Yan Hui (顏回), otherwise known as Ziyuan (子淵) or Yan Yuan (顏淵), was Confucius’s favorite follower and protégé. Born in 521 BCE in Confucius’s home state of Lu, he was thirty years younger than the sage and became one of his followers at an early age, no doubt under the influence of his father Yan Lu (顏路), who was one of the first followers of Confucius.
Yan Hui was a quiet, almost unworldly individual who had no interest in the trappings of government office and was happy to remain simply as a follower of Confucius. Despite showing the occasional signs of exasperation with him for being over respectful and “taking delight in anything I say”, Confucius was extremely fond of Yan Hui and had a high regard for his virtues, ability, and devotion to duty.
Yan Hui lived a life of poverty. At the age of twenty-nine, his hair is said to have turned completely white. He died a few years later, probably at the age thirty-two. Confucius was absolutely devastated by his passing, and his heartfelt laments for the loss of his protégé can be found throughout the Analects.
Funeral of Yan Hui
The obvious distress that Confucius suffered at the news of Yan Hui’s untimely death is vividly described in Book 11 of the Analects, from Chapter 7 to Chapter 11. So emotional, some might say hysterical, was his reaction that the sage’s other followers felt the need to take to the extraordinary step of admonishing their master for displaying excessive grief (see 11.10).
In the following chapter, Confucius goes on to complain that while Yan Hui treated him like a father, he wasn’t given the opportunity to treat him like a son after his followers ignored his wishes by arranging a grand funeral for him. Confucius saw this act as a flagrant violation of the rules of ritual propriety and thus highly disrespectful to the memory of Yan Hui.
Confucius and Yan Hui
The relationship that Confucius had with Yan Hui can be best likened to that between father and son. Indeed, in 11.4 Confucius sounds exactly like a proud dad when he remarks that Yan Hui is of no help to him at all because “he delights in everything I say.”
In 11.7, he tells the strongman Ji Kangzi that Yan Hui was the only follower of his who loved learning . In 11.19 he goes even further by declaring that Hui “just about achieved perfection”. Not even a life of grinding poverty could tempt the virtuous Yan Hui to stray from the strict moral code that he adhered to.
The closeness of the relationship between Confucius and Yan Hui is best illustrated in 11.23 where they share an ironic joke upon being reunited after Confucius had nearly been killed in the rough border town of Kuang: “Confucius said: ‘I thought you were dead.’ Yan Hui said: ‘While you’re alive, how would I dare to die?’
Tragically, Yan Hui proved to unable to keep his promise. His early death not only left Confucius and his followers bereft at his loss. It’s also caused generation after generation of scholars to ponder what might have been if he’d lived long enough to assume Confucius’s mantle.
Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 2, Chapter 9
Book 5, Chapter 9
Book 5, Chapter 26
Book 6, Chapter 3
Book 6, Chapter 7
Book 6, Chapter 11
Book 7, Chapter 10
Book 9, Chapter 11
Book 9, Chapter 20
Book 9, Chapter 21
Book 11, Chapter 3
Book 11, Chapter 4
Book 11, Chapter 7
Book 11, Chapter 8
Book 11, Chapter 9
Book 11, Chapter 10
Book 11, Chapter 11
Book 11, Chapter 19
Book 11, Chapter 23
Book 12, Chapter I
Book 15, Chapter XI
Confucius said: “I can talk to Yan Hui all day without him ever arguing with me, as if he is slow. But when I observe how he behaves in private after he’s retired from my presence, I can see that he’s learned everything I’ve taught him. Indeed, Hui isn’t slow at all.”
Confucius asked Zigong: “Who is better, you or Yan Hui?” Zigong replied: “How can I compare myself with Yan Hui? When he learns one thing, he gets to understand ten more things; but if I learn one thing, I only get to understand two more things.” Confucius said: “You’re certainly not his equal and neither am I.”
When Yan Hui and Zilu were sitting together with him, Confucius said: “How about telling me what you would most like to do?” Zilu said: “I would like to share my carriages, horses, clothes, and furs with my friends without getting upset if they damage them.” Yan Hui said: “I would like to avoid boasting about my abilities or causing trouble for others.” Zilu said: “We would love to hear what our master would most like to do.” Confucius said: “I would to provide comfort to the elderly, be faithful to my friends, and cherish the young.”
Duke Ai asked: “Which of your followers 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.”
Confucius said: “Ah! Yan Hui could focus his mind solely on goodness for three months, whereas others can manage only a day or a month.”
Confucius said: “Yan Hui was so admirable! A handful of rice to eat, a gourd of water to drink, and a hovel in a shabby lane to live in: while others would have been unable to endure such misery, Yan Hui never let it make any difference to his happiness. Yan Hui was so admirable!”
Confucius said to Yan Hui: “To take office when needed and to stay out of sight when dismissed: only you and I can do this.” Zilu said: “If you had command of the Three Armies, who would you appoint to help you?” Confucius said: “I wouldn’t choose someone who wrestles tigers barehanded or swims across rivers without fearing death. But I would choose someone who approaches difficulties with due caution and achieves victories through careful planning.”
Yan Hui said with a heavy sigh: “The more I contemplate it, the higher it seems; the deeper I probe it, the harder it becomes; when I catch a glimpse of it in front of me, it’s suddenly behind me. Our master knows how to guide people skillfully and methodically. He broadens my mind with culture and restrains me with ritual. Even if I wanted to stop, I could not. Just as all my talents are exhausted, there seems to be something new towering above me. But although I long to follow it, I can’t find a way to it.”
Confucius said: “If anyone could listen to me without growing weary, who else could it be than Yan Hui?”
Confucius said of Yan Hui: “What a tragedy! I watched him make progress; I never saw him stop improving.”
Virtue: Yan Hui, Min Ziqian, Ran Geng, Ran Yong. Eloquence: Zai Yu, Zigong. Administration: Ran Qiu, Zilu. Letters: Ziyou, Zixia.
Confucius said: “Yan Hui is no help to me at all: he delights in everything I say.”
Ji Kangzi asked: “Which of your followers love learning?” Confucius replied: “There was Yan Hui who loved learning. Sadly, his life was cut short and he died. Now there’s nobody.”
顏淵死，顏路請子之車以為之 。子曰：「才不才，亦各言其子也。鯉也死，有棺而無 ；吾不徒行，以為之 ，以吾從大夫之後，不可徒行也。」
When Yan Hui died, his father Yan Lu asked Confucius if he could sell his carriage so that he could pay for an outer coffin for his son. Confucius said: “Talented or not, a son is a son. When my son Li died, he was buried in an inner coffin but there was no outer coffin. I wouldn’t go on foot in order to give him one because it wasn’t proper for me as a former minister to go on foot.”
When Yan Hui died, Confucius cried: “Alas! Heaven’s the ruin of me! Heaven’s the ruin of me!”
When Yan Hui died, Confucius wailed bitterly with grief. His followers said: “Master, such grief is excessive.” Confucius said: “Is it excessive? If I don’t grieve for this man, who else should I grieve for?”
When Yan Hui died, his fellow followers wanted to give him a grand burial. Confucius said: “This isn’t right.” When the followers gave him a grand burial, Confucius said: “Yan Hui treated me like a father, but I was not given the chance to treat him like a son. This is not my fault, but yours, my friends.”
Confucius said: “Yan Hui has just about achieved perfection, but he lives in constant poverty. Zigong is never satisfied with his lot and engages in trading and speculation. He frequently succeeds in his business ventures.”
While Confucius was held captive in Kuang, Yan Hui had fallen behind. When they were finally reunited, Confucius said: “I thought you were dead.” Yan Hui said: “While you’re alive, how would I dare to die?”
Yan Hui asked about goodness. Confucius said: “Overcome the self and restore the rites. This is what goodness is all about. If you overcome the self and restore the rites for just a single day, the whole world will respond to your goodness. The practice of goodness comes from the self. How can it come from others?” Yan Hui said: “May I ask what steps I should follow?” Confucius said: “Don’t look at anything that doesn’t conform with the rites; don’t listen to anything that doesn’t conform with the rites; don’t say anything that doesn’t conform with the rites; don’t do anything that doesn’t conform with the rites.” Yan Hui said: “Although I may not be quick to understand it, with your blessing I will strive to follow your guidance.”
When Yan Hui asked how to govern a state, Confucius said: “Observe the calendar of the Xia Dynasty; ride in the chariot of Yin Dynasty; wear the ceremonial cap of the Zhou Dynasty. As for music, follow the Coronation Hymn of Shun and the Victory Hymn of Wu. Ban the music of Zheng. Stay away from smooth talkers. The music of Zheng corrupts. Smooth talkers are dangerous.”