Confucius, Rites and Human Nature

Confucius, Philosopher of the Chinese, published by Jesuit missionaries at Paris in 1687.

Confucius is a great thinker in ancient China. He created the golden rules of Chinese philosophy and was committed to bringing the social and political life to order.

Confucius believed that Li, the rules that guide the daily lives of people in Zhou Dynasty (about 1,000B.C.–221B.C.), is the base of a stable and better society. For his whole life, Confucius stuck to Li and tried not to break its rites. But in some circumstances, Confucius made compromises with people, including himself, who broke Li for human nature.

Rites of Death and Confucianism

In book 11 of the Analects of Confucius, Confucius insisted on the rites of Li after his favorite disciple died. When Yan Yuan died, Yan Lu asked Confucius if Yan Yuan could get an outer shell for his coffin.

In the rites of death in the Zhou Dynasty, only important nobles could have Guo, which is an outer shell that covers coffins, after they died. The Son of Heaven (King of the Zhou Dynasty) could have four layers of outer shells. A duke could have three layers. A prince could have two layers. A senior official could have one layer.

Yan Yuan, also known as Yan Hui, was one of Confucius’ best disciples. One day Chi Kang asked Confucius which of the disciples was the best. Confucius said, “There was Yen Yuan. He loved to learn. Unfortunately his time was short, and he died. Now there is no one who loves to learn as he did.”

But Yan Yuan was a civilian and not qualified for getting an outer shell for his coffin. His father was also a Confucian and he knew that. But in Chinese culture, the rites of death are so important that many people want to honor their departed beloved as much as possible. As a result, Yan Lu asked for an improper outer shell for his son.

But Confucius refused Yan Lu’s request. He said, “When my son died, he had a coffin but no outer shell. I would not walk on foot and make my carriage an outer shell for him, for I am an officer and it is improper that I walk on foot on the street.”

Li and Human Nature

Later the disciples buried Yan Yuan in great style. The Master found that and said, “Yan Hui treated me as his father. I have not been able to treat him as my son. The fault is not mine. It belongs to you, my disciples.” Yan Hui was one of the most faithful Confucians. Confucius knew that his disciple would never accept this style if he was still alive.

Here Confucius stuck to the rules even when his beloved son and disciple died. But he also broke the rules himself at the same time. When Yan Yuan died, Confucius said, “Alas! Heaven is destroying me! Heaven is destroying me! ” He bewailed Yan Yuan exceedingly, and the disciples by his side said, “Master, your grief is excessive! This is improper according to Li.” But Confucius said, “Is it excessive? If I can not mourn for him, for whom should I mourn?” Here Confucius broke Li when the rules confine the grief of human nature.


  1. Confucius and his disciples, Analects of Confucius (about 450 B.C.–250 B.C.)