Analects Book 18: contemporary figures

Analects Book 18 features quite an array of contemporary figures, ranging from a wildly decadent ruler and chief minister to mythical recluses and orchestral musicians fleeing from the court of Duke Ai of Lu.

Probably the best known of all of these figures is Duke Jing of Qi, who is found in 18.3 agonizing over what status he should accord to Confucius when the sage pays him as visit as he considers whether to offer him a senior position in his government. Ultimately, Duke Jing decides not to employ Confucius — ostensibly because the duke is too old, but more likely because of pressure from his senior ministers afraid of being shown up by the outsider from Lu.

Like a number of other rulers from this period, Duke Jing started out as an enthusiastic and capable sovereign when working in tandem with his great chief minister Yan Ying. However, as the years went by, the duke became tired of the arduous responsibilities of government and succumbed to the manifold temptations of a life of lavish luxury and unbridled pleasure.

When Duke Jing anointed the son of his favorite concubine Yu Si as his successor instead of one of the four sons of his first wife, he sent the court spiraling into a state of chaos and factional strife from which the state of Qi never fully recovered. Confucius’s remarks in 16.12 probably provide the most fitting epitaph to the duke’s tumultuous reign: “Duke Jing of Qi had a thousand war chariots. On the day of his death, the common people could find no virtue to praise him for.”

18.4 marks the first and only appearance by name of Ji Huanzi, the predecessor to his son Ji Kangzi as the chief minister of Lu and head of the powerful Ji family. And what a momentous appearance it is! By accepting a troupe of female entertainers sent by the state of Qi on behalf of the Duke of Lu, Ji sends Confucius into such a fit of anger that the sage storms out of his home state for what turned out to be fourteen miserable years of exile.

Whether Ji Huanzi’s behavior was the real reason why Confucius departed from Lu is open to debate. However, it is clear that the relationship between Confucius and Ji Huanzi was always a rocky one, with the sage accusing Ji of attempting to usurp power from the state’s rightful ruler and Ji suspecting Confucius of accumulating a powerbase of his own in his attempts to weaken the control of the Ji, Meng, and Shu families on the state. Perhaps the incident described in 18.4 was the straw that broke the camel’s back so to speak.

Liuxia Hui is the posthumous name of an official called Zhan Qin, who first appears in 15.14 of the Analects. In 18.2, he stresses his commitment to following a “straight path” as a magistrate even though his refusal to bend to external pressures and enticements caused him to be dismissed three times. As a member of a leading noble family in Lu, Liuxia Hui most likely did not have to worry about the financial impact of losing a job, but his dedication to doing the right thing is admirable, nonetheless. This is probably why Confucius praises him in 18.8 for speaking “with reason” and acting “with prudence.”

The passages in 18.5, 18.6, and 18.7 include a number of recluses who have retired to a simple life in the countryside out of disgust and despair at the corruption and decadence that reigned over the courts of the many states that comprised the Zhou dynasty during Confucius’s lifetime.

Of these recluses, only Jieyu, the Madman of Chu, is likely to have actually existed. He is said to have been given this moniker after he feigned insanity to avoid serving as an official of King Zhao of Chu, and various stories about him can be found in Warring States texts such as the Zhuangzi. In his encounter with Confucius in 18.5, Jieyu shows himself to be extremely erudite with the ironic comparison he makes between Confucius and the phoenix. He is not afraid to pull his punches either with his withering criticism of the sage’s refusal to give up his doomed quest for a senior government post.

The recluses Changju and Jieni show the same characteristics as Jieyu with the sharp rebukes of Confucius that they make to Zilu in 18.6. Since their names mean “standing tall above the marsh” and “rising above the mud” respectively, Changju and Jieni are almost certainly allegorical figures rather than real ones. The anonymous old man and his two sons that Zilu comes across in 18.7 are most probably allegorical as well judging by the ritual courtesy with which they welcome him and the sophistication of their language.

While Confucius refuses to give up his dream of restoring the Zhou dynasty to its former greatness, these recluses have abandoned their worldly ambitions and found contentment and peace in simple rural living.

The last group of contemporary figures mentioned in Book 18 comprises a list of musicians who fled the court of Duke Ai of Lu in search of greener pastures in other states. The most notable of these is the music master Zhi, who Confucius praises highly in 8.15: “What rich and beautiful music fills my ears when Zhi, the music master, is conducting.” Nothing is known about the seven others except for their names, role in the orchestra, and where they went to:

“Zhi, the music master, left for Qi. Gan, conductor for the second course, left for Chu. Liao, conductor for the third course, left for Cai. Que, conductor for the fourth course, left for Qin. Fangshu, the drummer, crossed the river. Wu, the hand drummer, crossed the Han River. Yang, the music master’s deputy, and Xiang, the stone chime player, went to live by the sea.”

Similar to 8.5–8.7, 8.9 is imbued with a strong sense of symbolism. Like their counterparts during the fall of the Shang dynasty, the musicians are said to have fled the court in despair at the decadence of their ruler. The collapse of music and ritual caused by their departure signifies the end of good government in Lu and presages darker days ahead for the state.

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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.