Living in the wilds

子曰:「先進於禮樂,野人也;後進於禮樂,君子也。如用之,則吾從先進。」
Confucius said: “The first people to advance the rites and music were people living in the wilds; members of the ruling class didn’t advance them until later. If I had to put them to use, I would follow the ones who advanced them first.”

A tricky start to Book 11 of the Analects: the ambiguity of this passage has led to multiple interpretations, none of which I find particularly satisfying.

I have tried to keep my translation as literal as possible, thought it probably opens up more questions than it gives answers. Who were the people “living in the wilds”, for example, and where exactly did they live?

Possibly Confucius is referring to the shamans of antiquity who laid the early foundations of Chinese culture with their mysterious rituals that were later on codified by the emerging ruling class who co-opted and corrupted them for their own purposes.

If this is indeed the case, it’s no surprise that Confucius would want to return to the purity of the original sources of the rites rather than rely on the tarnished contemporary versions.

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