An unhappy lot

子曰:「上好禮,則民易使也。」
Confucius said: “When their rulers love the rites, the people respond readily when they are called on for service.”

In common with other ancient Chinese thinkers, Confucius had a top-down view of how society should be governed. If the ruling classes adhered to the correct ethical principles and customs, the people would automatically follow them.

The lot of the common man in ancient China was not a happy one. He could be called on at any time to work on tasks such as building dykes, roads, and other types of infrastructure as well as to join the army. In most such cases, of course, he didn’t go voluntarily; conscription had to be enforced.

The lot of the common woman was no easier. Indeed, given that she had to combine child-rearing and domestic chores with back-breaking agricultural labor it was even tougher. Although occasional references to women can be found in the Analects, Confucius took their subsidiary role for granted and gave no thought of the contribution they could make to the government of society.

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