Analects of Confucius Book 8 overview: from sage kings to ritual and music

I have completed my work on Book 8 of the Analects of Confucius, at least for now. Talk about a long hot summer! I’m not sure I ever really recovered my enthusiasm for the text after having to battle through five chapters of the follower Zengzi early on in the book. Why spend time on the stilted prognostications of a pale imitation of the sage when you can go direct to the source?

Myths and counter-myths

The most enjoyable part of reading the book was digging through the myths and counter-myths surrounding the legendary sage kings Yao, Shun, and Yu in the final five chapters. Were these three men truly the paragons of leaderly virtue that Confucius praises to the skies? Did Yao and Shun really voluntarily cede power to their hand-picked successor rather than keep it in the family? Or were they summarily kicked off the throne when they became too old and weak to maintain their grip on it and bundled off into exile or prison?

For what it’s worth, I believe that the darker side of the narrative is more likely and the stories of Yao and Shun abdicating were made up by their successors to bolster their claim to legitimacy. Still, the myth of the virtuous ruler giving up power of their own accord to a better man for the job is an extremely powerful one. It’s certainly not one that is found in European history, where primogeniture was, and indeed still is the order of the day, for royalty and nobility. Even under China’s dynastic system, the successor to an emperor wasn’t necessarily his oldest son.

Ritual and music

One of the great achievements the sage king Yao is celebrated for is the creation of ritual to bind the diverse cultures of his nascent state more closely together. Ritual is of course a key plank of Confucius’s thought, and not surprisingly Book 8 contains a couple of his musings on the topic.

In 8.2, he emphasizes the role it can play in making sure people don’t cross the line in their behavior, remarking: “Reverence unregulated by ritual descends into indifference; cautiousness unregulated by ritual descends into timidity; boldness unregulated by ritual descends into disorder; frankness unregulated by ritual descends into hurtfulness.” In 8.8, he goes on to advise you to “establish character with ritual” and “achieve perfection” with its close cousin, music — no better example of which he can find than the “rich and beautiful music” of the music master Zhi that fills his ears in 8.15.

Career development

In the middle section of the book, Confucius offers some wise career development advice that is just as applicable today as it was in his time. After cautioning you to curb your arrogance in 8.11, he implies that you shouldn’t rush into taking your first job before completing your education in the next one. In 8.13 he emphasizes the importance of choosing the right boss and working environment and follows up in 8.14 by telling you to mind your own knitting rather than worry about others are doing.

Despairing of humanity?

There are couple of times in Book 8, however, when Confucius appears on the verge of giving up on humanity — most notably in 8.18 when he laments: “I don’t understand people who are reckless and insincere, ignorant and irresponsible, and naïve and untrustworthy.” Perhaps it’s the bone-headedness of his contemporaries that makes him close the book by seeking solace and inspiration of the mythical sage kings of the past!



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

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