Music as a Transformative Power

My study covers the role of music as a transformative power taught by Confucius and seen in Chinese society. Using Jacques Attali, we can examine the different manners of reflection of music in society and vice versa.

Works Cited:

“【风华国乐 HQ】洞庭秋思 / 龚一 / 古琴独奏.” Youtube. Youtube. 12 November 2011. 20 April 2013. Web.

Attali, Jacques. “Noise: The Political Economy of Music.” The Sound Studies Reader. By Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 29-39. Print.

“Confucian Music 孔子音乐.” Youtube. Youtube. 6 July 2008. 20 April 2013. Web

“Musical Bells, Temple of Confucius, Nanjing.” Youtube. Youtube. 6 August 2012. 20 April 2013. Web.

Confucius and Politics

Politics is common to all cultures; every section of the world has some semblance to a political system. Like many other civilizations at the time, ancient China was ruled feudally. Through Confucius’s large role in Chinese society, his doctrines greatly influenced kings, as Confucians believe that a strong sense of virtue through benevolence and li are of utmost importance to rule. Furthermore, a ruler must adhere to the proper way and make decisions based on the rites (Dongfang et al). Thus, kings were strongly bound to music. To be benevolent, one must enjoy music both for its own beauty and its coexistence with ceremony, the most important part of li (Analects). These doctrines can easily be compared to largely individualistic America. Though we certainly have societal norms, it is much more difficult to pinpoint guidelines followed strictly by political figures. Confucian China and America thus create an interesting dichotomy.


Kongzi Duyi:

Guqin played for a Chinese TV station

Both of these songs are played on the guqin, a seven-string instrument related to the zither. In ancient China, this was referred to as just the “qin”, and it is mentioned a few times throughout the Analects. The first song is called “Kongzi Duyi”, and is traditionally associated with Confucius (Confucius’s real name is Kongzi). Music like this would traditionally be played at a ceremony or in a temple to help orchestrate the proceedings; without the sounds, the ceremony would not be complete. This could also be played for enjoyment, as Confucius deems both ceremonial music and music for entertainment important.

Bian zhong: Bells used in temples and for ceremonies

Bian zhong



Confucius, and D. C. Lau. The Analects (Lun Yü). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979. Print.

Dongfang, Shou, Hongcheng Ling, and Deyuan Huang. “Separation of Politics and Morality: A Commentary on “Analects of Confucius”” Frontiers of Philosophy in China (2006): 401-17. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. .

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The Role of Sound in Confucianism: Morality through Music

“The Master said, ‘Be stimulated by the Odes, take your stand on the rites, and be perfected by music’”(Analects 8:8). 

“He stands to benefit who takes pleasure in three kinds of things…To take pleasure in the correct regulation of the rites and music, in singing the praises of other men’s goodness and in having a large number of excellent men as friends is to benefit” (Analects 16:5).

            Music is extraordinarily vital to Confucianism. Without it, Confucius believes that we cannot achieve jen, or general benevolence. Achieving jen is the ultimate goal of Confucianism; it is similar to reaching Enlightenment in Buddhism or creating general happiness in Utilitarianism. What it means is that everything a person does is in the name of humanity for all people; it is the way in which we should consider our actions and the absolute virtue to follow in living our lives. Almost as important is the concept of li, stating that there is a right way to achieve jen. This correct path is defined by Confucius as well as by Chinese society. For instance, there are strict guidelines for beginning a meal, approaching a place of worship, the role one should play in a relationship, etc. In many ways, it is simply the ceremonies or the repeated actions that we follow, even if they refer to something seemingly unimportant in our day-to-day lives.

Confucians also believe that these two principles are tightly bound to morality; li and jen are both virtues, and we must adhere to them. A main part of this morality is respect for music. In ancient (and modern) China there was a distinct reverence for music, and it was integral to ceremonial practices. According to Confucius, the music is as important as the ceremony itself; without it, the ceremony would not be whole. For this reason, the rites (or li/ceremony/morality) go hand in hand with music throughout Confucius’s Analects. Because of morality through ceremony and benevolence, music holds extreme importance in Confucianism.

It is known that ancient Chinese society was based on many Confucian beliefs; Confucius is still highly respected, and he played a large part in both the social and political evolution of the Chinese people (Chan 2.4.13). This raises the question of how music reflects the moral rules of a society; is it possible to use said rules as a parameter with which to measure the actions of the society? In this case, can we examine the Confucian ideas of proper music and see them reflected in the Chinese people? This is clearly true in an idealized Confucian world; everything is supposedly dictated by the propriety of a person and the goal of goodness to humanity, thus a respect for music would inevitably be found in all people. As a result, this attention to music is of utmost importance. However, this could only be stated without further investigation if everyone in the society strictly followed Confucianism.

As authors such as Jacques Attali have argued, we can learn much from a society’s music. According to Attali, music reflects the culture of the people and the way in which that group is moving. It can also be used to detect evidence of future events, whether that is a social, political, or economic change. Again, this seems to mirror what we would hypothetically see in a Confucian world. As I have mentioned, Confucius believes that his society must stick to a certain way, and that way can be orchestrated through respect for music. In the literature of both Confucius and Attali, we see this same relationship between music and the actions of people.

The problem I propose is to analyze the role of music within Confucianism in order to determine the effect of his stress on music and ceremony on ancient Chinese society. According to Jacques Attali, there will be a clear relationship between the two, but only if Confucianism had enough of an effect on the people.  Similarly, Confucius indicates his belief that this will be true for people trying to achieve jen, but says nothing about society as a general rule. Thus, I propose an examination of both the music and ceremony in Confucianism, along with the role of Confucianism in ancient Chinese society. From this, we can determine the role of music as well as the attention to Confucian morality in this society. This will not only tell us about ancient and modern Chinese society, but also about the role of politics and religion on music in general. Furthermore, we can examine the backing of Attali’s claims in Eastern societies and find a standard with which we can measure the role of music in other cultures.



Attali, Jacques. “Noise: The Political Economy of Music.” The Sound Studies Reader. By Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 29-39. Print.


Chan, Sin Yee. “Confucius: Li as Ceremonies.” PHIL 121: Ancient Chinese Philosophy. Hills 234, Burlington. 4 Feb. 2013. Lecture.

Addressing Confucius in my ancient Chinese philosophy class has been the most useful source of information. Throughout many of our lectures, we have frequently touched on the role of Confucianism in Chinese society and the role of music in each. In this particular lecture, our main focus was the importance of ceremony in Confucianism as well as in Chinese society, especially in contrasting it with the much smaller role it plays in American society. This strongly relates to the theme of my research, again showing another dynamic of the importance of this analyzation.


“Confucianism and Music.” Confucianism and Music. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2013. .

Confucius, and D. C. Lau. The Analects (Lun Yü). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979. Print.

This is the most important source that one can use in any examination of Confucianism; it is typical for Chinese philosophers to write an account of their beliefs, and Confucius has done just this. As we can see above, he frequently outlines this belief system of li and music going hand in hand. He also argues throughout the Analects that these are extraordinarily vital. This is also closely related to many of the lectures from my Chinese philosophy class; we have also read this work in that class and go over many of the doctrines that have been recorded.


Mencius, and D. C. Lau. Mencius. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1970. Print.

Mencius is known as the second most important Confucian after Confucius himself, as indicated by his Latinized name. Much like I have outlined about the Analects, Mencius has written a detailed account of his own belief system. As predicted by his designation as a Confucian, he also is a huge advocate for music. In this sense he shares the same beliefs as Confucius, and he similarly holds the same regard for music and li. Since he lived roughly 200 years after Confucius, Mencius also shows a very useful view of the Chinese society in which he lived. Additionally, his is very interesting in that he actually says that both popular and classical music should be revered. This gives a parameter with which to compare the lasting effect of Confucianism and see if ceremony still plays a large part in Chinese society.


Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1985. Print.

Harvard University’s Benjamin Schwartz is one of the premier scholars on Chinese philosophy. Throughout this piece, he examines the role of music in Confucianism, as well as compares this role to the ideas in other schools of thought in Ancient China. Like many scholars, he holds the idea that Confucius had a very large influence on the Chinese society, and also outlines the reception of Confucius and opposing philosophers by the people. Predictably, the Analects is one of the main pieces he analyzes, but he also mentions Mencius and later Confucian philosophers. Again, this gives a parameter to compare the evolution of Chinese society with the evolution of Confucianism and see if there is the proposed reflection.


Wang, Keping. “Mozi Versus Xunzi on Music.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy (2009): 653-65. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Mar. 2013.

One of Confucius’s largest opponents is Mo Tzu (Mozi). He advocates for the abandonment of music, since it supposedly wastes resources which could be used to improve the lifestyle of the people. However, Xunzi, another important Confucian, holds the traditional belief that music improves a person’s character through its relationship to morality in li and jen. Keping Wang, another commonly cited source in philosophy, shows their opposing arguments, as well as Xunzi’s extension of Mencius’s belief that popular music is equally important to classical music. Wang concludes that Xunzi (and thus Confucianism) is a stronger view, because Mo Tzu does not consider the intellectual needs of humans, only the physical needs. This is a concept which we are very familiar with in today’s world. Similarly, this illustrates many of the real-world applications to the Confucian realm of thought and why it was so effective in Chinese society. This source was provided to my by my philosophy professor, Sin Yee Chan.