Zizhang asked: “Can we predict the future ten generations from now?” Confucius said: “The Yin dynasty adopted the rites of the Xia dynasty; we know what was dropped and what was added. The Zhou dynasty borrowed from the rites of the Yin dynasty: we know what was dropped and what was added. If the Zhou dynasty has successors, we know what they will be like, even a hundred generations from now.”
I wonder how Confucius would feel now about his confident assertion that “we know what they (the rites) will be like, even a hundred generations from now.” Currently we have reached the 77th generation of his descendants, and China is changing at an astounding rate as a result of the country’s rapid modernization. It’s anyone’s guess what China will be like when the sage’s 100th-generation descendant makes his or her appearance.
Although Confucius is perceived by many as a diehard conservative, this passage shows that he was realistic enough to understand that society and culture change over time, with each successive dynasty or generation dropping the less useful aspects from the past and adding new, more useful ones that better suits its times and circumstances.
Indeed, this ability to evolve while preserving its strongest features is one of the hallmarks of Chinese culture and has enabled it to continuously endure much longer than any of its other global counterparts. Perhaps Confucius was right after all in being so confident that he could foresee what things would be like so far into the future: while the outer manifestations may be different, the inner core will remain the same.
The Xia, Yin, and Zhou were the first three dynasties recorded in Chinese history. The Xia Dynasty dates from between 2070 and 1600 BC; the Yin or Shang Dynasty ran from 1600 to 1046 BC; and the Zhou Dynasty was between 1045 and 220 BC. Much of the Zhou Dynasty was characterized by periods of extreme instability during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, which took place from 722- 481 BC and 403 – 221 BC respectively.
Confucius lived during the latter part of the Spring and Autumn Period from 551 to 479 BC. He dreamed of bringing order to the chaos around him by reviving the values and traditions of the past in the same way that his hero the Duke of Zhou laid the foundations for the consolidation of Zhou Dynasty five hundred years before him.