A whistle-stop dynastic tour

Confucius said: “How can I talk about the rites of the Xia Dynasty? The state of Qi has not preserved sufficient evidence. How can I talk about the rites of Yin Dynasty? The state of Song has not preserved sufficient evidence. There are not enough written records and learned men; if there were, I could obtain evidence from them.”

Confucius is of course making an underlying point with his brief whistle-stop tour of the history of ancient China, and it’s not directed at either the states of Qi and Song for their failure to preserve the cultural heritage passed down from the Xia and Yin Dynasties.

He is instead obliquely criticizing the leadership of the state of Lu for its failure to preserve the culture bequeathed by the Zhou Dynasty even though the historical records from that (probably mythical) golden age had been preserved.

Whether or not anybody in the ruling class of Lu actually picked up on his subtle allusion is open to question; even if some did, his words don’t seem have stimulated him to take any concrete action to address the problem. Sometimes, Confucius could be far too clever for his own good.

The Xia Dynasty was the first dynasty on record, and stretched from 2070 to 1600 BC. When it was overthrown by the Shang Dynasty, some members of the royal family set up the state of Qi in what is now Henan province and continued their sacrificial rituals towards their ancestors there.

Although the state of Qi was small, it had strong symbolic importance because of its historical links to the Xia Dynasty. Confucius is said to have visited Qi, which survived until 445 BC, but as his comment in this passage shows he was less than impressed by what he saw there.

The Yin Dynasty, often called the Shang Dynasty, was the second major dynasty in China’s history and lasted from 1600 – 1029 BC. Under the succeeding Eastern Zhou Dynasty, Song was established as a vassal state for surviving members of the royal family of the Shang Dynasty, who were allowed to continue worshipping their ancestors like their counterparts from Qi. During the course of its history, Song was a center of intense political intrigue before being finally annexed by the state of Qi in 286 BC.

According to some sources such as the Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian, Confucius’s ancestors were members of the ruling family of the state of Song and thus descendants of the Xia Dynasty kings. His great grandfather is said to have migrated from the state of Song to the state of Lu near present-day Qufu, where Confucius was born.

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