Recently, the film 孔子 (Confucius) was released in China (who knows when we’ll get to see it here in the U.S.?), on the life of the sage himself. While it remains to be seen how good or close to the traditional sources this movie is (I doubt it sticks that close, as what’s in the historical sources wouldn’t make for great drama), one plot-line developed in the film, from what I’ve heard, suggests that Confucius and Nanzi, the wife of Lord Ling of Wei, were romantically involved. Nanzi is the infamous character referred to in Analects 6.28, where Confucius’ students rebuke him for meeting with her, suggesting that he is engaged in something improper.
The master went to see Nanzi, and Zilu was not pleased. Confucius swore: “If I have done something wrong, may Heaven rebuke me! May Heaven rebuke me!”
This whole episode, however, is based on the view among Confucius’ students (and a number of people in his circle, and even Confucius himself) that Nanzi was a “woman of loose morals”, if you will. She was accused of having slept with her “relative” Song Chao and having generally been promiscuous otherwise. If this was the case, we could see why Confucius meeting with her would be seen as improper.
Sadly, the Confucius movie follows his students in suggesting hanky-panky between Confucius and Nanzi, and perpetuates the millenia-long slander against Nanzi (and, I believe, a general tendency for mistrusting the motivations of women, similar to what we see in Plato) that got this whole ball rolling in the first place. According to the excellent article “Nan-Tzu, or Why Heaven Did Not Crush Confucius” by Siegfried Englert and Roderich Ptak, the evidence suggests that Nanzi was wrongly accused of sexual impropriety. The evidence generally by historical figures to support claims of Nanzi’s promiscuity is paltry. There is better evidence, they argue, to show that Nanzi was actually the victim of a common tactic used against women who became influential in politics–maligning of character. Nanzi, like a number of wives of powerful men in China before and after her, was able to exert a great deal of control over her husband and his political affairs. Apparently this did not sit well with a number of people with competing agendas, and Nanzi’s political enemies transmitted this ill-justified rumor of Nanzi’s infidelity and sexual immorality.
Confucius and his students, of course, believed this rumor, as Analects 6.28 seems to show. But would they have believed such a rumor about the Lord of Wei or another man, for example, on such scant evidence? My hunch is that they wouldn’t have. Indeed, if we look at what Confucius’ attitude toward Gongye Chang in Analects 5.1, we find him able to doubt spurious charges. Gongye Chang had been convicted of some crime (we are not told what) and actually imprisoned for it, but Confucius maintained that he was innocent. Given his understanding that people can be wrongly accused (and even imprisoned) based on falsehoods, shouldn’t Confucius and his students have considered this possibility in the case of Nanzi? To be fair, it might be the case that Confucius actually did think that Nanzi was innocent of the charges made against her, and that this was the reason he did not see it as problematic to visit her, while his students were the ones who believed the rumors. But if this was the case, why not mention that in 6.28? Why not say, like in 5.1 about Gongye Chang, that even though Nanzi was thought to be a promiscuous and incestuous woman, she was not? I suspect that what is underlying all of this is a deep suspicion of and antagonism toward women of the kind we see throughout ancient Chinese literature.
Now fast forward to 2010. If the new Confucius movie is presenting Nanzi as a love-interest of Confucius’ (I don’t know that it is but this is what I’ve heard), is this not perpetuating the sexist myth of the prevalence of “loose women married to powerful men” that helped give legs to the Nanzi rumor in the first place 2500 years ago?