Tag Archives: governance

Analects of Confucius Book 2: Confucius on governance


Confucius lived during turbulent times of great political and social instability, in which the various feudal states that comprised the decaying Zhou dynasty were vying with each other for supremacy and the aristocracies within each state were fighting with the hereditary ruling families to gain more influence and power. Continue reading Analects of Confucius Book 2: Confucius on governance

Analects of Confucius Book 1: Confucius on governance


Even though Confucius is best known today as a teacher and philosopher, he could just as easily be described as a politician and policy wonk. Through his teachings his aim was to unite the weak and divided states that were vying for supremacy during his lifetime into a single prosperous country that was governed according to the same principles and practices that his hero, the Duke of Zhou, had implemented when laying the foundations for the growth of the Zhou dynasty five hundred years before his birth. Continue reading Analects of Confucius Book 1: Confucius on governance

The five virtues and four vices

Zizhang asked Confucius: “What qualities must you have in order to be fit to take part in government?” Confucius said: “If you cultivate the five virtues and cast out the four vices you are fit to govern.”

Zizhang asked: “What are the five virtues?” Confucius said: “A leader is generous without having to spend anything; he inspires people to work hard without complaining; he is ambitious without being greedy; he is confident without being arrogant; he is imposing without being frightening.”

Zizhang said: “How can you be ‘generous without having to spend anything’?” Confucius said: “If you let the people take advantage of what is beneficial for them, aren’t you being generous without having to spend anything? If you assign the people to work on tasks that are reasonable, who will complain? If your ambition is to be good and you accomplish it, how can you be greedy? If a leader treats everyone equally no matter whether they are many or few or humble or great, he is confident without being arrogant. If a leader wears his robe and cap correctly, his gaze is straight, and he carries himself with a dignified air that inspires the people’s awe, he is imposing but not frightening.”

Zizhang said: “What are the four vices?” Confucius said: “If you execute people without attempting to reform them you are being cruel; if you carry out an inspection of a public works project without giving a prior warning you are being tyrannical; if you expect the immediate completion of a project after being slow to approve it, you are acting like a thief; if you are tight-fisted in paying people what is rightfully theirs, you are being bureaucratic.”

This passage features another reprise of a common theme of Confucius’s teachings: namely, that people in power have a responsibility to treat the common people in the same way that they would expect to be treated. Continue reading The five virtues and four vices

Scant consolation

Confucius said: “It is five generations since control of appointments fell out of the hands of the ducal house. It is four generations since government fell into the hands of the grand families. For this reason, the descendants of the three houses of Huan families will fall into obscurity.”

Having vividly described the risk of a country collapsing when “the Way does not prevail” in Chapter II of Book 16, Confucius goes on to analyze how this applies to his home state of Lu in Chapter III. Continue reading Scant consolation

When the Way prevails in the world

When the emperor sits on his throne radiating virtue, harmony is ensured at all levels of the social hierarchy. However, when the emperor fails in his duty, the feudal lords, grand families, and junior officials scramble for influence and power. Once they gain control, it’s only a matter of time before the state collapses and chaos ensues. Continue reading When the Way prevails in the world

Best of breed

When Yan Hui asked how to govern a state, Confucius said: “Observe the calendar of the Xia Dynasty; ride in the chariot of Yin Dynasty; wear the ceremonial cap of the Zhou Dynasty. As for music, follow the Coronation Hymn of Shun and the Victory Hymn of Wu. Ban the music of Zheng. Stay away from smooth talkers. The music of Zheng corrupts. Smooth talkers are dangerous.”

Far from advising his favorite disciple Yan Hui to copy slavishly from the past, Confucius is telling him to adopt only the finest traditions and practices from previous dynasties. Continue reading Best of breed

Confucius on effortless action

Confucius said: “If there was a ruler who achieved order through effortless action it was Shun, wasn’t it? How did he do it? He composed himself with reverence and sat facing south. That was all.”

Effortless action (無為/wúwéi) is a term much more closely identified with Daoist teaching than Confucius, which is hardly surprising given that this is the only time it appears in the Analects. Continue reading Confucius on effortless action

Half an answer

Confucius said that Duke Ling of Wei didn’t follow the Way. Ji Kangzi said: “If this is the case, how come he has not lost his state?” Confucius said: “He has Zhong Yuzhen looking after guests and foreign delegations, Zhu Tuo taking care of the ancestral temple, and Wangsun Jia in charge of defense. With such officials as these, how could he possibly lose his state?”

Confucius had history with the notorious Duke Ling of Wei, including an ill-judged, if not downright suspicious, audience with the duke’s scheming concubine Nanzi (南子) in Chapter XXVIII of Book 6 of the Analects. Continue reading Half an answer

People and processes

Confucius said: “Whenever a government edict needed to be written, Pi Chen prepared the first draft, Shi Shu reviewed and revised it, Ziyu, the head of protocol, edited it, and Zichan of Dongli gave it a final polish.”

Confucius was a great admirer of Zichan, the prime minister of Zheng (鄭國) from 544 BC until 522 BC who drove the implementation of extensive government, agriculture, business, and social reforms in the state. Continue reading People and processes