Duke Ai (魯哀公) was the hereditary ruler of the state of Lu, but had little actual power because it was concentrated in the hands of the Three Families, the Jisun (季孫), Mengsun (孟孙), and Shusun (叔孫). During the course of his reign (ca. 494 to ca. 467 BC), the Duke attempted to restore the primacy of his family, but was forced to flee from Lu towards the end of it, ending up in the state of Yue (越). Soon after arriving there he went back to Lu, but never returned to the court and lived out his finals days at the home of a family called Shan (山).
Duke Ai was the son of Duke Ding (定公), who ruled from ca. 509 to ca. 495 BC.
Duke Ai asked: “What should I do to win the support of the people?” Confucius replied: “Promote the ethical and place them above the unethical, and the people will support you. Promote the unethical and place them above the ethical, and the people will not support you.”
Duke Ai asked which wood should be used for the altar of the spirits of the earth. Zai Yu 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 has already been done; you do not argue about affairs that have already been concluded; you do not condemn what has already happened.”
Duke Ai asked: “Which of your disciples love learning?” Confucius replied: “There was Yan Hui who loved learning; he never vented his anger; he never made the same mistake again. Sadly, his allotted time was short and he died. I have not heard of anyone else with such a love of learning.”