Putting things back to rites

When he heard that the head of the Ji Family used eight rows of dancers to perform in the ceremonies at his ancestral temple, Confucius commented: “If he is capable of that, what isn’t he capable of?”

When the Three Families performed the Yong ode while the vessels were being removed at the end of their ancestral sacrifices, Confucius said: “‘The lords are in attendance, the Son of Heaven sits solemnly on his throne.’ How can such words be used in the halls of the Three Families?”

Like some Blimpish British Army colonel of yore spluttering over his morning breakfast at news of the latest decline in civilization that he has just read about in the Daily Telegraph, Confucius is outraged – yes, outraged – when he hears about the liberties the Three Families in his home state of Lu are taking with the ceremonial rites that should be the sole province of the royal family.

Not only are the Ji clan using eight rows of dancers for their ceremonies when by rights they should be allowed only four, but together with the Meng and Shu clans they’re also performing a forbidden ode from the Book of Songs in their ancestral sacrifices. If these families are capable of usurping such ceremonial privileges, they are a capable of usurping anything.

Confucius’s sense of outrage is even more keenly felt because he has no power at all to stop 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 amount to little more than whistling in the wind.

Only the emperor was allowed to have eight rows of eight dancers perform at ritual ceremonies. Feudal lords such as Duke Ai of Lu were permitted six rows, ministers like the head of the Ji Family four, and officials two.

The Yong ode is piece number 282 in the Book of Songs.

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