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Analects | Book 3 | Summary



Book 3 focuses on the importance of ritual, which includes the guidelines and expectations for correct behavior in both social and religious situations. in Chapter 3, the Master says both ritual and music (closely associated with ritual) are essential to humaneness. Because of ritual, even Chinese states without rulers are superior to barbarian peoples. It is particularly important for superiors to follow ritual in dealing with those beneath them so as not to abuse their power. Nor should one use rituals meant for one's own superiors. The Master criticizes the Three Families (which included the Ji family) for using rituals reserved for the Son of Heaven, the divinely appointed ruler.

However, ritual is not everything. Moral behavior is the "plain silk" on which the "decoration" of ritual can be applied, and ritual without sincerity is meaningless. The essential quality of ritual is reverence, as the essence of mourning is real sorrow. The Master indicates personal involvement in a sacrifice ritual is more important than the form of the ritual and criticizes a couple of rituals, presumably because they do not live up to his standards. He even cautions in Chapter 18 that full observation of ritual toward a ruler can seem like excessive flattery.

Passages extolling the greatness of the Master occur mostly in later books, believed to be recorded much longer after his life. However, Chapter 24 is a notable exception. In a well-known early passage the Master's importance is apparently foretold by a border keeper, who calls the Master a "warning-bell."


In Western society ritual is usually associated with religious practices, so it is important to understand that the concept of ritual (li) in Chinese culture is much broader. It does encompass religious rituals such as sacrifices to the spirits, but it also includes the proper form of interaction with any other member of society in almost any situation. It is particularly important between people of unequal statuses to ensure, among other things, respect toward those above and consideration toward those below. As seen in many chapters, ritual should always be applied sincerely or it loses its connection to humaneness.

Confucian philosophy also values moderation in all things. This value is implied rather than explicitly stated in The Analects, but it is evident in passages such as Chapter 20 in which the Master praises the moderation of emotion in the Guan ju (Kwan Tsu), the first piece in the Book of Songs. The Master also recommends in Chapter 7 gentlemen avoid intense competition in archery contests to preserve harmony between contestants.

Many passages in The Analects use analogy and metaphor, requiring a deeper reading to interpret them. In some cases knowledge of Chinese culture and history adds even deeper meaning, such as in Chapter 3.13. Ostensibly, a man asked about ritual: whether it was preferable to pay attention to the stove god (who might respond more quickly) than to the spirits addressed in the southwest corner of the house (the place of higher honor). However, the man, a government minister, was also indirectly asking if people should be appealing to him, implying he could help them more quickly, rather than to the divinely appointed ruler. The Master tells him not to offend Heaven, rejecting the minister's selfish proposal.

A rhetorical structure used frequently by the Master occurs a couple times in Book 3. In his Chapter 1 condemnation of the Ji family's use of rituals reserved for the divine ruler, the Master asks, "If this can be endured, what cannot be endured?" In another passage in Chapter 22, he asks, "If even Guan Zhong understood the rites, who does not understand the rites?" The situation proposed in the second part of these statements is obviously false, pointing out that the situation in the beginning (the "if" part) is likewise false. In other words the Ji family's use of divine rituals cannot be endured, and Guan Zhong does not understand the rites (rituals).

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