Analects Book 14: an inherent bug in the Zhou dynasty operating model

Book 14 of the Analects highlights one of the most significant causes of the growing instability that characterized the Spring and Autumn period: namely, massive overproduction of the hereditary elite that dominated all aspects of political, economic, social, and cultural life.

The book is packed with references to dukes, lords, ministers, and sundry other members of the nobility ranging from towering giants like Duke Huan of Qi and Duke Wen of Jin to obscure but still important officials like Shi Shu and Bi Chen. Even the recluses that Confucius and Zilu encounter at the stone chimes and stone gate are more likely to be disaffected members of the ruling class rather than honest men of the soil judging by the sophistication of their language and cultural reference points.

The reason for this elite overproduction lies in an inherent bug in the Zhou dynasty operating model that was implemented by Confucius’s great hero, the Duke of Zhou. To expand the power and reach of the newly established dynasty and prevent rivalries among the families of the relatives and nobles that had supported it in the war to overthrow the Shang dynasty, the duke dispatched them from the capital with great ceremony to establish fiefs in the lands beyond the Zhou borders.

For the first few hundred years, this system was extraordinarily effective in driving the rapid expansion of the Zhou dynasty and mitigating potential conflicts between competing aristocratic clans. Hundreds of years before the birth of Confucius, however, the model started to break down as the central authority of the Zhou declined and the aristocratic families ruling the patchwork quilt of states that comprised it fought endless wars against each other for more territory, treasure, and glory.

Conflicts within the ruling families themselves also became increasingly prevalent, not to mention bloody and bitter, as brothers from different mothers fought each other over who would succeed to the throne while their corrupt and decadent fathers enjoyed the company of their favorite new concubine. It is probably not much of an exaggeration to say that more states collapsed as result of fights conducted inside the harem than outside on the battlefield. You only have to read the profiles of the likes of Duke Wen of Jin, Duke Huan of Qi, and Duke Jian of Qi to see how vicious and violent such power family power struggles could be!

With the ruling families in disarray, the heads of major noble houses took this opportunity to increase their status and power in the states they lived in. By the time Confucius was born, for example, the Three Families had stripped away so many of the prerogatives of the ducal family that the sovereigns themselves were little more than figureheads. Towards the end of Confucius’s life, the ruling house of the neighboring state of Qi was coming under serious threat from the Chen Family led by Chen Heng and was ultimately toppled by it.

Ironically, the aristocratic families themselves were also coming under pressure from the retainers and stewards they employed to run their estates and business affairs. While Confucius was working as the Minister of Justice under Duke Ding, there were a number of serious rebellions stirred up by powerful men like Yang Huo and Gongshan Furao aimed at taking the Three Families down. Confucius was even briefly tempted to join them because they offered him the chance destroy the Ji, Meng, and Sun clans and made rather dubious claims to him that they were committed to restore the power and prestige of the ducal family.

Although Yang Huo and Gongshan Furao failed with their cunning schemes, there were plenty of other men of similar status who attempted to fill the void left by the serious infighting among the ruling elite and capitalize on the growing suffering and discontent among the common people. With so many conflicts bubbling up among and around the members of the ruling elite, it was only a matter of time before the Zhou dynasty operating model collapsed under its own contradictions. For all the zeal that Confucius showed in his attempts to restore the dynasty to its former glory, it was already far too late in the day for him and others with the same goal to save it.

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