The Minister of Justice of Chen asked: “Did Duke Zhao understand ritual?” Confucius said: “Yes, he understood ritual.” Confucius withdrew. With a bow, the minister invited Wuma Qi to come forward and said to him: “I’ve heard it said that a true leader is never biased. But isn’t your master biased after all? The duke took a wife from the state of Wu; but because she had the same family name, he called her Wu Mengzi. If the duke understood ritual, who doesn’t understand it?” Wuma Qi reported this to Confucius. Confucius said: “I’m fortunate indeed: whenever I make a mistake, there’s always someone on hand to let me know about it.” (1) (2) (3)
Don’t let yourself get drawn into an argument when someone asks you a question that is designed to embarrass you. Give a short and succinct answer and shrug off any mock outrage that ensues from it. Life’s too short to waste time getting upset about it.
The unnamed Minister of Justice of the small state of Chen knew very well that Confucius had no choice but to defend his former ruler, Duke Zhao of Lu, even though he was well aware that the duke violated an important ritual convention by marrying a woman bearing the same family name as his own (姬/Jī). This was because if Confucius criticized the deceased duke, he would be breaking a ritual convention himself.
Under such circumstances, Confucius’s response was the best one he could possibly come up with before taking his leave. This naturally gave the cunning schemer the opportunity to bluster at the duke for trying to brush his violation of ritual convention under the carpet by giving his wife the new name of Wu Mengzi (Mengzi of the state of Wu) in place of her original one – not to mention throwing in a couple of digs at Confucius’s supposed lack of understanding of ritual as well.
No doubt the minister felt very proud of himself for besting the illustrious sage. As for Confucius, he treated his opponent’s victory speech with the contempt it deserved when his follower Sima Qi told him about it.
This article features a translation of Chapter 30 of Book 7 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 7 here.
(1) You can read more about Duke Zhao of Lu here.
(2) You can read more about the follower Wuma Qi here.
(3) You can read more about Wu Mengzi here.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.