Unintended irony


Shun ruled his empire with only five ministers. King Wu of Zhou said: “I have ten able ministers to keep everything in order.” Confucius said: “Talented people are hard to find: are they not? The times of Yao and Shun were said to be rich in talent, but King Wu was only able to find nine such men because one of his ministers was a woman. Although the Zhou controlled over two-thirds of the empire, it still served the Shang. You can truly say that the virtue of the Zhou was supreme.”

Ah, the power of unintended irony! Here we have Confucius complaining that talented people are hard to find while in virtually the same breath blithely discounting the female half of the population as a potential source of it. After all, what could the wife of King Wu (周武王), the founder of the Zhou Dynasty and the elder brother of Confucius’s hero the Duke of Zhou (周公), possibly know about managing an empire?

Leaving its crass sexism aside, this comment highlights one of Confucius’s major weaknesses as a thinker: while he is very good at dredging up anecdotes from the past to illustrate the points he wants to put across, he lacks the imagination to develop alternative analyses and interpretations – let alone make the intellectual leap required to propose new solutions for the problems he identifies.

In the final section, Confucius goes on to praise King Wu for allowing the previous Shang Dynasty (商朝) to remain in existence even while occupying most of its territory to establish his new Zhou Dynasty. By accomplishing this balancing act, the king was able to confer legitimacy on his new regime by showing respect for the most sacred traditions of the past while offering a vision of a more prosperous and stable future under his virtuous guidance.

Quite a neat political trick when you think about it. Confucius certainly fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

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