Confucius said: “I could talk about Xia Dynasty ritual, but the state of Qi hasn’t preserved sufficient evidence. I could talk about Yin Dynasty ritual, but the state of Song hasn’t preserved sufficient evidence. There aren’t enough written records and learned men; if there were, I could obtain evidence from them.” (1) (2)
In an age when information is so abundant and accessible, it can be very tempting to voice an opinion on a subject after carrying out a cursory Google search and scanning a few secondary sources. If you choose to do that at least have the courtesy to let people know that your views are based on limited knowledge, or better still keep your lips pursed while the real experts do the talking.
As one the leading scholars of his time, Confucius would have known about Xia and Yin Dynasty ritual – but because of the lack of contemporary source materials he refuses to claim expertise in the subjects.
This article features a translation of Chapter 9 of Book 3 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 3 here.
(1) The Xia Dynasty was the first dynasty on record and stretched from around 2070 to 1600 BCE. When it was overthrown by the Shang Dynasty, some members of the royal family set up the state of Qi in what is now Henan province and continued their sacrificial rituals towards their ancestors there. Confucius first visited Qi in 516 BCE after ending up on these losing side of a political battle in his home state of Lu. Although he was greatly impressed with the quality of the ancient ritual music that he heard played at the court, he was disappointed by its failure to preserve its written records of its history and cultural traditions.
(2) The Yin Dynasty, often called the Shang Dynasty, was the second major dynasty in China’s history and lasted from 1600 – 1046 BCE. After it was succeeded by the Zhou Dynasty, the surviving members of its royal family were allowed to establish Song as a vassal state in order to continue worshiping their ancestors like their counterparts from Qi. Confucius’s ancestors were members of the ruling family of the state of Song and thus descendants of the Xia Dynasty kings. His great grandfather is said to have migrated from the state of Song to the state of Lu near present-day Qufu, where Confucius was born.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Beijing. You can read more about it here.