Just a joke

Confucius went to Wucheng. When he heard the sound of stringed instruments and singing, he was amused and broke out into a smile: “Why use an ox cleaver to kill a chicken?” Ziyou replied: “Master, in the past I have heard you say: ‘A leader who has been instructed in the Way loves all people; common people who have been instructed in the Way are easy to govern.’” Confucius said: “My friends, Ziyou is right. The remarks I made a moment ago were just a joke.”

Humor doesn’t exactly abound in the Analects. Judging by this incident, in which Confucius’s attempt at what he claims to be a joke spectacularly backfires and he is forced to backtrack in the face of his disciple Ziyou’s indignant protests, that’s probably a good thing.

Ziyou was the governor of the town of Wucheng in modern-day Shandong province at the time of Confucius’s visit and was making great efforts to inculcate the sage’s values into the local population. No wonder he is upset by Confucius’s implication that the ritual ceremony (“stringed instruments and singing”) he is holding is more than a little over the top.

To his credit, Confucius hastily backtracks, claiming that his comments were just a joke. And a lousy one at that, he doesn’t add.

To his shame, however, he doesn’t offer any apologies at all for the disdain he showed towards the rednecks (“common people”) of Wucheng with his attempt at humor. For all his high-flying principles, Confucius shows himself to be an elitist snob at heart.

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