Why Can’t Nanzi Catch A Break?

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?

7 responses to “Why Can’t Nanzi Catch A Break?

  1. I think you’re right about discrimination of women in general. But this question:

    “But if this was the case, why not mention that in 6.28?”

    …might be answered with: because his students wrote the book…

  2. Yeah, I was thinking that as well. I was going to write it in the post, actually-but forgot. Perhaps a related question would be: if Confucius was inclined to see Nanzi in a more positive light, he likely would have defended her against the charges leveled, and then why didn’t Confucius’ students respect this defense? A case of “disobeying” the master? Or were they so negative toward women that even the master’s (possible) protestations couldn’t change their minds? Or, did Confucius just not say anything about it (which might show that he too believed the content of the allegations..)?

  3. Sometimes students (or some students) made their inquiries of Confucius in indirect abstract ways, as at 7.15. Just possibly Zizhang was asking him about Nanzi in 12.6:

    Zi Zhang asked what constituted intelligence. The Master said, “He with whom neither slander that gradually soaks into the mind, nor statements that startle like a wound in the flesh, are successful, may be called intelligent indeed. Yea, he with whom neither soaking slander, nor startling statements, are successful, may be called farseeing.” (Sturgeon, Legge)

  4. I saw the movie, it’s been released here in Hong Kong. If you don’t want spoilers (or for that matter long replies), don’t approve of or delete this comment, but you are speculating on the movie, and the situation is more complex than modern feminism would allow.

    In the movie, Nan-zi sees how Confucius suffers for his ideals and is moved to make the kow-tow to Confucius, and he, then, to her, in what I think the most beautiful part of the film. She is later killed and her last thoughts are of Kong Fu-Zi, whom she loves as an honorable woman loves an honorable man.

    Socrates dismissed Xanthippe as a foolish woman on the last day of his life, but I cannot forget that in the Crito he went to his death and defined what it is to be human.

    The “sexism” of ancient times was based on the fact that men without women didn’t survive. Life was short and nobody had the luxury to step outside roles, rites, propriety.

    Confucius discovered a practical way for China to survive and this was for men to sublimate their instincts into the rites. In the film, they are starving to death, so Confucius plays music and they dance.

    Nan-zi probably had a bad reputation as a schemer. We could never know if she was promiscuous (who really cares, nowadays?) but she may have used her reputation.

    China, which is about to have almost two men for every woman owing to the one child policy, doesn’t need a trash-men “feminism”. It needs men who can sublimate their instincts and solve its problems thereby. False feminism assaults their hard earned dignity, which Chow Yun Fat so skillfully exhibits. This ain’t no fantasy, like Star Wars, or Avatar. It’s a role model.

    Interesting blog with highly intelligent comments. I am delighted to discover it.

  5. hi Spinoza-
    thanks for your comments! That actually sounds pretty good–I was under the impression that the relationship was developed in terms of a romantic love story. (still haven’t seen the movie yet but plan to whenever it becomes available here in the US) The way you describe it sounds reasonable, and not subject to the objections I brought above. Also–there’s no question that the ancient Greeks were quite sexist, as were the ancient Chinese for the most part. But I agree with you also that some modern forms of feminism are also problematic (there are many kinds of feminism, just like there are many kinds of Confucianism, Daoism, etc.). I’m not very knowledgeable about feminism in general, so I’m not the best person to speak on this, but I imagine one could adopt or construct a kind of feminist ethical theory that both recognizes gender differences and unique contributions of both men and women to construction of a thriving society. I would think that the best kinds of feminism do such a thing, but again, I am sadly ignorant about modern feminist theory.

  6. The movie went straight to DVD because it bombed even in China, since it was up against avatar. My Chinese students all went to see Avatar unless their grandparents dragged them to Kong Qui.

    It’s heavy on the action to appeal to younger viewers with plenty of cool old technology for battering walls and Greek fire; yet somehow, for me, that did not make the movie less philosophical.

    This is because war has more effect on philosophical thought than we might imagine. Socrates served as a soldier. Descartes according to legend came up with the method of systematic doubt during the hurly burly of the Thirty Years’ War, in which you couldn’t tell Catholics from Protestants from common sots without a program.

    Wittgenstein did his best early work as you know in an Austrian POW camp.

    John Rawls lost his faith but found his reason as part of his service in WWII. Bertie Russell lost interest in mathematics and gained an interest in protesting nuclear weapons and protesting Vietnam as a result of the Cold War.

    My mental picture of Confucius was of a guy like his own Wen Tzu, who lost three jobs but at each documented his procedures, but the movie makes it clear that Confucius was much more influential.

    I also saw him as greeting friend in a country house based on the start of the Analects, but in the movie, his friends share great sufferings: his writings (on wooden strips) are rescued by his top student in an icy lake.

    As to availability, it’s available here in Hong Kong. The spoken soundtrack in Mandarin but English subtitles are available. If it’s not on Amazon, go to http://www.hmv.com. That’s the local record and DVD megastore in Hong Kong and they do mailorder.

  7. It is possible that Confucious believed that Nanzi was a “loose woman,” but did not judge her harshly or condemn her; hence his agreeing to meet her. Thus, he showed the “benevolence” that she wondered whether he could extend to “a woman with a reputation like mine?” In this, Confucious avoided prejudging her.

    However, he appeared to confirm this belief after meeting her, and decided not to remain in the kingdom of Wei, in order to avoid losing his principles on account of her. He seems rather unsure of his own inner strength, and hints at her weakness, when he says: “I have not yet seen anyone who puts principles before licentiousness,” in answer to her question as to why it would be inconvenient for him to stay longer in Wei.

    The movie does not directly state the depth or width of their possible feelings or desires, but indicates that they both recognized the pitfall, and that the resolution came down to his choosing to leave, to avoid (further?) complications.

    On the whole, the sage showed a realism that nicely matched his idealism; a practicality that accepted personal limitations or risk of failing, and a choice of withdrawal from a battle he could not gaurantee winning (or ensure not being made to seem to have failed).

    I think the movie handled that story well. It was really all about “reputation,” whether earned or not.

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