Reciprocal rites

Duke Ding asked: “How should a lord treat his ministers? How should ministers serve their lord?” Confucius replied: “A lord should treat his ministers in accordance with the rites; ministers should serve their lord with loyalty.”

The rites weren’t a one-way street: they codified the reciprocal nature of the relationship between the leader and their ministers and people. This was based on both parties treating each other with courtesy and mutual respect. While everyone was required to obey the leader’s orders, these orders had to be just and reasonable. Otherwise, in theory at least, they had the right to challenge and even disregard them.

Of course, maintaining the right balance was (and still is) challenging. All too many leaders in the time that Confucius lived preferred to surround themselves with “yes men” who would heap praise on even their most harebrained schemes in order to curry favor and ensure advancement. By the same token, all too many ministers preferred to keep quiet rather than openly challenge even the most enlightened of leaders out of fear of being accused of disloyalty.

No wonder Confucius was so concerned that the grievous violations of the rites he saw all around him would ultimately lead to the collapse of society.

Duke Ding (定公) was the predecessor of Duke Ai as the ruler of Lu, and reigned from 510 to 495 BC.

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