Three years of mourning

Zai Yu asked: “Three years of mourning for your parents: this is a long time. If a leader doesn’t practice the rites for three years, the rites are sure to decay; if he doesn’t practice music for three years, music is sure to collapse. As the grain from last year’s crop is used up, grain from this year’s crop ripens, and the flint for lighting the fires is changed with each season. One year of mourning is surely enough.” Confucius said: “Would you be comfortable eating your fine food and wearing your fine clothes then?” “Absolutely.” “In that case, go ahead! When a leader is in mourning fine food is tasteless to him, music offers him no pleasure, and the comforts of home give him no peace, so he prefers to do without these pleasures. But if you think you will be able to enjoy them, go ahead.” Zai Yu left. Confucius said: “Zai Yu has no goodness! During the first three years after a child is born, he doesn’t leave the arms of his parents. Three years of mourning is a custom that is followed throughout the world. Didn’t Zai Yu receive three years of love from his parents?”

The three-year mourning period after the death of a parent was a tradition from the Zhou Dynasty, though it must have been honored significantly more in breach rather than in practice. Even sons from the richest and most powerful of families would have found it extremely difficult to take so much time out of their official, military, or family responsibilities – unless of course they wanted to establish a reputation as a beacon of morality or needed to spend some time in the background to cook up some nefarious scheme to further their interests.

Zai Yu liked to ask Confucius awkward questions, so he was probably winding him up in this instance. If that was his goal he certainly succeeded, judging by Confucius’s blustering response. The less said about this the better, except to say that it was not his finest moment.

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