Confucius said: “Guan Zhong was a man of truly mediocre capabilities.” Someone objected: “Wasn’t Guan Zhong frugal?” Confucius replied: “Guan Zhong had three households, each one staffed by a huge retinue. How could he be called frugal?” “But didn’t he know the rites?” “Even though only the ruler of a state can place a screen to mask the view of his gate, he also had one installed. Even though only the ruler of a state can use a special stand to place his inverted cup on when meeting with another ruler, Guan Zhong had one too. If you say Guan Zhong knew the rites, then who doesn’t know them?”
As the prime minister of the state of Qi 150 years before Confucius’s time, Guan Zhong was responsible for implementing a raft of political, administrative, and economic reforms that made it one of the most powerful and wealthiest states in the Zhou Empire.
While ostensibly chiding him for his extravagant lifestyle and contraventions of the rites, Confucius is really criticizing Guan Zhong for dismantling some aspects of traditional Zhou Dynasty political culture in order to run the state more effectively and increase its power over its neighbors.
Even though Confucius is more complimentary of Guan Zhong in Chapter 16 and Chapter 17 of Book 14, he saw him more of a “container” (器/qì) or technocrat than a true leader (君子/jūnzǐ) because of his willingness to abandon traditional values with his reforms.
Perhaps there is also a hint of envy in his attitude as well, given that Guan Zhong was so successful while Confucius’s own political career ended in failure. The sage was only human after all.