Loosely connected threads

Book 20 of the Analects is a strange mutant beast, consisting of just three totally unrelated chapters. It’s almost as if its editor hacked it together after a few drinks and then decided to head back to his local for a few more cups of wine when he got bored with it.

Chapter I is a tangle of three (possibly more) loosely connected threads that starts with fragments of texts concerning China’s mythical sage kings Yao, Shun, and Yu, from the third millennium BC. Note how even at the dawn of Chinese antiquity, the moral responsibility of the leader to rule his people benignly so that they don’t “fall into suffering and penury” is starkly spelled out. This is, of course, a theme that Confucius expounded on frequently in his teachings.

Yao said: Oh, Shun! The Heavenly succession was bestowed upon you; hold faithfully to the middle way; if the people within the Four Seas fall into suffering and penury, the honors bestowed on you by Heaven’s gift will be taken away from you forever.

Shun passed the same message to Yu.

The second fragment features the oath taken by Cheng Tang (成湯), [literally “Tang the Successful”], the first emperor of the Shang Dynasty (1675 BC – 1646 BC), when he launched his campaign to overthrow Jie (桀), the evil last emperor of the Xia Dynasty (2070 – 1600 BC). Like Yao, Shun, and Yu, Tang takes his responsibility as a leader very seriously; if he guides the people in the wrong direction, the buck should stop with him and they shouldn’t suffer as a result of his actions.

Tang said, “I, the humble Lu, dare to sacrifice a black bull and dare to make this declaration before my great Lord. I dare not pardon those who are guilty. Your servants cannot hide anything from you. You have already judged them in your heart. If I am guilty, please do not punish the people of the myriad states because of me; but if the people of the myriad states are guilty, let the responsibility lie with me alone.”

The final fragment – or fragments – takes us up to the start of the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC). It’s probable that it is King Wu, the founder of the dynasty, who is laying out his vision of how he plans to govern – hence my use of the first person in my translation. Other interpretations use the third person and employ the past tense.

Note once more that it is the duty of the ruler to act benevolently towards his people and set the right example for them: if they do wrong, “let their faults fall on my head alone.”

“The House of Zhou is greatly blessed. Good men are its riches.” “Although I have my own kinsmen, I prefer to rely on good men. If the common people do wrong, let their faults fall on my head alone. If I set the standards for weights and measures, carefully examine the laws and regulations, and restore the offices that have been abolished, the authority of the government will reach everywhere. If I restore the states that have been destroyed, revive the broken dynastic lines, and bring back to office great men who were sent into exile, I will win the hearts of the people throughout the world. I will give priority to the people; food; mourning; and sacrifice. If I am tolerant I will win the masses. If I am trustworthy, the people will entrust me with responsibility. If I am enthusiastic, I will achieve success. If I am fair and just, I will bring happiness to the people.”

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