Confucius attracted quite a following during his lifetime as a result of his reputation as a great teacher. It is traditionally believed he had as many as three thousand students, though only seventy-two were said to have truly mastered his teachings. In Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (史記/shǐjì) Confucius himself is quoted as saying that he had seventy-seven “scholars of extraordinary ability” who were able to understand his “instructions”.
In The Analects itself, only twenty-one of Confucius’s disciples are featured, including a core group of his closest and most loyal companions comprising Zigong, Zixia, Zilu, Yan Hui, Ran Qiu, Ran Yong, Min Ziqian, Ran Boniu, Zai Yu, and Ziyou who appear quite regularly throughout the text.
Two younger disciples, Youzi and Zengzi, also feature quite prominently in the Analects, though this is probably because certain sections of the text were written by their supporters rather than due to any special affinity they had with Confucius himself. Indeed, Youzi (sometimes translated as Master You) briefly assumed the sage’s mantle after the death of Confucius because of his close physical resemblance to him until the other remaining disciples realized that his talents were sadly lacking! Meanwhile, Zengzi (also known as Master Zeng), who was only twenty-six when Confucius passed away, quickly rose quickly to prominence as one of the leading proponents of the sage’s teachings and founded his own school.
Book 1 introduces five disciples of Confucius. Probably not entirely by coincidence, the two young pretenders, Youzi and Zengzi, appear very early in the book – in Chapter II and Chapter IV respectively to be precise – and go on to make a series of pronouncements that buttress the teachings of the sage. What better way of establishing their credentials and placing them at the forefront of Confucius’s teachings?
Zixia and Zigong, also make their first appearances in the Book, though their contributions are much less frequent than those of Youzi and Zengzi despite their much closer and longer relationship with the sage. The fifth disciple to be mentioned is Ziqin, a much more obscure individual who makes a total of only three appearances throughout the Analects.
I will continue tracking the comings and goings of Confucius’s disciples in each book as I make my way through The Analects. I have also posted profiles of them that you can view by clicking on the relevant links above. Although there are of course a lot of gaps, it’s amazing how much information about them has survived in the 2,500 years that have passed since the sage’s death.