Disciples of Confucius: Zai Yu

Zai Yu (宰予) (522-458 BC) is also known as Zai Wo (宰我) as Ziwo (子我). A native of Confucius’s home state of Lu, Zai Yu had a very difficult relationship with the sage, not least because he dared to argue with him and criticize his teachings.

While Confucius sent Zai Yu as his personal ambassador to the states of Qi and Chu, he was also highly critical of him at times, sighing in exasperation when he found him asleep one day: “Rotten wood cannot be carved; dung walls cannot be troweled. What’s the point of scolding him anymore?” For Confucius, Zai Yu’s silken tongue was not enough: he needed to match his fine words with the appropriate actions.

There is a story about Zai Yu that is hotly disputed. According to the Records of the Historian (史記/shiji), a man with the name of Ziwo moved to Linzi (臨菑), the capital of the state Qi and took up the position of chief magistrate, only to be killed when he participated in a rebellion led by the high minister Tian Chang (田常) against the ruling house in 481 BC.

According to Sima Qian (司馬遷) [145 BC – 86 BC], the writer of the Records of the Historian, Zai Yu was this man, though the Tang dynasty scholar Sima Zhen (司馬貞) [618-907] later expressed doubts about this claim, saying that it was Kan Zhi (闞止), one of the leading rebels, who was also known by the same courtesy name of Ziwo.

Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 3, Chapter XXI
Book 5, Chapter X
Book 6, Chapter XXVI
Book 11, Chapter III
Book 17, Chapter XXI

Book 3
Chapter XXI
哀公問社於宰我。宰我對曰:「夏后氏以松,殷人以柏,周人以栗,曰,使民戰栗。」子聞之,曰:「成事不說,遂事不諫,既往不咎。」
Duke Ai asked which wood should be used for the altar of the spirits of the earth. Zai Wo replied: “The men of Xia used pine; the men of Yin used cypress; the men of Zhou used chestnut, for they said the people should fear.” When Confucius heard of this, he said: “You do not explain away what had already been done; you do not argue about affairs that have already been concluded; you do not condemn what has already happened.”

Book 5
Chapter X
宰予晝寢。子曰:「朽木不可雕也,糞土之牆不可杇也。於予與何誅?」子曰:「始吾於人也,聽其言而信其行;今吾於人也,聽其言而觀其行。於予與改是。」
Zai Yu was asleep during the day. Confucius said: “Rotten wood cannot be carved; dung walls cannot be trowelled. What’s the point of scolding him anymore?” Confucius said: “There was a time when I used to listen to what people had to say and trusted that they would act on their word, but now I have to listen to what they say and watch what they do. It’s my dealings with Zai Yu that have forced me to change.”

Book 6
Chapter XXVI
宰我問曰:「仁者,雖告之曰,『井有仁焉。』其從之也?」子曰:「何為其然也?君子可逝也,不可陷也;可欺也,不可罔也。」
Zai Yu asked: “If a good person was told that goodness lies at the bottom of a well, should he jump in after it?” Confucius said: “Why should he? A leader can be enticed down the wrong path, but he won’t allow himself to fall into a trap; he can be deceived, but not made a fool of.”

Book 11
Chapter III
德行:顏淵、閔子騫、冉伯牛、仲弓;言語:宰我、子貢;政事:冉有、季路;文學:子游、子夏。
Virtuous conduct: Yan Hui, Min Ziqian, Ran Boniu, Ran Yong. Eloquent speech: Zai Yu, Zigong. Government and administration: Ran Qiu, Zilu. Cultural accomplishments: Ziyou, Zixia.

Book 17
Chapter XXI
宰我問:「三年之喪,期已久矣!君子三年不為禮,禮必壞;三年不為樂,樂必崩。舊穀既沒,新穀既升;鑽燧改火,期可已矣。」子曰:「食夫稻,衣夫錦,於女安乎?」曰:「安!」「女安則為之。夫君子之居喪,食旨不甘,聞樂不樂,居處不安,故不為也。今女安,則為之。」宰我出。子曰:「予之不仁也!子生三年,然後免於父母之懷。夫三年之喪,天下之通喪也;予也,有三年之愛於其父母乎?」
Zai Yu asked: “Three years of mourning for your parents: this is a long time. If a leader doesn’t practice the rites for three years, the rites are sure to decay; if he doesn’t practice music for three years, music is sure to collapse. As the grain from last year’s crop is used up, grain from this year’s crop ripens, and the flint for lighting the fires is changed with each season. One year of mourning is surely enough.” Confucius said: “Would you be comfortable eating your fine food and wearing your fine clothes then?” “Absolutely.” “In that case, go ahead! When a leader is in mourning fine food is tasteless to him, music offers him no pleasure, and the comforts of home give him no peace, so he prefers to do without these pleasures. But if you think you will be able to enjoy them, go ahead.” Zai Yu left. Confucius said: “Zai Yu has no goodness! During the first three years after a child is born, he doesn’t leave the arms of his parents. Three years of mourning is a custom that is followed throughout the world. Didn’t Zai Yu receive three years of love from his parents?”

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