Analects of Confucius Book 9: Confucius on ritual integrity

Confucius on ritual integrity

Even though Confucius was a strong advocate of preserving ancient Zhou dynasty rituals in all their pristine glory, that didn’t mean that he was completely averse to making changes to them when it made sense – as long as they didn’t affect the integrity of the ceremonies.

In 9.3, he doesn’t raise any objections to replacing hemp or linen with silk in the production of ceremonial caps because it is much more economical to do so.

However, Confucius draws a very thick line when it comes to changes that violate ritual integrity. In the same chapter, he condemns as “arrogant” people who “make their bow at the top of the steps” after climbing the dais to attend an audience with their ruler or lord. He insists on adhering to the traditional practice of bowing at the bottom of the steps before ascending the dais for his audience because it shows a much greater level of respect.

In 9.12, Confucius blasts Zilu for perhaps an even more blatant abuse of ritual propriety. When he learns that Zilu persuaded his followers to act as if they were retainers of a feudal lord while Confucius was seriously ill, the sage scolds him harshly: “Zilu, this deception has lasted long enough. Who do I deceive with these bogus retainers? Do I deceive heaven?”

Even though Zilu was probably acting out of the best intentions, he would have known very well that his master wasn’t of the right rank to merit such an honor. No wonder Confucius is so upset at him.

For Confucius, ritual didn’t just consist of formal ceremonies such as funerals and audiences at court; it was an integral part of his daily life that extended not just to everyday encounters with other people in the street or market place but also to his home.

In 9.10, we witness Confucius spontaneously show his respect whenever he sees “someone in mourning dress, a grandee in ceremonial robes, or a blind person” by rising to his feet and quickening his step when he passes by them. In Book 10, we go on to read myriad details of how harnessed the power of ritual to transform even the most mundane moments into magical ones.

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