Analects Book 14: Confucius vents his spleen at a rotten and rancid regime

Confucius’s call in 14.21 for Duke Ai to use armed force to punish the state of Qi following the murder of its ruler Duke Jian is remarkable given his previous lack of interest in martial affairs, which is best exemplified in 15.1 when he leaves the state of Wei after telling its ruler Duke Ling: “Although I have experience in handling ritual vessels, I have never studied military matters.”

If the account of his audience with Duke Ai in the Commentary of Zuo is to be believed, Confucius was even more adamant that his ruler should let slip the dogs of war on the usurper Chen Heng than is recorded in the Analects. Not only does he insist three times that his ruler should launch a military strike against Qi; he also claims with zero evidence that at least 50% of Qi’s population would support Lu when Duke Ai questions what the result of his proposed intervention would be.

To make the whole sorry affair even stranger, Confucius must have been well aware that Duke Ai didn’t even have an army of his own to send to Qi even if he wanted to. Control of the military had long been ceded to the Three Families.

Why does Confucius push Duke Ai so hard when he knows that his ruler is unable to act? It is tempting to conclude that he is venting his spleen at the sheer powerlessness of both himself and the duke to influence events in Lu. Despite their prestige, the two men are mere figureheads used to bolster the credibility of a rotten and rancid regime.

Duke Ai does not have much choice but to tell Confucius to pursue the matter with the Three Families, the true power behind his throne. Why risk suffering the same fate as his counterpart in Qi by getting involved in such a questionable endeavor?

Unlike the account in the Analects, the Commentary of Zuo states that Confucius declined his ruler’s request to talk to the Three Families. Even though it is unlikely that Confucius would have violated ritual propriety in such a way, this would have been a sensible decision. Who could possibly blame him for refusing to subject himself to further humiliation from the very men who were destroying the foundations of the civilization he had dedicated his whole life to protecting and reviving?

This image was taken in the tomb of the mother of Mencius just outside Qufu.

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I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.

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Richard Brown

Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.

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