Leadership lessons from Confucius: the conventions and the spirit

practice and spirit

After assisting his duke at a sacrificial ceremony, he didn’t keep the meat bestowed on him overnight. After carrying out a family sacrificial ceremony, he didn’t keep the meat for more than three days. After the third day, he didn’t eat it.

Observe the conventions and the spirit of the ceremony. Even if the origins of its protocols and procedures have been lost in the mists of time, respect and honor them. Rather than question the meaning and integrity of the ancient traditions it embodies, celebrate the shared sense of meaning and identity that they preserve and transmit from generation to generation.

Reflect, too, on the responsibility you have to pass them on to future generations of your family and community. Once they have gone, they have gone, and you have lost a precious link to the past.


This article features a translation of Chapter 9 of Book 10 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 10 here.

(1) The sacrificial meat used in an ancient Chinese sacrificial ceremony came from animals that were slaughtered in the early morning of the same day. At the end of the ceremony, the ruler would give the meat to key officials in order to share the good fortune that the sacrifice would (hopefully) bring. To show respect for their ruler, the officials would make sure that it was eaten on the same day. For family sacrificial ceremonies, the conventions were somewhat looser – giving people three days to eat the meat. Presumably, any meat kept for longer would, in any case, be unsafe to eat.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Yilan, Taiwan.

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