Confucius described Shao music as being perfectly beautiful and perfectly good and Wu music as being perfectly beautiful but not perfectly good.
Is there a moral component to deciding whether someone or something has attained perfection? Confucius certainly thought so. That’s why he gives Shao music the edge over Wu music in this passage.
Confucius regarded Shao music (said by some sources to be a kind of orchestral ballet) as the purest and most inspiring of all because it was composed to celebrate the peaceful ascent of the legendary sage king Shun to the throne in the 23rd or 22nd century BCE. Shun reportedly ruled for nearly fifty years with great wisdom and virtue. Confucius therefore judged his music to be “perfectly good” as well as “perfectly beautiful” because it reflected of the king’s peaceful accession and fine moral character.
In contrast, Confucius was less fulsome with his praise of Wu music because it celebrated the violent ascent of King Wu to the throne after the overthrew the last Shang king Zhouxin in the bloody battle of Muye in around 1046 BCE. Even though Zhouxin was an evil ruler and King Wu went on to unify China with the establishment of the great Zhou dynasty, Confucius still considered Wu’s victory as tainted because it was a rebellion against the legitimate ruler. Thus, he concluded (a little harshly perhaps) that his music (believed to be a dance of conquest) was “perfectly beautiful but not perfectly good” because King Wu had attained the throne using violent means rather than through the force of his moral character.
This article features a translation of Chapter 25 of Book 3 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 3 here.
I took this image at the Beijing Great Bell Temple. You can read more about it here.