The Master was striking some stone chimes in Wei. A man carrying a basket on passed in front of the gate of the house where he was staying and said: “Whoever is playing music like that seems to have something else on his mind!” A little while later, he added: “What a racket! If no one takes any notice of you, it really doesn’t matter!
When the water is deep, wade through it with your clothes on;
When the water is shallow, hold up the hem of your gown.”
Confucius said: “He certainly doesn’t mince his words! I don’t have any response to that!”
This strange tale is almost certainly a Daoist hack that was somehow sneaked into the Analects to show how easily the sage could be outwitted by its adepts.
The man carrying a basket is in all likelihood an itinerant ascetic who has withdrawn from the world out of despair at its depravity and corruption; given that he is able to quote from poem 34 of the Book of Songs (詩經/shījīng), there’s no way that he could be a common peasant.
With his comments on the quality of the tune Confucius is banging out on the chimes and his quote from the Book of Songs, the ascetic is obliquely advising the sage to give up on his mission to restore the country to its former glory and join him in taking life as it comes.
For once, and perhaps for the only time in the Analects, Confucius is unable to fire back a fitting response. That further confirms the theory that this passage is a Daoist hack.