When Yan Hui asked how to govern a state, Confucius said: “Observe the calendar of the Xia Dynasty; ride in the chariot of Yin Dynasty; wear the ceremonial cap of the Zhou Dynasty. As for music, follow the Coronation Hymn of Shun and the Victory Hymn of Wu. Ban the music of Zheng. Stay away from smooth talkers. The music of Zheng corrupts. Smooth talkers are dangerous.”
Far from advising his favorite disciple Yan Hui to copy slavishly from the past, Confucius is telling him to adopt only the finest traditions and practices from previous dynasties.
The Xia Dynasty was the first recorded Chinese dynasty and is said to have run from 2070 BC to 1600 BC. Its calendar is believed to have followed the natural rhythms of the seasons more closely than subsequent ones and hence been more useful to the agricultural population.
The Yin Dynasty, which is also known as the Shang Dynasty, succeeded the Xia Dynasty and lasted from 1600 BC to 1046 BC. Its chariots were made of wood only and were praised for their simplicity.
The Zhou Dynasty succeeded the Yin Dynasty and lasted from 1046 BC to 256 BC. Confucius’s hero, the Duke of Zhou, was said to have played an instrumental role in the consolidation of the dynasty’s power and the establishment of the feudal system that underpinned it. It is not clear why Confucius was such as fan of its caps.
Confucius was a big fan of music, not just for its aesthetic beauty but also because he saw it as the embodiment of cultural sophistication and civilization. He was a particularly passionate lover of the Coronation Hymn of Shun, which was believed by some to have been written by the legendary sage king of the same name from the 23rd century AD; you can read more about this here.
As for the notorious melodies of Zheng, Confucius castigates them further in Chapter XVIII of Book 17 for corrupting the classical music of the court (惡鄭聲之亂雅樂也). Sadly no records of them survive; so there’s no way of us knowing what the fuss was all about.
By the way, this is the last time that Yan Hui, Confucius’s favorite disciple, is mentioned. You can read more about him here.