The softer side of Confucius?

子路、曾皙、冉有、公西華侍坐。子曰:「以吾一日長乎爾,毋吾以也。居則曰:「不吾知也!」如或知爾,則何以哉?」
Zilu, Zeng Dian, Ran Qiu, and Gongxi Chi were sitting with Confucius. Confucius said: “Forget for a moment that I am your elder. You often say: ‘People do not recognize our talents.’ But if you were given the opportunity, what would you wish to do?”

子路率爾而對曰:「千乘之國,攝乎大國之間,加之以師旅,因之以饑饉,由也為之,比及三年,可使有勇,且知方也。」
Zilu eagerly replied first: “Give me a middle-sized country wedged between powerful neighbors that is under attack from invading armies and gripped by drought and famine. If I were to govern it, within three years I would give its people courage and set them in the right direction.”

夫子哂之。「求,爾何如?」
Confucius smiled at him: “Ran Qiu, what about you?”

對曰:「方六七十,如五六十,求也為之,比及三年,可使足民;如其禮樂,以俟君子。」
Ran Qiu replied: “If I was allowed to run a territory of sixty or seventy or, say, fifty to sixty li, within three years I would secure the prosperity of its people. As for the rites and music, they would have to wait for a true leader to take over.”

「赤,爾何如?」
“Gongxi Chi, what about you?”

對曰:「非曰能之,願學焉!宗廟之事,如會同,端章甫,願為小相焉。」
“I am not saying that I would be able to do this, but I would like to try: in the ceremonies at the Ancestral Temple, such as a diplomatic conference, wearing ceremonial cap and robes, I would like to act as a junior official.”

「點,爾何如?」
“And what about you, Zeng Dian?”

鼓瑟希,鏗爾,舍瑟而作。對曰:「異乎三子者之撰。」
Zeng Dian plucked one final chord of the zither he had been playing and put it down by his side. He replied: “My wish is very different than those of my three companions.”

子曰:「何傷乎?亦各言其志也。」
Confucius said: “What harm is there in that? After all, each one is simply speaking from his heart.”

曰:「莫春者,春服既成;冠者五六人,童子六七人,浴乎沂,風乎舞雩,詠而歸。」
Zeng Dian said: “In late spring, after all the spring clothes have been made, I would like to go out together with five or six companions and six or seven boys to bathe in the River Yi, enjoy the breeze on the Rain Dance Terrace, and then return home singing.”

夫子喟然嘆曰:「吾與點也!」
Confucius let out a wistful sigh and said: “I am with Dian.”

三子者出,曾皙後。曾皙曰:「夫三子者之言何如?」
After the other three disciples had left, Zeng Dian stayed behind and said: “What did you think of their wishes?”

子曰:「亦各言其志也已矣!」
Confucius said: “Each was indeed speaking from his heart.”

曰:「夫子何哂由也?」
Zeng Dian asked: “Why did you smile at Zilu?”

曰:「為國以禮,其言不讓,是故哂之。」
Confucius said: “You should govern a state according to the rites, but his words showed no such restraint. That is why I smiled.”

「唯求則非邦也與?」
“Ran Qiu was actually talking about running an independent country, wasn’t he?”

「安見方六七十,如五六十,而非邦也者。」
“Of course. Have you ever seen ‘a territory of sixty to seventy, or fifty to sixty li?’”

「唯赤,非邦也與?」
“And Gongxi Chi? Wasn’t he also talking about running a country as well?”

「宗廟會同,非諸侯而何?赤也為之小,孰能為之大!」
“A diplomatic conference in the Ancestral Temple! What could this be but an affair of state?” And if Gongxi Chi were there merely to act as a junior official, who could possibly be qualified to act as the senior one?”

After starting out my translation of the Analects with a rather reverential attitude towards this great ancient book, just past the half-way point I find myself taking an increasingly hard-bitten and perhaps even cynical approach to certain suspicious passages I come across.

The last chapter in Book 11 provides a perfect example. On the surface, it is a beautifully-written piece that portrays a different side of Confucius than is normally shown in the Analects. Instead of worrying about the challenges of reforming the big bad world, he expresses a desire for the simple life and a spot of spring-time bathing with his companions in a nearby river.

The only problem with this story is that it probably a propagandist fantasy that contains barely a grain of truth in it. My own little conspiracy theory is that it was dreamed up by a loyal follower of Zengzi to burnish the image of his master who in addition to being one of the most widely-quoted disciples in the Analects went on to found his own school after Confucius’s death and was a prolific editor and writer of “Confucian” texts.

I could be wrong of course, but here is a summary of the “alarm bells” that are ringing in my suspicious head to support this theory:

The first one is that it features the first and only appearance of the musician Zeng Dian in all of the Analects. No big deal you might think, except that by an amazing coincidence he also happened to be the father of Zengzi.

This in itself doesn’t prove anything of course but the bell starts ringing a little bit louder when you look at the way in which Zeng Dian acts as the perfect foil to Zilu, Ran Qiu, and Gongxi Chi: whereas they harbor grubby worldly desires to achieve high political office and world domination, all the mystical zither player wants to do is frolic in the river with his companions and sing on the way home.

A little too perfect in fact, for it’s hard to believe that this scene hasn’t been artificially contrived, particularly given that Confucius agrees, no doubt to the surprise of his disciples, with Zeng Dian’s answer – revealing a hitherto secret desire to immerse himself in the pastoral pleasures of the countryside.

The alarm bell gets even louder when you compare the responses given by Zilu, Ran Qiu, and Gongxi Chi to Confucius’s question with the comments Confucius made about them in about them in Chapter VIII of Book 5 of the Analects. While the passages don’t exactly mirror each other, there are striking resemblances in the language employed and the roles/ambitions assigned to them.

Zilu: The key phrase here is “middle-sized country” (千乘之國). The only difference is that while Confucius says he would only be suited to running military recruitment, Zilu believes he could run the whole state. This is consistent with Zilu’s personality and what the writer would know about him.

孟武伯問:「子路仁乎?」子曰:「不知也。」又問。子曰:「由也,千乘之國,可使治其賦也,不知其仁也。」
Meng Wubo asked “Is Zilu good?” Confucius said: “I do not know.” When he asked once again, Confucius said: “In a middle-sized country, he could be entrusted with military recruitment. But whether he is good, I do not know.”

子路率爾而對曰:「千乘之國,攝乎大國之間,加之以師旅,因之以饑饉,由也為之,比及三年,可使有勇,且知方也。」
Zilu eagerly replied first: “Give me a middle-sized country wedged between powerful neighbors that is under attack from invading armies and gripped by drought and famine. If I were to govern it, within three years I would give its people courage and set them in the right direction.”

Ran Qiu: While Confucius thinks that Ran Qiu would make a good mayor or manager of a state, Ran Qiu is of the opinion he could run a slightly larger territory. The difference is only a matter of degree. Ran Qiu is of course being politely modest about his satrap having to “wait for a true leader to take over.”

「求也何如?」子曰:「求也,千室之邑,百乘之家,可使為之宰也,不知其仁也。
Meng Wubo asked “Is Zilu good?” Confucius said: “I do not know.” When he asked once again, Confucius said: “In a middle-sized country, he could be entrusted with military recruitment. But whether he is good, I do not know.” 

對曰:「方六七十,如五六十,求也為之,比及三年,可使足民;如其禮樂,以俟君子。」
Ran Qiu replied: “If I was allowed to run a territory of sixty or seventy or, say, fifty to sixty li, within three years I would secure the prosperity of its people. As for the rites and music, they would have to wait for a true man of character to take over.”

Gongxi Chi: While Confucius thinks that Gongxi Chi would be perfect for entertaining distinguished guests at a ceremony or banquet, Gongxi Chi thinks he would be ideal for, er, entertaining distinguished guests at a ceremony or banquet with of course the polite proviso that he would only be acting in a junior capacity.

「赤也何如?」子曰:「赤也,束帶立於朝,可使與賓客言也,不知其仁也。」
“And what about Gongxi Chi?” Confucius said: “Gongxi Chi? Standing resplendent with his sash, he could entertain distinguished guests. But whether he is good, I do not know.”

對曰:「非曰能之,願學焉!宗廟之事,如會同,端章甫,願為小相焉。」
(Gongxi Hua) replied “I am not saying that I would be able to do this, but I would like to try: in the ceremonies at the Ancestral Temple, such as a diplomatic conference, wearing ceremonial cap and robes, I would like to act as a junior official.”

Why in an allegedly relaxed and freeform conversation with Confucius would Zilu, Ran Qiu, and Gongxi Chi talk about themselves in similar terms to the ones Confucius used to judge them? Unless of course they are parrots or the writer is setting them up to be garroted by Confucius with the active aid of Zeng Dian in the final section of the chapter!

三子者出,曾皙後。曾皙曰:「夫三子者之言何如?」
After the other three disciples had left, Zeng Dian stayed behind and said: “What did you think of their wishes?”

子曰:「亦各言其志也已矣!」
Confucius said: “Each was indeed speaking from his heart.”

曰:「夫子何哂由也?」
Zeng Dian asked: “Why did you smile at Zilu?”

曰:「為國以禮,其言不讓,是故哂之。」
Confucius said: “You should govern a state according to the rites, but his words showed no such restraint. That is why I smiled.”

「唯求則非邦也與?」
“Ran Qiu was actually talking about running an independent country, wasn’t he?”

「安見方六七十,如五六十,而非邦也者。」
“Of course. Have you ever seen ‘a territory of sixty to seventy, or fifty to sixty li?’”

「唯赤,非邦也與?」
“And Gongxi Chi? Wasn’t he also talking about running a country as well?”

「宗廟會同,非諸侯而何?赤也為之小,孰能為之大!」
“A diplomatic conference in the Ancestral Temple! What could this be but an affair of state?” And if Gongxi Chi were there merely to act as junior official, who could possibly be qualified to act as the senior one?”

Even in informal conversation, Zilu, Ran Qiu, and Gongxi Chi would have had to be suitably modest about their dreams and abilities so the way that Confucius picks their answers apart is not only unnecessary but also unnecessarily brutal. The same can be said for the way in which the hitherto mystical zither player eggs him on to rip them apart. He’s no longer singing with his companions on the way home but baying for their blood.

The key question that remains is why this piece would benefit Zengzi. Like all conspiracy theorists, I have no actual evidence to support my theory but I would say there are two possible reasons. First, Zeng Dian is a proxy for Zengzi and his closeness to Confucius in this passage shows by extension the closeness of Zengzi to the sage. This would certainly have helped burnish Zengzi’s image and elevate it above that of other rivals.

Second, by doing the dirty on three of Confucius’s main disciples, the writer makes Zengzi and his philosophy burn even brighter in comparison. Unlike those who concern themselves with base worldly desires, he is carrying the sage’s torch and shining the path towards enlightenment.

A little bit forced perhaps, but no more outlandish than some other theories that have been bandied about concerning this story (some commentators go as far to suggest it shows that Confucius was a secret follower of Daoism). Why don’t you let me know what you think?

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