Tag Archives: governance

Let lords be lords

Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about governance. Confucius replied: “Let lords be lords; ministers be ministers; fathers be fathers; and sons be sons.” The Duke said: “Excellent! If lords are not lords, ministers are not ministers, fathers are not fathers, and sons are not sons, would I be able to eat even if I had food?”

This famous passage is of course open to wildly different interpretations depending on what side of the political spectrum you are looking at it from. When Confucius says “let lords be lords” he means that they should act in an ethical and responsible manner towards the people they rule – one based on mutual respect and understanding so that social harmony is achieved. Continue reading Let lords be lords

Unintended irony


Shun ruled his empire with only five ministers. King Wu of Zhou said: “I have ten able ministers to keep everything in order.” Confucius said: “Talented people are hard to find: are they not? The times of Yao and Shun were said to be rich in talent, but King Wu was only able to find nine such men because one of his ministers was a woman. Although the Zhou controlled over two-thirds of the empire, it still served the Shang. You can truly say that the virtue of the Zhou was supreme.”

Ah, the power of unintended irony! Here we have Confucius complaining that talented people are hard to find while in virtually the same breath blithely discounting the female half of the population as a potential source of it. After all, what could the wife of King Wu (周武王), the founder of the Zhou Dynasty and the elder brother of Confucius’s hero the Duke of Zhou (周公), possibly know about managing an empire?

Leaving its crass sexism aside, this comment highlights one of Confucius’s major weaknesses as a thinker: while he is very good at dredging up anecdotes from the past to illustrate the points he wants to put across, he lacks the imagination to develop alternative analyses and interpretations – let alone make the intellectual leap required to propose new solutions for the problems he identifies.

In the final section, Confucius goes on to praise King Wu for allowing the previous Shang Dynasty (商朝) to remain in existence even while occupying most of its territory to establish his new Zhou Dynasty. By accomplishing this balancing act, the king was able to confer legitimacy on his new regime by showing respect for the most sacred traditions of the past while offering a vision of a more prosperous and stable future under his virtuous guidance.

Quite a neat political trick when you think about it. Confucius certainly fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

Boundless virtue


子曰:「大哉堯之為君也,巍巍乎,唯天為大,唯堯則之,蕩蕩乎,民無能名焉。巍巍乎,其有成功也,煥乎,其有文章。」 Confucius said: “What a great ruler Yao was! Absolutely majestic! Only Heaven is great, and only Yao was able to emulate it. His virtue was so great that the people could find no words to describe it. How stunning were his achievements, and how marvelous the culture was that he created!”

Having extolled the virtues of Shun (舜) and Yu (禹), Confucius heaps even higher levels of praise on their predecessor Yao (堯), the first of the great sage emperors of China. In addition to being renowned for his high moral virtue, Yao is credited with having laid the foundations of China’s feudal society by establishing a calendar system, making maps of the kingdom, and initiating flood control projects. Continue reading Boundless virtue

Majestic virtue


Confucius said: “How majestic was the manner in which Shun and Yu ruled over the world but treated none of it as their own.”

This passage has an echo of the theme of the first chapter of Book 8, in which Confucius praised Tai Bo, the eldest son of the founding ancestor of the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) [1046–256 BC], who voluntarily left the kingdom of Zhou to enable his father to designate his youngest brother Jili (季歷), who was renowned for his great wisdom, as heir to the throne. Continue reading Majestic virtue

A single reform


Confucius said: “With a single reform, the state of Qi could reach the level of the state of Lu; with a single reform, the state of Lu could reach the Way.”

What a shame! Just as Confucius’s musings on wisdom and goodness were gaining steam, he (or to be more accurate, the chroniclers who actually put together the Analects) moves from the rarified air of philosophy to the more mundane world of politics and statecraft – producing in the process possibly the first ever country ranking table in world history. Continue reading A single reform

The right sort of people


When Ziyou became governor of Wucheng, Confucius asked him: “Have you managed to get hold of the right sort of people there?” He replied: “There is one called Tantai Mieming. He takes no shortcuts and he has never visited me at home, except on official business.”

No matter how talented you are as an individual you need to be supported by a strong team of the right sort of people if you are to be successful. This is the advice that Confucius gives to his disciple Ziyou when he assumes the position of governor of Wucheng, a city in the southern part of the state of Lu. Continue reading The right sort of people