Analects of Confucius Book 7: Confucius’s love of music

Confucius's love of music

The greatest love that Confucius preferred to pursue rather than wealth was music (see 7.11). He is said to have been a fairly decent musician himself, and in 7.13 is described as being so enraptured by a performance of Shao music that he saw during a visit to the state of Qi that he “didn’t know the taste of meat” for three months.

Confucius didn’t just love music for its aesthetic beauty. He also saw it as the ultimate embodiment of cultural sophistication and civilization with its power to elevate people’s senses and thoughts to ever greater levels of harmony with each other and their surrounding environment. When combined with ritual, it exemplified the values that everyone could achieve if they followed the way he laid out for them.

Naturally, Confucius advocated that people should only listen to the “right sort” of music lest they be corrupted by more lascivious (and more popular) folk melodies like those of Zeng (see 17.18). He regarded Shao music (said by some sources to be a kind of orchestral ballet) as the purest and most inspiring of all. In 3.25 he describes it as “perfectly beautiful and perfectly good” because it was composed to celebrate the peaceful ascent of the legendary sage king Shun to the throne in the 23rd or 22nd century BCE.

Just behind it came Wu music, which he judges in the same passage as “perfectly beautiful but not perfectly good” because it celebrated the violent ascent of King Wu to the throne after the overthrew the last Shang king Zhouxin in the bloody battle of Muye in around 1046 BCE. Even though Zhouxin was an evil ruler and King Wu went on to unify China with the establishment of the great Zhou dynasty, Confucius still considered Wu’s victory and hence his coronation music as tainted because it was attained though a rebellion against the legitimate ruler. How’s that for tortured logic!

In Confucius’s view, music thus needed to have a healthy didactic dimension as well as an aesthetic one in order to reach its full potential. That didn’t prevent him, however, from spontaneously enjoying the experience of making and listening to it whenever he had the opportunity. “Whenever Confucius was together with other people who were singing and they sang a song well,” 7.31 recounts, “he always asked them to repeat it before joining in the harmony.”

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