Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Is Nepotism Essential to Confucianism?

(I’ve moved this up to the front, since there is a great discussion going on in the comments.)

Always a question; it usually comes up in the context of reading the Analects, at 13.18:

“The Duke of She said to Master Kong: ‘In my native place, there is a man named Straight Body [or, Upright Gong]. When his father stole a sheep, he bore witness against him.’ Master Kong said: ‘In my native place, straight [or, upright] people are different from this man: Father conceals for son and son conceals for father. Straightness lies therein.” (Chichung Huang translation)

January 26th, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Confucianism, Confucius | 15 comments

15 Responses to Is Nepotism Essential to Confucianism?

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Is this nepotism or an illustration of how conventional social norms can differ (prompting us to consider the reasons that animate the respective norms)?

  2. David Morrow says:

    How much active duplicity must be involved in “concealing” a father’s crime? Would it count as “concealing” if an upright son to refuse to testify against his father (to “take the fifth”), or would he need to testify that his father did not commit the crime? I think this would make an important difference to the effect of nepotism on a society.

    Are there other passages or translations that illuminate this?

  3. Thomas Wood says:

    This is sort of like the Euthyphro isn’t it? Is it ethical to sell out your dad? Perhaps the key to understanding both is that the presumption of Athens and Warring States China was that family comes first in ethical dilemmas and that Euthyphro and Upright Gong lack sufficient reasons to go against the societal norms?

  4. Manyul Im says:

    Patrick; that’s interesting, but I’m not sure why Confucius would want to make that point since he doesn’t really seem interested in reasons. He’s the “transmitter” of pre-existing norms, isn’t he (Analects 7.1)?

    Thomas; that’s interesting too, but why wouldn’t punishing theft and negligent homicide count as good reasons to go against societal norms–for either Confucius or Socrates?

    Also, I realize that after my long post(s) on “Confucianism” this is an odd question to ask. Maybe I should rephrase the question to: “Do all or most Confucians have reasons to be sympathetic to nepotism?”

  5. Boram Lee says:

    My favorite passage in this connection is Mencius 7A35. What would the sage king Shun do if his father the Blind Man murdered someone (Shun being the paragon of filial devotion, and the “Blind Man” being a rotten scoundrel who can never appreciate his son’s devotion)? Mencius’s answer: Shun would carry his father on his back and secretly flee his own country, so as to escape the law of his own Minister of Crime.

    The last detail is interesting. Since he was the king after all, Shun presumably could have bent the rules just for his own father’s sake. IMHO that would have been nepotism, but Mencius seems to believe one shouldn’t do that.

  6. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I don’t think Confucius was *merely* the transmitter of pre-existing norms. Did not Confucius alter the meaning of norms associated with, say, the junzi, or with li? In transmitting hallowed norms Confucius was in effect also interpreting if not changing them, in effect providing us criteria (proffering reasons, if only by example or implication) by which, for instance, we could discriminate between an improper and improper reading and understanding of the Odes. Were edicts or laws and punishments pre-existing norms? If so, Confucius clearly critiqued reliance on them over and above li and ren. At the very least, it seems the meaning of such norms was not transparent and thus contestable and open to interpretation. The Analects would seem to provide us, through Confucius’s examples, his dialogues with students and others, and so forth, criteria (or ‘authority’) by which we can interpret and understand the norms of the past. This is not, that is, an example of tradition for tradition’s sake, something along the lines of a Burkean-like veneration of tradition simpliciter. Jen (of the junzi or the sage) allows one to crtique or change social norms. How does one come to a decision like that in 3.14 (Lau trans.), in which Confucius is able to uphold the model of the Chou dynasty? Why the interrogative approach with regard to li in the very next verse? Sometimes the li are in need of revision: 9.3. Moral self-cultivation is not merely about the transmission of pre-existing norms even if, in one sense, socialization or enculturation into such norms is what facilitates moral awakening and growth. Of course much more could be said, but perhaps another day or different context.

  7. Manyul Im says:

    I take Boram’s point to be this: Perhaps the emphasis in early Confucianism is on something broader, like the primacy of loyalty or obligation to family. That is why the sage king Shun is depicted by Mencius as willing to “walk away” from being king in order both to be loyal to his (step)father *and* to avoid showing special, unjust favor to his father. To show special favor to his father, then, would answer to the narrower idea of nepotism, under which those who are related to you are shielded from the normal workings of law and justice.

    However, I’m not sure I understand how leaving the kingdom with his father on his back would make Shun any less nepotistic, even by that narrow definition. After all, the alternative that Shun escapes in the hypothetical situation of 7A35 is justice being carried out against his father for murder. So, though Shun does not make a special dispensation, as a king, on his father’s behalf in order to shield his father from justice, Shun still does something in order to shield him–he runs off with the old man and forsakes the kingdom. I think that just means Shun avoids something like “institutional” nepotism, nonetheless he still engages in–for lack of better terms–“moral” nepotism, doesn’t he?

    As a relevant additional note, in Mencius 5A3, Shun is depicted *favorably* by Mencius as engaging exactly in the kind of institutional nepotism I’ve distinguished, with his (step)brother, Xiang. Xiang is enfoeffed in some distant region by Shun, rather than executed, though execution is the normal punishment for attempted regicide. (Xiang was not a nice brother.) Mencius describes the principle behind all this in the following way: “A benevolent man never harbours anger or nurses a grudge against a brother. All he does is to love him. Because he loves him, he wishes him to enjoy rank; because he loves him, he wishes him to enjoy wealth…”

    So, I’m not sure Mencius is the place to find anti-nepotism passages. But, maybe there are subtleties I’m running too roughly over…let me know.

  8. Thomas Wood says:

    I recall reading an interpretation of early Confucian ideas which emphasized that many passages could only be understood as a reaction to an opposing line of thought. Perhaps these passages reflect Confucius’ and Mencius’ dogged opposition to some such opposing school. Perhaps Mozi’s school? Favoring your parents and family more could be seen as reaction against Mozi’s doctrines, specifically, bo-ai (“universal love?”).

    This would make the early Confucians similar to the Taoists in that they both would use exaggerated examples as response to opposing doctrines. Much of the Zhuangzi corpus appears, to me at least, to employ such a rhetorical maneuver.

  9. Boram Lee says:

    Manyul, thanks. I did forget about Mencius 5A3, selective amnesia I guess. Taking 5A3 into account, here are my further reflections.

    (1) Mencius 5A3 belongs to a group of related passages in 5A, devoted to exegetical discussion of historical or pseudo-historical events involving the sages. Mencius is not at liberty here to recommend what the sages would have done in counterfactual situations (as in 7A35), but to justify or excuse purpotedly historical actions. This places Mencius in an awkward position. To use an analogy, Mencius’s position in 5A3 is somewhat like that of a Christian who is challenged to explain the divinely sanctioned genocides recorded in the Old Testament.

    (2) Even then, Mencius tries to mitigate the implication of nepotism by pointing out: “Xiang was not allowed to take any action in his fief. The Emperor [i.e., Shun] appointed officials to administer the fief and to collect tributes and taxes. For this reason it was described as banishment. Xiang was certainly not permitted to ill-use the people.” (Lau translation)

    (3) Returning to Mencius 7A35, I appreciate your distinction between institutional and moral nepotism. Is Mencius’s recommendation in 7A35 in favor of moral nepotism, then? I would hesitate to think so. What we have in 7A35 is a tragic situation, like Abraham having to choose between his son and obediance to God, involving conflict between different moral norms and values. No choice made in such tragic situations is going to be morally satisfactory, and it does not follow that the tragic choice should be generalized to non-tragic situations. Just because Abraham chose to sacrifice his son in obediance to God, doesn’t mean that everyone should sacrifice their first-born when God doesn’t specifically command it. Just because Shun would choose to flee the country with his father on his back, doesn’t mean everyone should actively promote their own kin at the expense of strangers.

    The tragic choice, in the case of Abraham, illustrates what’s fundamental to Christian religion, i.e., “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. The tragic choice, in the case of Shun, illustrates what’s fundamental to Confucianism, or at least to the Mencian branch of it. The relevant passages expaining this point are 4A27~28. Perhaps also relevant is Mencius’s criticism of Yi Zhi’s two foundations in 3A5.

    (4) But I acknowledge your point that the Mencius is not the best place to look for anti-nepotism passages. So let me go back to Confucius and the Analects. There are a couple of anti-nepotism passages in there that I can now think of. Let me use Ames and Rosemont’s translation, because that’s what I have in front of me now:

    11.8 When Yan Hui died, his father Yan Lu asked Confucius for his carriage to provide an outer coffin for his son. Confucius replied, “Talented or not, a son is a son. My son, Boyu, also died, and I provided him with an inner coffin, but no outer coffin. I could not go on foot in order to give him one–in my capacity as a retired official, it is not appropriate for me to travel on foot.”

    16.13 Chen Gang asked the son of Confucius, Boyu: “Have you been given any kind of special instruction?”
    “Not yet,” he replied. “Once when my father was standing alone and I hastened quickly and deferentially acorss the courtyard, he asked me, ‘Have you studied the
    Songs?’ I replied, ‘Not yet,’ to which he remarked, ‘If you do not study the Songs, you will be at a loss as to what to say.’ I deferentially took my leave and studied the Songs.
    “On another day when he was again standing alone, I hastened quickly and deferentially across the courtyard. He asked me, ‘Have you studied the
    Rites?’ I replied, ‘Not yet,’ to which he remarked, ‘If you do not study the Rites, you will be at a loss as to where to stand.’ I deferentially took my leave and studied the Rites. What I have learned from him, then, are these two things.”
    Chen Gang, taking his leave, was delighted, and said, “I asked one question and got three answers. I learned the importance of the
    Songs and of the Rites, and I also learned that exemplary persons do not treat their own sons as a special case.” [More literally: “…exemplary persons keep their own sons at a distance.”]

  10. Thomas J Wood says:

    I guess the further question I would have is Do the “Rites” and “Songs” require nepotism? In other words, is Confucius constrained by his source material to legalistically apply ritual rules to present situations?

    We are all used to moral exhortations having reasons behind them: Don’t eat that plant, you will die. You wouldn’t like if your brother hit you, would you? etc. Perhaps Confucius himself didn’t know (or perhaps care) about the reasons behind the rituals (if any)? It is quite possible and consistent for him to have simply decided that ritual worked for the Zhou, so it should work for everyone.

    I am reminded of Machiavelli’s comment in the Discourses about institutions and laws over time:

    These institutions were rarely or never varied by events. The laws that restrained the Citizens varied, such as was the law of the Adulterers, the Sumptuary, that of Ambition, and many others, according as the Citizens from day to day became corrupt. But the institutions of the State becoming firm, although no longer good for the corrupt (people), those laws that were changed were not enough to keep men good, but would have been of benefit if with the changes of the law the institutions should have been modified. (Disc. I.18)

    Perhaps in the context that the “moral nepotism” developed it did not conflict with the laws or mores of the the people. For instance, in small clan groups as opposed to larger units of governance, nepotism may be preferable.

  11. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    Have you read Michael Nylan’s discussion of the Odes in The Five “Confucian” Classics (2001)? Setting aside the perhaps unduly pejorative sense of legal application here, I think her treatment makes it plain that it makes no sense whatsoever (in the case of Confucius) to speak of “legalistically” applying ritual rules to present situations (in any case, this is precluded by the possession of jen and the “individuality” [both Fingarette and Hall/Ames would agree here] of the junzi: it is ‘inner’ self-cultivation that is given ‘outer’ formalized expression in li; the analogy with music here is telling, as is the role of li in the refinement of emotional expression). Insofar as the rites involve the “absolute integration of mental and physical activities designed to give visible form to the virtues,” they cannot be “legalistically” (or mechanically or mindlessly, etc.) applied (indeed, this is what allows for the transformative power or ‘magical’ effects of de). And, if I’m not mistaken, Nylan also discusses the fact that the “Rites” themselves contain admonitions to this effect (e.g.: ‘The Rites canons, especially the Liji, repeatedly warn against reducing the rites to merely perfunctory performance of set rules; to work effectively, considerable lattitude must exist for personal adjustments.’). Finally, we learn from Nylan that, “More than any other of the Five Classics, the three Rites canons…attempt to illustrate the process by which the distinctive character of each person develops.”

  12. One response the Confucian might have to the worry about the kind of nepotism you characterize in your post is that the person who would turn in a family member for violating the law would not have the kind of loyalty to their community that would be desirable in anyone who would be a service to the wider community. The Confucian sage appears to be one (from the Analects, at least) who prizes the cohesiveness of the community over anything else (such a person exemplifies ren). As such, such a person will have loyalties proportional to their own role in the community. Given that a person is often a member of a multitude of communities (the family, the state, etc.), those communities which are most central to the identity of the person (for Confucius, the family) will take precedence over the others. One will do what is best for the family before they worry about the state, do what is best for the state before they worry about the rest of human kind. One who does not recognize this hierarchy cannot be depended upon to act in the best interest of the state, because other factors may motivate them to act against the interests of the state (personal gain, vengefulness, etc.). Upright Gong is an example, then, of a person who does not have his priorities in order, and is thus not one who can be depended upon. Of course, much of this depends on my own reading of Confucius as a state-consequentialist (“straightness” in some sense then would rely on usefulness to the state).
    Your post also makes me think of a different sense in which Confucians could be said to encourage a kind of nepotism. If a junzi were to come into a position of power, Confucius (like Aristotle) would surely suggest that this person elevate friends to positions of influence. This, of course, has to do with Confucius’ own notion of friendship—that the junzi should befriend people at least as good as themselves. (Analects 1.8) Thus, the junzi himself serves as a kind of test of merit. If a person is the friend of a junzi, they are worthy of position.

  13. Manyul Im says:

    From Thomas, Patrick, and Alexus’s comments, I’m starting to get the sense that you think “nepotism” is something that can only really be clearly delineated within a fairly stringently legalistic society. Is that a fair assessment of each of your comments? That would mean that within the early Confucian model of a ritual-based society, rather than a law-based one, it’s not quite right to call the partiality granted to blood-relatives and to close friends, “nepotism.” I wonder then if there is a worse spin we could put on that kind of partiality–maybe within a less legalistic society, it is just easier to get away with favors for the people that you like because there isn’t a strict idea of competency, fairness, or desert, though for the junzi (as Alexus points out) Confucius thinks that won’t be a problem since the junzi’s friends constitute an informal society of wise and qualified people. If something like that is the rationale for partiality, then that immediately raises the question of how much such partiality has to be left behind when the community is much larger and more legalistic, of necessity. Or would Confucius argue that there is never a need for more legalistic society? That would certainly clash with the idea of classical liberalism, wouldn’t it?

    Also, to address Thomas’s excellent point about context: yes, pretty clearly Mohist teachings about impartiality are relevant. Whether the Confucians (Ruists) had a good response to them depends on whether the former were providing counter-arguments or merely reasserting their belief in partiality. The jury’s still out for me on that.

  14. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I don’t think nepotism is in any way ruled out “on the ground” so to speak: I just think there’s nothing in a particular construal of the Confucian worldview that licences such a thing. People can always fall short of admirable ideals, the proper instantiation of ethical principles and the realization of intrinsic values. I don’t find anything in the Confucian worldview that predisposes it to the dangers of nepotism, that makes it, as a worldview, especially vulnerable to such dangers. Indeed, to the degree that the selective appropriation of Confucian ideas gave rise to the world’s first-merit based bureaucracy (the Imperial Examination System), we might find in Confucian ideas and praxis an ethos that deliberately counters tendencies toward nepotism. Consider, for instance, an argument along (at least indirectly) these lines, again from Nylan, and one I find persuasive: “It is…possible…to employ the three texts [of the Rites Canon] to prove…that they promote a kind of egalitarianism in several senses: they assume that everyone can be perfected; they stipulate that a code of manners, aristocratic in origin, be learned by and applied to all humans; *they advocate the assignment of social rank according to virtue and merit, defining both in terms of relative contributions to the larger society*; and they aim to school each person, through theory and praxis, in the very social skills that facilitate effective interaction. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that nonelites in early, medieval, and late imperial China were at times more eager than the social and political elites to embrace precepts set forth in the *Rites* canons. The rites could empower commoners to join the elites just as easily as they empowered elites.”

  15. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    To address another question from Manyul: In the Analects Confucius concedes the need to resort to law when there is failure to rely on li. I think Confucius could well appreciate a society based on laws, it simply would be something less than the best, not his ideal society. It is analogous to the practical political concessions (rule by law) or “realism” of so-called philosophical anarchists who acknowledge that, at least at present, not everyone is capable of individual and collective ‘self rule’ without some form and degree of coercion (today, in the form of the State). That does not detract from the desire to aim towards the ideal, to believe that, someday, things may be otherwise (i.e., this assumes ‘perfectibility’ a la Godwin or Condorcet or at least an open-ended conception of human nature).