Leadership Lessons from Confucius: cultural appropriation and cowardice

cultural appropriation

Confucius said: “Sacrificing to spirits that don’t belong to your ancestors is presumptuous. Doing nothing when rightness demands action is cowardice.” (1)

Cultural appropriation: this is the phrase that immediately sprang to mind when I read Confucius’s opening comment in the final chapter of Book 2 of The Analects. And yes, “sacrificing to spirits that don’t belong to your ancestors” is indeed “presumptuous.” The best way to respect another culture is to learn as much as you can about it and only take part in its traditional ceremonies and festivities when you are invited to do so. There’s no excuse for insensitivity.

There’s no excuse either for refusing to step in to prevent a conflict from occurring or help someone who is at risk of being victimized. And yes, “doing nothing when rightness demands action” is indeed “cowardice” no matter how you try to disguise it with purer motives.


This article features a translation of Chapter 24 of Book 2 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 2 here.

(1) There is some scholarly debate over whether the character 鬼 (guǐ) means ancestral spirits or gods. Whatever the case, the meaning of Confucius’s admonition is clear: you should only worship the ancestral spirits of your own family or the gods of your own land and not misappropriate those of other people.

A final image of the Temple of Yan Hui in Qufu. You can read more about it here.

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