Confucius on Today’s Food Scandals in China

June 17, 2011 § 2 Comments

There are times when the remarks of a long-dead sage can seem especially relevant.

More than 2500 years ago Confucius gathered around him a group of dedicated disciples who listened fervently to his teachings and then passed them on to later generations in an edited volume known as the Lunyu, conventionally translated in English as the Analects.  I’ll be teaching the text this coming fall and so was re-reading it yesterday afternoon.

Earlier in the morning I had been browsing China news on the internet and came across a video report from Al Jazeera, claiming that when you eat beef in China you may not, in fact, be eating beef.  What you could be eating is pork, or some other cheaper meat, that has been marinated in a beef-flavored chemical additive.

Consequently, a passage in the Analects, one that I had never given much attention to, for the first time jumped off the page.  A disciple, describing Confucius, said,

“He wouldn’t drink wine bought from a wine shop or eat dried meat bought in a market.” (Bk. 10.6)

To be sure I wasn’t reading into the passage what the Al Jazeera piece had earlier put in mind, I turned to the standard commentaries on the passage.  They all agreed on its meaning, expressed best perhaps by Huang Kan of the 6th century:

“As for wine that one hasn’t prepared oneself, one can’t be sure that is pure and clean; as for meat that one hasn’t prepared oneself, one can’t know the animal from which it has come.”

Confucius here seems to presage Al Jazeera’s findings.

Could the Sage possibly have anticipated as well that this past December Chinese authorities would close down three large-volume Chinese wineries for adulterating their wines—one of them used only water and chemicals to concoct its drink—and putting counterfeit labels of famous and best-selling brands on their bottles?  Or that in 2006 fake bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild would sell for $4000, while 12,000 counterfeit bottles of Mouton Cadet would be put on the shelves for $10 apiece (Forbes)?

The moral is clear: be careful about the wine you buy in China and the beef you eat there.  And read your Analects.  Confucius is still relevant—sometimes.

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