Book 3 of the Analects features some quite astonishing tirades from Confucius against the Three Families, the real power behind the throne of his home state of Lu, for what he saw as their shameless violations of the ancient ritual ceremonies and proprieties that he believed were essential for a civilized society.
In Chapter I, Confucius lambasts the head of the Ji Family for employing eight rows of dancers to take part in ritual ceremonies at his ancestral temple when according to tradition he should only have been allowed four.
In Chapter II, he goes on to attack all the Three Families for performing a forbidden ode from the Book of Songs in their ancestral sacrifices. Then in Chapter VI, he lashes out at his disciple Ran Qiu for his inability (or unwillingness) to stop the head of the Ji Family from carrying out a sacrifice on the sacred Mount Tai.
For Confucius, this is the thin end of the wedge: if the Three Families are capable of usurping ceremonial privileges that according to tradition were reserved for the emperor and ruler of the state, they are a capable of usurping anything. Civilization as he knows it is doomed!
In Chapter IV, Confucius settles down a little when discussing the essence of the rites. He tells the disciple Lin Fang that “simplicity is better than extravagance” when it comes to festive ceremonies and that “genuine grief is better than excessive formality” for funerals. In other words, it is the spirit in which a person participates in rites that is the most important consideration. As he points out in Chapter XII, you need to immerse yourself completely in the rituals you attend: “If I am not fully present at the sacrifice, it’s as if I didn’t attend the sacrifice at all.”
In Chapter IX, Confucius returns to the offensive, indirectly criticizing the rulers of the state of Lu for their failure to properly preserve the rites handed down from the Zhou dynasty. In the next two chapters, he ramps up the intensity of the attack, going as far as to storm out of an important sacrifice to the great imperial ancestor because he is so enraged at the manner in which it is being conducted.
In Chapter XV, he calms down again and follows the standard ritual practice during a visit to the Grand Ancestral Temple by politely and modestly asking questions about it even though in all probability he already knew the answers to them.
In Chapter XIX, he touches upon the relationship between the rites and good governance. When asked by Duke Ding of Lu how a lord should treat his ministers, Confucius replies that he should treat them “in accordance with the rites” – in other words with civility and respect.
In Chapter XXII, when giving his verdict on Guan Zhong, a famous prime minister of the state of Qi, Confucius criticizes him for his extravagant lifestyle and contraventions of the rites as a proxy for attacking his dismantling of some aspects of traditional Zhou dynasty culture during the course of the political reforms he carried out.
Confucius can’t have made too many friends in high places with his zealous pursuit of ritual purity, particularly as many of his criticisms featured thinly-veiled attacks on the members of the ruling class of Lu – the very people he was seeking to persuade to mend their ways.
His sense of outrage is no doubt even sharper because he knows that for all his bluster he has no power at all to prevent the Three Families from strengthening their hold over Lu. All he can do is watch from the sidelines, knowing that any barbs he throws at them will have no impact at all.
Book 3 also includes comments from Confucius about music and archery, two disciplines very closely linked to the rites. Indeed, Confucius saw the ancient ceremonial music of the Emperor Shun as the ultimate embodiment of the rites and the apex of human achievement.
He also regarded archery a more of a ritual than a mere contest. In Chapter VI, he advises that a leader should avoid competing with others, before adding: “But if he does have to compete, it should be at archery.” He expands on this point in Chapter XVI by saying: “In archery, it does not matter whether you pierce the target, because archers may have different levels of strength.”
Towards the end of the book in Chapter XXIV, Confucius encounters a border official when leaving the state of Lu for exile after supporting a failed attempt by Duke Ding to rein in the the power of the Three Families. After the meeting, the official tells Confucius’s accompanying disciples that “Heaven is going to use your master like the wooden clapper of a bell.”
Unfortunately, the official’s confidence in Heaven was misplaced. During his fourteen years of wandering, Confucius was never able to secure an influential position with any of the rulers of the states he visited; and it took hundreds of years after his death before his teachings achieved any sort of influence.