Analects of Confucius Book 5 overview: a long and winding path

The Analects of Confucius Book 5 opens with a remarkable statement from Confucius when he declares that Gongye Chang would make a good husband even though he has spent time in prison. Given that convicted criminals were social outcasts in ancient China, Confucius is demonstrating his contempt for the corrupt and arbitrary manner in which justice was administered during the turbulent times he lived in. By taking the extraordinary step of marrying his own daughter to Gongye Chang, he’s making a powerful statement of his determination to challenge existing social conventions and restore what he saw as the strict but fair judicial code established in the glory days of the Zhou dynasty.

In 5.2 Confucius continues in the matchmaking business, marrying the daughter of his crippled stepbrother Mengpi to the cautious, and apparently wealthy and privileged, Nan Rong. In line with the custom of the times, we don’t even know the names of the sage’s daughter and niece.

In the next chapter, Confucius praises his young follower Zijian as a true leader while pointing out that despite the corruption and venality of its ruling class, the state of Lu remains a breeding ground of promising young talent. Perhaps he is also taking a potshot at the Duke of Lu for failing to take full advantage of the state’s rich history and culture to promote worthy young men to senior positions in his court.

5.3 marks the first and only appearance of Zijian in the Analects. 5.6 does the same for Qidiao Kai, who went on to become a highly influential follower and established his own school. The stubborn and argumentative Shen Cheng also makes his one and only appearance in the Analects in 5.11. He, too, may also have been a follower of Confucius even though the sage doesn’t appear to have had a high opinion of him.

Book 5 features the debut of the follower Ran Yong, who Confucius admired so much that in 6.1 he declares that he “could take a seat facing south” – meaning that he had the potential to be a ruler of a state. In 5.5, Confucius leaps to Ran Yong’s defense when someone criticizes him for being “good but not eloquent” by asking “What use is eloquence? A smooth tongue creates many enemies.”

5.8 provides fleeting glimpses of Ran Qiu and Gongxi Chi. When the Lu minister Meng Wubo asks Confucius if he thinks they are good people, the sage refuses to address the question directly. Instead, he says that Ran Qiu “could be the mayor of a small city or the manager of a large estate.” As for Gongxi Chi, he memorably describes him as: “Standing resplendent with his sash, he could entertain distinguished guests.”

Confucius uses the same tactic when Zizhang, one of his younger followers, questions him about the goodness of two historical figures, Ziwen and Chen Wenzi, in 5.19. While he is willing to vouch for their loyalty and purity, he refuses to speculate on whether they were good or not.

The sage, however, certainly doesn’t mince his words about another of his younger followers, Zai Yu, in 5.10. When he discovers him asleep during the day, he famously declares: “Rotten wood cannot be carved; dung walls cannot be troweled. What’s the point of scolding him anymore?” Because of Zai Yu, Confucius complains: “There was a time when I used to listen to what people had to say and trusted that they would act on their word, but now I have to listen to what they say and watch what they do. It’s my dealings with Zai Yu that have forced me to change.”

With followers like Zai Yu, it’s probably no surprise that Confucius declares in 5.27 that he is ready to give up because: “I have yet to meet a person capable of seeing their own faults and taking themselves to task in the court of their own heart.” The only surprise, perhaps, is that despite the many setbacks he encounters he somehow manages to keep following his long and winding path.

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