Confucius and the Arts

[8:8] Confucius said: “Be aroused by poetry; structure yourself with propriety, refine yourself with music.” (trans. A.C. Muller)

This quotation above, from the Analects of Confucius in many ways epitomizes the ideal Confucian lifestyle: the life of a gentleman.1 For the life of me though, I could never understand why Confucius placed such a heavy emphasis on poetry and music. If you search through the text of the Analects, references of music show up a lot. Confucius placed heavy emphasis on the ancient Book of Songs also known as Book of Odes, and in some cases gave the Odes a much deeper interpretation than one might suspect:

[3:8] Zixia quoted the following:

Her tactful smile charms;
Her eyes, fine and clear,
Beautiful without accessories.

And asked its meaning. Confucius said, “A painting is done on plain white paper.” Zixia said, “Then are rituals a secondary thing?” Confucius said, “Ah, Shang, you uplift me. Now we can really begin to discuss the Book of Odes.” (trans. A.C. Muller)


[2:2] Confucius said: “The 300 verses of the Book of Odes can be summed up in a single phrase: ‘Don’t think in an evil way.’” (trans. A.C. Muller)

Even later in China and Japan, the ideal leader was a kind of scholar-literati. In my recent studies of Sugawara no Michizane in Robert Borgen’s excellent biography, he epitomized the Chinese-Confucian scholar, even as Japan was gradually moving away from this model in the late Heian Period. His administration as governor of the province of Sanuki met with only middling success, not because he lacked culture and education, but just because he had little practical, political skill dealing with people outside the Court.

So, was Confucius just really out of touch with reality, then? Was he just naive and idealistic? After reading about Sugawara no Michizane, I assumed that was the case, but then after reading some commentaries on the Analects, one researcher made the comment that Confucius placed a heavy emphasis on the “soft” arts (music, poetry, etc) because of their calming, soothing effect on people. You might say that he felt it was “good for the soul”. ;)

For example, see this excerpt from the Analects:

[7:14] When Confucius was in Qi, he heard the Shao music, and for three months did not know the taste of meat. He said, “I never knew music could reach this level of excellence!” (trans. A.C. Muller)

We’re somewhat desensitized now because we’re bombarded with music, videos, TV and so on, but remember in those days a good song was a rare treasure. Very few people could enjoy Mozart until the modern era.

Also, Confucius abhorred violence, war and martial prowess, so the arts and literature were a way of cultivating a more humane character which was badly needed in his time. Remember that he lived in the Spring and Autumn Period, when traditional rulers were being overthrown by scheming ministers, and various states once loyal to the Zhou Dynasty (pronounced like “Joe”) were sharpening their knives and vying with one another. Confucius’s own home-state of Lu was a good use-case in the break-down of the traditional order, as three nobles families, once loyal to the Duke took, took matters into their own hands and fought with one another for supremacy. If anything, Confucius wanted to restore a more peaceful, virtuous time to China and sought to patronize culture and personal responsibility.

Centuries later in Japan, the Heian Court of Sugawara no Michizane’s represents a high-point in Japanese culture with its fashion, literature and poetry, even if the Court was a very closed, hierarchical and aristocratic society. Sugawara’s time in Sanuki showed that people outside the Capitol lived in poverty, and were at the whim of corrupt local rulers and tax collections. But to its credit, unlike the Warring States Period and other periods of mass-violence, life in Heian times was relatively peaceful until the very end when scheming groups broke out into full-scale war. The Heian Period represented a kind of dysfunctional oligarchy, but the alternative was certainly far worse, and the culture of the time is still felt and appreciated even today in contemporary Japan and among Western nerds like myself.

So maybe Confucius wasn’t so naive after all.

1 Although woman have little or no presence in the Classical teachings of Confucius, in my view the Confucian ideal applies just as much to women as to men. Of course, the word “gentleman” would be replaced by the analogous term “lady”, but the concept ought to be the same. There’s little in Confucius’s actual words that is overtly male-centric. He just had a male audience to work with.

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