think of it. I generally translate 之 to be "of" in the same usage as the Japanese character の. (It is the only Japanese character I could remember and know how to translate

In modern usage, 之" has taken on the meaning of possesisve as の in Japanese, or 的 in modern baihua..

Seems to me "之" has a wider and different meaning in "classical Chinese" literature.

It one English-Chinese dictionary I found "之" defined as:

[1] subordinate particle;[2] [AC] [LL] [v] go to; leave for; arrive at [3] zigzag; winding; S-shaped road [4] [n] expletive [5] [LL] it; him her; them (used in objective case) [6] [AC] this; that; these; those [7] possessive particle; of [8] [AC] until [9] to

In this passage from the "San zi jing" talking about the end of the Tang Dynasty, after 300 years, it says:

二十傳 三百載 梁滅 國乃改

梁滅 means:

Liang destroyed "it", referring to the entire prior paragraph.

In the case of 寡人之於國也, in the segment "寡人之", I see "", pointing back to 寡人. meaning:

(the) "humble person" + "that I am"

And then taking the "於" relating the "國" to the "寡人之"

So, one asks, what is the relationship between the "寡人之" and "國", as related by the particle "於"???

In the "old days", the absolute sovereign is responsible for the governance of HIS kingdom, with the emphasis is on the word HIS.

Would the words "towards", or "in", or "with" as we were discussed previously accurate and sufficient to describe the relation between sovereign and kingdom?? . In Legge's translation, he has it as "in the governnment of".

So in Legge's translation, he has 寡人之於國也 as:

'Small as my virtue is, in the government of my kingdom", is a not a bad rendtion from what I can see.


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SChinFChin, I think you are onto something! It's a good explanation.

Btw, "寡人" is like "寡德之人". That is why it is translated as "small as my virtue is".

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  • 5 weeks later...
fireball9261: SChinFChin, I think you are onto something! It's a good explanation.

Btw, "寡人" is like "寡德之人". That is why it is translated as "small as my virtue is".

fireball9261,SChinFChin, Are you guys joking or serious? I have not read the entire thread, but this 寡人" is like "寡德之人" caught my eyes. 寡人 was the name ancient kings to call themselves. It meant he was the only one who could rule. It was just like 朕 to the emperor, no others could use it, it was used by the emperor only. 寡 means scarce, few/little, 人, of course, means person. So 寡人means the only/special person in the world. 寡人 has nothing to do with moral or virtue. Another name just like 寡人 used by kings is 孤家. So there is an idiom of 孤家寡人,meaning he is the only one and loses supports from the others.

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I apologize for my boldness and ignorance, since I never read “注音符号”。

However, IMHO, 寡人in the case of “寡人之於國也,盡心焉耳矣” can be simply translated as “I” without mentioning 'Small as my virtue is”. Frankly speaking, I doubt how sincere the King was when he meant “small as my virtue is”, it is quite misleading to add “small as my virtue” when giving the translation here.

Just my two cents. Thank you for your patience and explanation.

By the way, how did the ancient scholars explain the term of 孤家?

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I apologize for my boldness and ignorance, since I never read “注音符号”。

However, IMHO, 寡人in the case of “寡人之於國也,盡心焉耳矣” can be simply translated as “I” without mentioning 'Small as my virtue is”. Frankly speaking, I doubt how sincere the King was when he meant “small as my virtue is”, it is quite misleading to add “small as my virtue” when giving the translation here.

Just my two cents. Thank you for your patience and explanation.

By the way, how did the ancient scholars explain the term of 孤家?

Refer to this article on 寡人:


As to 孤家, I hear the term 孤王 sung often in old operas when the king refers to himself.. The article made mention of the use of the term 孤 when the sovereign refers to himself, again, exemplifyng modesty.

It may have evolved from "孤家寡人" as explained here:


Apparently, how the sovereign refers to himself evolved through the years, as explained, with 寡人 used extensively prior to the Qin dynasty, especially during the "warring states peiod", but used very little if at all after the Tang dynasty, with 孤 among one of several appellations used later, starting with the "three kingdoms period. The Qin emporer used 朕. Other terms found in historical records includes 不谷. Even each of the soveriegns of the "three kingdoms" reportedly refers to himself differently.

Another term used in Royal Proclamations is 天子, or the "son of heaven".

While it is true this is the term ancient kings used to refer to themselves, and can be condensed to a simple "I" in modern parlance, a more technical reading of 寡人 refers to a "virtuous person", as explained, meaning “寡德之人".

The simplicity of the modern "I" does not capture the literal splendor nor the poetic spirit of "寡人" IMHO. Sovereigns often refers to himself in the "3rd person", as officials nowadays say "this office". In western literature, the sovereign can refer to himself as "the throne", a more grandiose version of "I".

And in the famous words of King Louis XIV of France "L'etat c'est mois" (I am the state), an absolute monarch does not see himself simply as "I", as you would see it with 21st century eyes and sensabilities. In ancient China, it ranges from the humble 寡人 of pre-imperial days to the arrogant royal 朕 of the Qin Emporer.

As to whether King Liang meant it or not, it's not a question of his being sincere, it is simply a matter of ettiquette. Now, there's even a historical question of whether the conversation with King Liang really took place, if at all, or if it's just an imagined dialogue. But even not, Mencius at least wanted to portray the decorum and protocol expected of a King. The conversation supposedly took place at a royal court, not some idle chat with a buddy at McDonald's.

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Btw, 朕 was neither royal nor arrogant during the Warring States Period. Qu Yuan in his poems also referred to himself as 朕 because it was a common way of calling oneself before Qin dynasty.

Please see the explanation of 朕, here: http://zdic.net/zd/zi/ZdicE6Zdic9CZdic95.htm.




The first and last lines were from Qu Yuan's poem, 离骚 (li2 sao1). The 2nd line was from the famous Han dynasty scholar, 蔡邕's writing, 《独断》, and he said, "In ancient time, everyone no matter their positions all called (themselves) 朕.

蔡邕 (cao4 yong1): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cai_Yong

独断 (du2 duan4):

Du Duan, written by CAI Yong who was a famous writer and calligrapher in the East Han Dynasty,has been widely quoted by many books since it was published. It has a high historical value in studying ancient China (especially the East Han Dynasty) government system and customs etc. In this paper,some words and sentences in this book is collated,and the problems is exists are introducted briefly.

The above quote is from: http://dlib.cnki.net/kns50/detail.aspx?filename=XFXY200006012&dbname=CJFD2000


I agree with you the additional translation pointing to the virtue sounds a bit too much. I think the translator was trying to show the "splendid" original meaning of the term. I could go either way with this translation. Personally, I think the translator was trying to show off his splendid knowledge in classical Chinese. :mrgreen:

Please see the following online dictionary for detailed explanation for 孤:


This entry also has many of the quotes from ancient texts, etc. From the note portion of the book,吕氏春秋 (Spring and Autumn of Lu) in the chapter 君守 (jun1 shou3), it did mention that 孤 as the "humble" self description for princes or emperors. I think it could mean both as the lonely or isolated one (since they are the only one on top) or the orphan (not having the father due to the fact that he wouldn't be the king or emperor if his father was still alive, wouldn't he? :mrgreen:)

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I agree with you the additional translation pointing to the virtue sounds a bit too much. I think the translator was trying to show the "splendid" original meaning of the term. I could go either way with this translation. Personally, I think the translator was trying to show off his splendid knowledge in classical Chinese

In my prior post of the three translations available, if you refer back a page or two. two of them actually had it down as simply an "I".

In my view, it's an issue of clarity. Another way of handling is to translate it as "I" with a footnote saying "that's a way ancient kings refer to themselves, and it means ...". But to me, this method seems a bit awkward, and undoubtedly, would lead to a horrible translation full of footnotes.

In fact, we wouldn't be having this discussion had Legge not pointed this out with his "splendid knowledge in classical Chinese".

In many other cultures, including the Egyption Pharoah's, got grandiose names referring to themselves, and after reading it, I recall saying to myself "that's very interesting". At least I learned a point of history. Had the translator simply decided it was stupid and no one needs to know, translated it as "I", the point would have been lost.

In translations, I feel more is better. Let the reader decide!! If it's too much, then it's too much, but hey, that's what the man said. And this reminds me of a funny story my dad told me.

In the old days, because of discriminatory immigration laws, Chinese people often try to "legally come in" as someone else, a process called "paper sons". Anyway, immigration interrogators would ask many questions trying to trip them up. But Chinese translators were often bribed to give the correct answers regardless what was said.

The funny thing was, a Chinese person would often give a long answer, and the translation would turn out to be incredibly short. Sometimes, the interrogator would scratch their heads and say "are you sure??, sounds like he said a lot more than that".

The translators standard response: "Chinese language is very funny, they always have a long way of saying something short".

Which reminds me of this conversation with King Liang.

BTW, I appreciate your knowledge and learned a lot from these discussions. Thanks for all the additional info. As I mentioned, in listening to operas, I hear 孤 used often but not the other terms, and I always assumed it's "lonely at the top" meaning. I had not listened to Chinese operas in years since I married as it gives my wife headaches.

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SChinFChin and fireball9261,

Thank you for the detailed explanation from both of you, I actually did not expect neither of you would answer my question after I dropped the bomb.

SchinFChin, my apology to you, as I said before I did not read the entire thread when I posted my first post here, so that I did not realize you were very much into your translation work. As fireball9261said, you have shown your amazing knowledge in classic Chinese. I agree to that in your work, you should translate 寡人 as a "virtuous person".

What I only want to say is when I was in the school, we were not taught 寡人meaning寡德之人, it was probably because with such a long history full of many tyrants and 昏君, that those emperors and kings referred themselves as 寡德之人 sounded too much like a joke. Even now I have known that 寡人meaning寡德之人 and if I am asked to translate ancient Chinese to current Chinese, I will not translate it as a "virtuous person", because I feel it is simply rhetoric. However, as I said, for your translation, that is another story.

At last, thank you both for your patience. I, too, have learned a lot from your links and posts.

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  • 1 year later...
3. In the second text, 管仲 seems to refer to himself as 寡人, even though he is not the ruler. If he was referring to his ruler, he should have used 寡君 instead. 寡人 is usually reserved for rulers, so is it just plain arrogance?

王力's interpretation is indeed that 寡人 refers to 管仲, but my annotated 三民 edition says it refers to his ruler instead, with 管仲 using it to relay his orders. Interesting contrast with the envoy of the king of Chu in the next sentence, though, since he uses 寡君. I tried glancing over the Chinese Text Project to see if I could find more examples of ministers rather than rulers using 寡人, but the lack of quotation marks there makes it quite a chore to quickly figure out who is the speaker in all those texts.

But as far as the usage of 寡人 is concerned, Pulleyblank has another example from Zuozhuan where it clearly DOES NOT refer to the ruler, as the rule is mentioned in the same sentence:

寡人之從君而西也,亦晉之妖夢是踐. guǎ rén zhī cóng jūn ér xī yě, yì Jìn zhī yāo mèng yāo shì jiàn. That I am following my ruler and going to West, surely fulfills my strange dream in Jin. (ex. 233, Zuozhuan)

It's from 僖公十五年, have a look here: as far as I can make out, this is said by a minister of Jin who has gone to Qin.

Edited by chrix
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I see what you mean, and it's difficult for me to comment without first reading the entire text. I can, however, point out that even here the 三民 edition of the 左傳 translates this into Mandarin as "our ruler". Page 352:


According to the annotation, this refers to a dream by a minister of Jin called 狐突, in which it's predicted Duke Hui will be defeated in 韓. This is to have been described in 僖公十年. In a note appended to an earlier paragraph of the same text, 三民's edition comments:


I'm kind of curious now. Perhaps I'll read this text when we're done with the other excerpts from the 左傳.

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According to the reference below, officials during the Jin Dynasty also like to refer to themselves as 寡人. But from the Tang Dynasty onward 寡人 was only used by the emperor.



三是晋朝士大夫有时亦用寡人为自称。《世说新语•文学》:“君辈勿尔,将受困寡人女婿。” 李详云:“晋世寡人,上下通称,不以为过。孙过庭《书谱》述王羲之语:‘假令寡人耽之若此,未必谢之。’可为此条确证。”到唐朝以后,只准皇帝用寡人作谦称。

Wikipedia has an interesting article on the use of 寡人 and the different uses of 不穀 and 孤.



"朕" is another pronoun that was originally used to refer to "I" generally, but starting from the Qin Dynasty, it was allowed to be used by the emperor.

I wonder if such instances of royal takeover of the personal pronouns also exist in other languages?






Edited by gato
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Well, gato, as far as the Classical period (pre-Qin) is concerned, Pulleyblank, Wang Li and Daan's annotation of Zuozhuan all seem to concur that 寡人 was to be used exclusively by princes (I'm not sure if the King of Zhou used that too). Yes, interesting difference in usage. So in that one story from Zuozhuan (僖公三十二年), when the Duke of Qin receives the generals he sent off to a disastrous campaign against Jin, his use of 孤 is also meant as an act of contrition, I suppose.

As far as "pronominal takeover" goes, I'm sure stuff like that has happened. We have to see though that the abundance of different pronouns is a feature of East Asian and SE Asian languages, so some linguists also are hesitant to call them pronouns, referring to them as nouns instead (and originally most of them were nouns). Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indonesian all have this kind of phenomenon, as far as I'm aware, and there's likely to be more like that in the area. The process usually goes in the other direction, though: a word used by a high-standing person gets to be used by lower-standing persons as well. I know that Japanese rulers used 朕 and 余・予 as well (余・予 was used by the warrior class, and if you have seen Letters from Iwojima,

: 予は常に諸子の先頭に在り), but nowadays the Japanese emperor uses 私 watashi (though I don't know what he uses when performing Shinto rituals).

It's a bit different, but I can find some kind of parallel to what I've heard about the usage of du/ni in Swedish (like tu/vous in French). Due to various reasons, it's become quite common for Swedes to almost exclusively use du with each other. There are some older people who still cling to the difference, and also the King, who has declared that he insists on everybody using ni towards him. Now I don't know if he in turn addresses his subjects with ni, or with du. Maybe Lugubert can shed light on this...

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gato, about 朕, Pulleyblank writes that in the Shang era oracle bone inscriptions, together with 余 it refers "(almost) exclusively to the king himself". 余 fell out of use by the classical period, and 朕 very rarely appears in Classical texts, until it is picked up by the Qin emperor. So it looks more like he revived an obsolescent pronoun (and it is unclear if the royal use in the oracle bone inscriptions is just because it was mostly written from the king's perspective, or whether it was already reserved for royalty back then), rather than take it out of the commoners' hands (or mouths as it were)

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  • 2 weeks later...

朕 seems to be used by kings to address themselves. In my kiddy version of 西遊記 it is used that way. I'm also watching the serial Towards the Republic (走向共和) and 朕 is used by the Qing emperor to address himself.

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