A Confucian View of History: The Book of Documents

Note: This is another old Thermidor article, originally published on October 6, 2017. As with the other reposts I’ve only done some light editing.

When beginning a study of Confucianism, the most common starting-point is the Analects of Confucius, a reasonable choice since it’s the most easily available book of the Confucian canon as well as the book most that gives us the most material from Confucius himself. When reading it, though, one quickly realises that Confucius draws a great deal of his teaching from prior sources. “A transmitter and not a maker,” he describes himself in Book VII, Chapter I of that work, “believing in and loving the ancients.” Who, then, were the ancients whose teaching he transmitted?

The sage draws from a few sources; among the most prominent is the Book of Odes, which I’ve previously discussed, a collection of poems and folk songs that fits with the emphasis the Confucians place on literature and music. The Book of Changes and Spring and Autumn Annals, respectively covering divination and history, also come up often. Finally, there’s the Book of Historical Documents, another primarily historical work. Despite having the most generic title of any book besides Aristotle’s Topics, the Documents is invaluable because it collects imperial speeches, decrees, and charges to ministers, as well as counsels given by advisers to their sovereign, many of which do appear to be contemporaneous with the reigns they describe. Exactly how many are contemporaneous is uncertain, and the ancient editors themselves indicate that the first few were later compositions by beginning them with the formula “Inquiring into antiquity, we find that…” Traditionally, much as with the other classics previously mentioned, this editorial role has been attributed to Confucius himself, and though there’s little evidence for that besides this much later tradition, his endorsement of the collection has given it a prestigious place in Chinese scholarship ever since.

As an example of how the book influenced later Confucians, consider Confucius’ remark in Analects XII.19, “The essence of the gentleman is that of wind; the essence of small people is that of grass. And when a wind passes over the grass, it cannot choose but bend.” This analogy comes from Section V, Book XXI of the Documents, when Kün-khăn, whose exact identity is uncertain, is appointed as successor to the duke of Kâu. The king tells him:

Formerly, the duke of Kâu acted as teacher and guardian of the myriads of the people, who cherish (the remembrance of) his virtue. Go and with sedulous care enter upon his charge; act in accordance with his regular ways, and exert yourself to illustrate his lessons;–so shall the people be regulated. I have heard that he said, “Perfect government has a piercing fragrance, and influences the spiritual intelligences. It is not the millet which has the piercing fragrance; it is bright virtue.” Do you make this lesson of the duke of Kâu your rule, being diligent from day to day, and not presuming to indulge in luxurious ease. Ordinary men, while they have not yet seen a sage, (are full of desire) as if they should never get a sight of him; and after they have seen him, they are still unable to follow him. Be cautioned by this! You are the wind; the inferior people are the grass.

Though certainly of historical significance, much of the Documents’ content focuses more on promoting virtue among kings and ministers than with relating the day-to-day matters of government. The above excerpt is typical in that the king has very little to say about what, exactly, he expects Kün-khăn to do in his new office, but a great deal to say about the moral example he will set for his inferiors. Even in selections that do discuss mundane matters like enforcing law and order and carrying out punishments, speakers are more concerned with the ethics involved in the issue than in utilitarian concerns.

That said, some documents do concern great historical events, but the same pattern holds true in these cases, as well. So, Section V, Book II relates a speech given by king Wû, soon to overthrow the tyrannical last king of the Shang dynasty. In it, he speaks to his followers and explains why he has taken up arms against the sovereign:

The ancients have said, “The hen does not announce the morning. The crowing of a hen in the morning (indicates) the subversion of the family.” Now Shâu, the king of Shang, follows only the words of his wife. In his blindness he has neglected the sacrifices which he ought to offer, and makes no response (for the favours that he has received); he has also cast off his paternal and maternal relations, not treating them properly. They are only the vagabonds from all quarters, loaded with crimes, whom he honours and exalts, whom he employs and trusts, making them great officers and high nobles, so that they can tyrannise over the people, and exercise their villainies in the cities of Shang.

Notice that King Wû has little to say about they tyrant’s skill in government. His most noteworthy offenses, apparently, are that he allows his wife too much power in state business, is impious, neglects his duties to his family, and appoints corrupt officials. Very well, so how does the ensuing battle go? He must have won since he will shortly go on to found the Kâu dynasty, but the Documents provides nothing of interest to military historians, like details of troop numbers or deployments, and says nothing about the political alliances, China’s economic situation, or any other such things that we typically expect even from ancient historians. Many of the documents originally collected in this work have been lost, so it’s possible that these topics were mentioned elsewhere, but this seems unlikely given that the whole collection is like this. The important point is that the Mandate of Heaven passed from the Shang dynasty to the Kâu, because King Wû illustrated virtue and the king of Shang did not.

Now, we should take a moment to note the cynical take on this speech, and recognise it as propaganda. Why was this written down and distributed in the first place? To bolster Wû’s prestige and claim to the throne at the expense of the king of Shang. Indeed, the duke of Kâu, working under Wû, would give the first explication of the famous concept of the Mandate of Heaven in order to justify his ruler’s authority in overthrowing a tyrannical king. Nonetheless, public relations concerns don’t negate the moral content of the king’s address. In the course of the Documents, we see multiple dynasties founded by a virtuous leader who overthrew some tyrant of a decadent dynasty, only to see that new regime decay over time and eventually overthrown in its own turn by a more worthy man.

This approach to history will be familiar to anyone who’s read any of the other Confucian classics. For the Confucians, though technical competency can’t be neglected, attaining good government is first and foremost a moral problem, not an engineering problem, and though both virtue and skill are necessary, skill is, to a great extent, dependent on virtue. In Part IV, Book X, the last king of the Yin dynasty is warned by one of his chief ministers:

Son of Heaven, Heaven is bringing to an end the dynasty of Yin; the wisest men and the shell of the great tortoise [a device for divination] do not presume to know anything fortunate for it. It is not that the former kings do not aid us, the men of this later time but by your dissoluteness and sport you are bringing on the end yourself. On this account Heaven has cast us off, and there are no good harvests to supply us with food. Men have no regard to their heavenly nature, and pay no obedience to the statutes (of the kingdom). (Yea), our people now all wish (the dynasty) to perish, saying, “Why does not Heaven send down its indignation? Why does not (some one with) its great appointment make his appearance? What has the present king to do with us?”

As usual, the Documents don’t go into much detail, but we can find comparable examples in Western history of rulers taken with “dissoluteness and sport,” who then neglect the duties of government, which begins to decay and become corrupted, and thus becomes feared and hated by the people. Some particularly infamous rulers, such as Nero or Caligula, are remembered for little else. We also needn’t go far afield for example of rulers who, despite some level of competence, nonetheless brought a great deal of misery to their people and infamy for their historical reputation because of their viciousness, as the dictators of the Twentieth Century provide ample illustration. These are, of course, extreme examples, and most historical rulers somewhere between the extremes of Marcus Aurelius and Caracalla, but the general trend does align with the Confucian emphasis on virtue.

Those familiar with Neoreactionary ideas may wonder whether the Documents provides any examples of the formula, generally attributed to Confucianism, “Become worthy. Accept power. Rule.” Though never explicitly stated, it does include some general examples such as the above-mentioned Duke of Kâu, who served Wû so well and would also act as regent for his young son when he inherited the throne. There is also, in Part II, Book II, the sage-emperor Shun appointing his minister Yü as his successor because of his outstanding talent and virtue.

However, both of these men were already in prominent positions in the government, and worked under virtuous sovereigns able to recognise their worthiness and promote them accordingly. We may also notice that King Wû possessed not only the Mandate of Heaven, but also an army and the territory to support it. Needless to say, we on the Right certainly don’t control any territory or armies, and the lack of wise, virtuous leadership is the exact problem we’re trying to solve.

Does this mean that Confucianism is a dead-end for us? Certainly not! The lack of a sage-emperor is not only our problem, but was also the one that Confucius, Mencius, and their students faced. The Documents provides us with examples of what good and bad government looks like, but the Analects and Mencius provide us with examples of what to do while under bad government. The Confucians built their schools, studied the classics, transmitted their doctrines, and attempted to convert the elites. Confucius and Mencius themselves did not live to see any success, spending their careers at only the periphery of power, but eventually their school would become China’s official orthodoxy for much of its centuries-long history. Obviously, we must exercise due caution in extrapolating from historical events, as there is not a one-to-one comparison between any two eras of history, and certainly not between ancient China and the modern West. However, those wanting to use the “Become worthy” formula would do well to study Confucianism’s early experiences, to see what lessons they can reasonably apply to modernity.

Finally, for those wanting to understand Confucianism, the Analects or Mencius, or perhaps a general introduction like Xinzhong Yao’s, are still the best places to start. To fully understand the philosophy, though, it is necessary to read the full canon. Unfortunately, the Book of Historical Documents takes some effort to find. Sacred Texts does have a digital version of James Legge’s translation available for free (listed under its Chinese title, Shû King), which is the version I’ve been quoting from above. Reading a book online isn’t the most comfortable experience, but it’s free and conveniently available. One must contend with Legge’s idiosyncrasies in transliteration and phrasing, but his is still perfectly readable and his annotations are consistently helpful. His version is also included in an ebook compilation published by Delphi Classics. However, as far as I’m aware there are no in-print physical editions available. I did find a copy of Legge’s from 1879, as well as a more recent one by Walter Gorn Old, published as recently as 1904. Old also mentions an even older edition, by W. H. Medhurst, from 1849. Old’s translation does feel a little more modern and readable than Legge’s, though not by a wide margin. Wikipedia does list a few others, though, which should be helpful, and there do seem to be some used copies floating around of Clae Waltham’s modernised revision of Legge’s from 1971, titled Shu ching: Book of History.

Regardless of the specific edition one settles on, though, a fuller knowledge of the Confucian canon is worth whatever effort it takes to acquire the books needed.