Plain white silk

子夏問曰:「巧笑倩兮,美目盼兮,素以為絢兮。何謂也?」子曰:「繪事後素。」曰:「禮後乎?」子曰:「起予者商也!始可與言詩矣。」
Zixia asked: “What do these verses mean: ‘Ah, the lovely dimples of her artful smile Ah, the black and white of her beautiful eyes! It’s on plain white silk that colors sparkle.’” Confucius said: “Painting comes after plain white silk.” Zixia said: “Are the rites also something that comes afterwards?” Confucius said: “You have opened up my eyes to true meaning of these verses! It is only with a man like you that I can discuss the Book of Songs!”

Confucius and his disciple Zixia reprise the poetic banter that they began in Chapter XV of Book 1 of the Analects, on this occasion reciting two verses from Poem 57 of the Book of Songs.

I say two because the third verse cannot actually be found in the collection even though it is pivotal to this exchange. By asking whether “the rites (are) also something that comes afterwards”, Zixia is showing that he understands the point of Confucius’s remark that “painting comes after plain white silk”: namely that the rites aren’t a universal panacea for everyone and should only be inculcated in people who have the right character traits such as humility and trustworthiness. Trying to teach them to others would be useless.

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