Analects of Confucius Book 10 on ritual behavior: Confucius at court

We do not just read what Confucius has to say about ritual in the Analects. We also learn how he acts according to its rules and conventions in all aspects of his daily life, whether it be at home or at court or in how he eats and dresses.

In Book 10, we see Confucius at court chatting with other officials, welcoming guests, and preparing to attend an audience with his ruler. He is so immersed in the conventions of court ritual that his actions are effortlessly appropriate for the demands of each specific situation he encounters.

Because Confucius does not have to worry about what kind of expression he needs to have on his face, when he needs to bow, or even the speed at which he needs to walk, he is fully present and at each and every moment and makes the most of the majesty and meaning of the proceedings.

Here are five passages describing how Confucius conducted himself at court from Book 10 of the Analects:

When he was in the ancestral temple or at court he spoke with eloquence but due caution.

When he was at court chatting with officials in the lower ranks, he was genial; when he was chatting with officials in the upper ranks, he was direct but respectful. When the ruler was present, he was reverent but composed.

When the ruler instructed him to welcome guests to court, he assumed a serious expression on his face and walked at a rapid pace. He clasped his hands in front of his chest and bowed towards those standing beside him, turning to the left and the right, and made sure that his gown flowed backwards and forwards in perfect rhythm with the movements of his body. He approached the guests in quick, small steps, his sleeves fluttering like the wings of a bird. After seeing off the guests, he always returned to announce: “The guests have gone.”

When entering the gate of the duke’s palace, he bowed his head respectfully as if it were not high enough. He never paused in the middle of the gateway, nor did he step on the threshold. When he passed in front of the duke’s throne, he adopted a serious expression on his face, quickened his step, and showed great reluctance to speak. When he lifted up the hem of his gown in preparation for walking up the steps of the audience hall, he inhaled deeply as if he didn’t dare to breathe. On leaving, after descending the first step, an expression of ease enveloped his face. When he reached the bottom step, he walked swiftly, as if on wings. On returning to his original position, he assumed a respectful and cautious demeanor once again.

When carrying a jade tablet, he bowed as if it was too heavy to lift. When he held it high, he looked as if he was going to give a greeting; when he held it low he looked as if he was going to make an offering. He adopted a solemn expression as if he was going off into battle, and he walked in short measured steps as if he was following a straight line. When participating in a ritual ceremony, he looked dignified. When in a private meeting, he looked happy and relaxed.

Analects Book 10: Links
Book 10, Chapter 1
Book 10, Chapter 2
Book 10, Chapter 3
Book 10, Chapter 4
Book 10, Chapter 5

It is debatable whether the passages in Book 10 describe Confucius himself or whether they were lifted from a style manual detailing how a gentleman should behave according to ritual. If the latter is the case, the point of these passages is to illustrate how Confucius would have conducted himself.

The image is of Beijing Confucius Temple.



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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.