A single thread


Confucius said: “Shen, my doctrine is all woven into a single thread.” Zengzi replied: “Indeed.” After Confucius had left, the other disciples asked: “What did he mean?” Zengzi said: “The doctrine of the Master is based on loyalty and reciprocity; that and nothing more.”

It’s very tempting to become way too reverential when reading ancient texts like the Analects and to build up the expectation that each and every single word by the “Master” will be pregnant with profound significance and meaning.

This is, of course, is highly unrealistic. Like any book or collection of thoughts the Analects has its highlights but it also comes with its fair share of more mundane passages and let-downs like this one.

Imagine the drum rolls of anticipation as Confucius proclaims to his disciples that his “doctrine is all woven into a single thread”; then picture the sense of disappointment that must have come over the disciples when Zengzi tells them that this doctrine “is based on loyalty and reciprocity” and, er, “that’s it.”

Yes, both loyalty and reciprocity (only doing to others what you would like others to do to you) are important principles, but they are hardly at the apex of Confucius’s doctrine.

Indeed, it’s hard not to suspect that the incident in this passage was “reimagined” by the followers of Zengzi to promote their master as the successor to Confucius. Why wouldn’t the unnamed disciples simply ask Confucius himself what he meant by his words rather than asking Zengzi to interpret them?

After all, Confucius was always up for a debate.

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