Analects of Confucius Book 3: overview

The Analects of Confucius Book 3 features some quite astonishing tirades from Confucius against the Three Families, the real power behind the throne of his home state of Lu, for what he saw as their shameless violations of the ancient ritual ceremonies and proprieties that he believed were essential for a civilized society.

In Chapter 1, Confucius lambasts the head of the Ji Family for employing eight rows of dancers to take part in ritual ceremonies at his ancestral temple when according to tradition he should only have been allowed four.

In Chapter 2, he goes on to attack all the Three Families for performing a forbidden ode from the Book of Songs in their ancestral sacrifices. Then in Chapter 6, he lashes out at his follower Ran Qiu for his inability (or unwillingness) to stop the head of the Ji Family from carrying out a sacrifice on the sacred Mount Tai.

For Confucius, this is the thin end of the wedge: if the Three Families are capable of usurping ceremonial privileges that according to tradition were reserved for the emperor and ruler of a state, they are a capable of usurping anything. Civilization as he knows it is doomed!

In Chapter 4, Confucius calms down a little when discussing the essence of ritual. He tells the disciple Lin Fang that “simplicity is better than extravagance” when it comes to festive ceremonies and that “genuine grief is better than excessive formality” for funerals. In other words, it is the spirit in which a person participates in rituals that is the most important consideration. As he points out in Chapter 12, you need to immerse yourself completely in the rituals you attend: “If you don’t attend a sacrifice in person, you’re not there in spirit either.”

In Chapter 9, Confucius returns to the topic of ritual, complaining about the lack of sufficient surviving evidence about Xia and Yin dynasty rituals for him to talk about them intelligently. In the next two chapters, he ramps up the intensity of his attacks, going as far as to storm out of an important sacrifice to the great imperial ancestor because he is so enraged at the manner in which it is being conducted.

In Chapter 15, Confucius calms down again and follows the standard ritual practice during a visit to the Grand Ancestral Temple by politely and modestly asking questions about it even though in all probability he already knew the answers to them.

In Chapter 19, he touches upon the relationship between ritual and good governance. When asked by Duke Ding of Lu how a lord should treat his ministers, Confucius replies that he should treat them “in accordance with ritual” – in other words with civility and respect.

In Chapter 22, when giving his verdict on Guan Zhong, who transformed the state of Qi into a superpower as its chief minister, Confucius criticizes him for his extravagant lifestyle and contraventions of the rites as a proxy for attacking his dismantling of some aspects of traditional Zhou dynasty culture during the course of the political reforms he carried out.

Confucius can’t have made too many friends in high places with his zealous pursuit of ritual purity, particularly as many of his criticisms featured thinly-veiled attacks on the members of the ruling class of Lu – the very people he was seeking to persuade to mend their ways.

His sense of outrage is no doubt even sharper because he knows that for all his bluster he has no power at all to prevent the Three Families from strengthening their hold over Lu. All he can do is watch from the sidelines, knowing that any barbs he throws at them will have no impact at all.

Book 3 also includes comments from Confucius about music and archery, two disciplines very closely linked to ritual. Indeed, Confucius saw the ancient ceremonial music of the sage king Shun as the ultimate embodiment of ritual and the apex of human achievement.

He also regards archery as a ritual rather than a mere contest. In Chapter 7, he advises that a leader should avoid competing with others, before adding: “But if you can’t avoid it, you should take part in an archery contest.” He expands on this point in Chapter 16 by saying: “In archery, it doesn’t matter whether you pierce the covering of the target, because some archers are stronger than others.” 

Towards the end of the Book in Chapter 24, Confucius encounters a border official when fleeing the state of Lu for exile after supporting a failed attempt by Duke Ding to rein in the power of the Three Families. After the meeting, the official tells Confucius’s accompanying followers: “Heaven is going to use your master like a wooden bell clapper.”

Unfortunately, the official’s confidence in heaven was misplaced or at least wrong in terms of timing. During his fourteen years of wandering, Confucius was never able to secure an influential position with any of the rulers of the states he visited; and it took hundreds of years after his death before his teachings achieved a high level of influence.

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