When Ji Kangzi asks Confucius in 14.19 why Duke Ling of Wei was able to hold on to power despite his failure to follow the moral way, the sage replies that it was because the old reprobate had a strong team of ministers to support him.
Although Confucius is telling Ji the truth with his answer, he fails to mention one important detail: namely, who oversaw the team of ministerial mavens that kept the state running smoothly while the dissolute duke cavorted in his palaces and hunting grounds.
It is of course possible that Duke Ling found time to meet his ministers between his hunts, banquets, and parties, but given his preference for unbridled pleasure over managerial minutiae that is highly improbable. It was, more likely, the duke’s wife Nanzi who took care of state business.
Even though he conveniently fails to mention it to Ji Kangzi, Confucius was well aware of the power that Nanzi wielded because he had experienced it firsthand. When he went to Wei after leaving his home state of Lu in 497 BCE, he received repeated invitations to attend an audience with her until he eventually had no choice but to agree to visit her.
The audience Confucius had with Nanzi is featured in 6.28 of the Analects. It is the only passage in the entire work that records Confucius meeting with a woman. Unfortunately, rather than tell us what they talked about, the passage focuses on Zilu’s unhappiness at Confucius for attending the audience and the sage’s emotional denial that nothing improper happened during it.
Not surprisingly, the incident generated a flurry of rumors. Some of the more lurid ones suggested that Nanzi was interested in having a fling with Confucius, while others hinted that Confucius was attempting to enlist Nanzi’s help in securing a position in the government of Wei. Simply put, for Confucius it was not a good look.
It is impossible to sort out fact from fiction when it comes to Nanzi. Many later histories portray her as a wicked witch with an insatiable carnal appetite who engaged in an incestuous affair with her brother Song Chao. The very virulence of these allegations suggests, however, that they were based more on vicious rumors spread by her enemies at court to damage her reputation than on genuine evidence.
Nanzi certainly had plenty of those, most notably Ji Kuaikui, the oldest son (by another mother) of Duke Ling and heir-apparent to the throne. In 492 BCE, Kuaikui hatched a plot to assassinate her only to have to flee into exile after his plans became known. Although he claimed that he wanted Nanzi dead was because of her alleged relationship with her brother, it is just as possible that Kuaikui made the story up as a pretext for removing a potential obstacle to him succeeding his father to the throne.
It is hard to imagine that Confucius would have agreed to attend an audience with Nanzi if there had been even a hint of sexual scandal surrounding her, no matter how much pressure he was put under. As it was, their meeting severely stretched the bounds of ritual propriety and caused Zilu and Confucius himself no little anguish.
The most likely explanation is that Nanzi was intrigued by the arrival of Confucius at the court and invited him to visit her out of curiosity. Despite all the feverish speculation about what happened when they met, nothing concrete appears to have come out of it – either in terms of a job offer or a romantic fling.
No wonder he was not exactly eager to mention her name to Ji Kangzi.