When receiving a gift from a friend, he wouldn’t bow even if it was a horse and carriage. The only gift he would bow for was one of sacrificial meat.
Customs change along with the times. Long-established conventions like wearing a suit and tie to the office give way to more casual forms of dress and behavior. Centuries-old church services are spiced up to appeal to younger audiences. Do you stick to the old ways and decry the loss of age-old traditions? Or do you keep up with the times and celebrate the latest social innovations?
With his refusal to bow even when given a gift as valuable as a horse and carriage, Confucius showed that he had his feet firmly planted in the conservative camp. He considered only sacrificial meat as worthy of such a ritual because it represented much more than mere food. In lowering his head he wasn’t just signaling his thanks and appreciation for the present but he was also showing his respect for the ancestors of the sender.
For Confucius, preserving the integrity of the ritual was worth far more than compromising it to offer thanks for an expensive gift. While some of his contemporaries admired his commitment to protecting ancient traditions, many others criticized him for what they saw as his stubborn refusal to move with the times. Which traditions would you fight to keep and which ones would you would be willing to see fall by the wayside?
This article features a translation of Chapter 23 of Book 10 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 10 here.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Yilan, Taiwan.