Analects Book 18: a pivotal moment

Analects 18.4 features the most pivotal moment in the life of Confucius, when he stormed out of his home state of Lu in 497 BCE at the age of fifty-five for what turned out to be fourteen years of exile.

According to the chapter, Confucius departed in disgust at Ji Huanzi, the chief minister of Lu, accepting a gift of a troupe of female entertainers from the state of Qi and cavorting with them for three days. What is left unsaid is that according to the dictates of diplomatic ritual, Ji would not have been able to receive a gift from another state himself as chief minister and therefore accepted it on behalf of Duke Ding, the titular ruler of Lu, who no doubt joined him in enjoying the company of the entertainers.

Sima Qian provides an even more elaborate account of Confucius’s sudden departure in The Records of the Historian. He claims that Duke Jing of Qi and his senior officials had become so alarmed by the wonderful job that Confucius was doing as minister of crime that they were afraid he would transform Lu into a serious rival if he rose further in the government. To prevent that from happening, they sent eight stunning female entertainers and sixty pairs of fine horses as a gift to divert the attention of the duke from Confucius and the serious business of ruling the state. When Duke Ding and Ji Huanzi fell for their cunning plan hook, line, and sinker, Confucius had no choice but to resign in protest.

Sima Qian’s tale is so obviously designed to big up the reputation of Confucius that it is barely plausible. Even if the account in the Analects contains some elements of truth, it is highly unlikely that it tells the full story of why Confucius sacrificed everything he had worked so hard to achieve at the height of his political career.

Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that Confucius used the incident (assuming of course it actually occurred) as a pretext to leave Lu before he was forced out after a failed attempt to destroy the power bases of the Three Families following a major rebellion the previous year. Although Duke Ding and even Ji Huanzi initially supported Confucius’s efforts to restore stability to the state after the rebellion, they soon cooled on the idea as opposition to his proposed reforms grew, particularly from the Shu family. With nobody to protect him, Confucius ultimately had no choice but to get the hell out of Dodge, so to speak, in order to avoid being ejected from office and perhaps even suffering a much crueler fate.

Whatever the real reason for his departure, Confucius and the followers who accompanied him had an extremely tough time during fourteen years of wandering nearby states in search of employment, coming close to death on at least a couple of occasions. The irony is that if Confucius had succeeded with his reforms in Lu, he would probably have gone down at best as a historical footnote, but by heading off into exile he was unintentionally able to create a potent legacy that has endured for over two millennia.

I shot this image in a hillside temple on the Four Beasts near to Taipei.

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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.