Zai Yu (宰予) (522-458 BCE) 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 BCE.
According to Sima Qian (司馬遷) [145 BC – 86 BCE], 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 CE] 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.
Duke Ai asked which wood should be used for the altar pole of the land god. Zai Yu replied: “The Xia used pine; the Yin used cypress; the Zhou used chestnut. It’s said that they wanted it to make people tremble with fear.” When Confucius heard of this, he said: “What’s done is done; no need to dredge up the past; let bygones be bygones.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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?”