Justifying the unjustifiable

Chapter I of Book 16 is one of the longest passages in the Analects and is written a narrative style that is very different from the short pithy anecdotes and aphorisms that comprise most of the rest of the tome.

Even though it is clearly “inauthentic” in the sense that it was bolted on to the Analects by some unknown editor at a late stage, it’s also extremely interesting too in that it encapsulates so neatly and so harshly the sheer helplessness, frustration, and even despair Confucius must have felt at seeing his ideas and teachings totally ignored – not just by corrupt rulers but also by his very own disciples!

Although both Ran Qiu and Zilu were among his most loyal followers, that didn’t stop them from serving as senior officials for the Ji Family, which Confucius reviled for usurping power in his home state of Lu, or from compromising the very principles that he tried so hard to inculcate in them.

When informing Confucius that Ji Kangzi, the head of the Ji family, is planning to launch a pre-emptive strike on a small but autonomous territory within the state of Lu called Zhuanyu, they go so far as to insult his intelligence by telling him that they are only following orders and giving him the pretext that this small territory could become a threat to the Ji Family one day. (Talk about shades of the build-up to the invasion of Iraq; I wonder what the classical Chinese term for WMD is.)

No wonder Confucius gives his disciples such a stinging rebuke! You can feel the anger in his words. To him, the duty of an official is to make sure his ruler follows the right path – not to blindly follow his ruler’s orders. For if the ruler and his officials act and govern with moral power, inequality, poverty, and instability will be reduced and the state will be able to further strengthen itself by attracting talent from afar.

That was Confucius’s theory in any case. How sad that it didn’t survive contact with the real world! How sad, too, that over 2,000 years afterwards, our politicians and officials are still trotting out the same old excuses as Ran Qiu and Zilu to justify unjustifiable injustices and brutalities.

The head of the Ji family was preparing to attack Zhuanyu. Ran Qiu and Zilu went to see Confucius and said: “Ji Kangzi is going to intervene in Zhuanyu.”

Confucius said: “Qiu, this is your fault, isn’t it? In the past, our ancient kings gave Zhuanyu the responsibility of offering sacrifices to Mount Dongmeng; moreover it lies in the heart of our borders and is paying tribute to us. Why attack it?”

Ran Qiu said: “It is the wish of our master; it is not the wish of either of us.”

Confucius said: “Qiu! Zhou Ren had a saying, ‘he who has strength stands firm; he who lacks strength withdraws.’ What sort of assistant is one who cannot steady his master when he stumbles or stops him when he falls? In any case, what you said is mistaken. If a tiger or rhinoceros escapes from its cage or if a tortoise shell or a jade amulet is broken in its casket who should be responsible?”

Ran Qiu said: “But Zhuanyu has strong defenses and is close to our master’s stronghold at Bi. If he does not take it today, in the future it is sure to become a threat to his children and grandchildren.”

Confucius said: “Qiu! A leader detests those who invent excuses for their actions instead of simply saying: ‘I want this.’ I have heard it said that a head of a state or the chief of a clan worries not about having a small population but inequality, and not about poverty but instability. For if there is equality there will be no poverty, if there is harmony there will be no lack of population, and if there is stability there will be no unrest. It is for this reason that if people from afar still resist joining you, you must cultivate your virtue to attract them; and then, once they have come, you must ensure they are content with it. But, with you two as his ministers, people from afar are unwilling to join your master and won’t come; his state is racked with divisions and unrest, and he cannot hold it together any longer; but he still plots to wage war within the borders of the state itself! I’m afraid that for Ji Kangzi, the real threat does not come from Zhuanyu, but lies within the walls of his own palace!”

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