Followers of Confucius: Zilu

Zilu (子路) [542-480 BCE], whose given name was Zhong You (仲由), was also known as Zhong Zilu (仲子路) or Jilu (季路).

Zilu was an honest, courageous, and impetuous individual who wasn’t afraid of speaking his mind to Confucius. On one famous occasion recorded in 6.28, he even criticized the sage for risking his reputation by going to see Nanzi (南子), the scandal-ridden concubine of Duke Ling of the state of Wei (衛靈公). He was also of a generous disposition, telling Confucius in 5.26 that his greatest wish was to “share my carriages, horses, clothes, and furs with my friends without getting upset if they damage them.”

Confucius greatly admired Zilu for his courage, but was greatly concerned about his lack of good judgment and often chided him for his impetuousness. Despite such doubts, Confucius had a high regard for his administrative abilities. When Ji Kangzi (季康子), the true power behind the throne of the state of Lu, asked him if Zilu was fit for office in 6.8, the sage shot back: “Zilu is resolute. Why isn’t he fit for government office?” In an exchange with Meng Wubo (孟武伯), another powerful figure in the state of Lu, recorded in 5.8, he judged that Zilu would be well suited to managing military recruitment in a “middle-sized country”.

After finishing his studies with Confucius, Zilu went on to became chief magistrate of the district of Pu in modern-day Shanxi province and was appointed as a counselor (宰/zǎi) to Ji Kangzi. Subsequently, Zilu moved to Wei, where he took a position as a senior official for Kong Kui (孔悝), one of the most powerful figures in the state. When Kong Kui was imprisoned in the palace during a coup d’état, Zilu died while attempting to rescue him after ignoring advice from others not to intervene.

When Confucius heard the news of Zilu’s death, he was absolutely devastated. As he had always feared, Zilu’s reckless courage had ultimately been the undoing of him.

Additional Reading

Analects of Confucius Book 5: Confucius and the impetuous Zilu
Analects of Confucius Book 7: the relationship between Zilu and Confucius
Analects of Confucius Book 9: the great forbearance of Zilu and Zigong
Analects of Confucius Book 11: Confucius and Zilu

Appearances in the Analects of Confucius

Book 2, Chapter 17
Book 5, Chapter 7
Book 5, Chapter 8
Book 5, Chapter 14
Book 5, Chapter 26
Book 6, Chapter 8
Book 6, Chapter 28
Book 7, Chapter 10
Book 7, Chapter 18
Book 7, Chapter 25
Book 9, Chapter 12
Book 9, Chapter 27
Book 10, Chapter 27
Book 11, Chapter 3
Book 11, Chapter 12
Book 11, Chapter 13
Book 11, Chapter 15
Book 11, Chapter 18
Book 11, Chapter 22
Book 11, Chapter 24
Book 11, Chapter 25
Book 11, Chapter 26
Book 12, Chapter 12
Book 13, Chapter I
Book 13, Chapter III
Book 13, Chapter XXVIII
Book 14, Chapter XII
Book 14, Chapter XVI
Book 14, Chapter XXII
Book 14, Chapter XXXVI
Book 14, Chapter XXXVIII
Book 14, Chapter XLII
Book 15, Chapter II
Book 15, Chapter IV
Book 16, Chapter I
Book 17, Chapter V
Book 17, Chapter VII
Book 17, Chapter VIII
Book 17, Chapter XXIII
Book 18, Chapter VI
Book 18, Chapter VII

Book 2
Chapter 17
Confucius said: “Zilu, let me tell you what knowledge means. Knowing what you know and what you don’t know. That is what knowledge means.”

Book 5
Chapter 7
Confucius said: “If the way doesn’t prevail, I’ll take a raft and put out to sea. I’m sure Zilu will come with me.” When he heard this, Zilu was delighted. Confucius said: “Zilu is much braver than I am, but he brings no materials to make the raft with.” 

Chapter 8
Meng Wubo asked “Is Zilu a good person?” Confucius said: “I don’t know.” When he asked once again, Confucius said: “In a middle-sized country, he could be entrusted with military recruitment. But whether he’s a good person, I don’t know.” “And what about Ran Qiu?” Confucius said: “Ran Qiu? He could be the mayor of a small city or the manager of a large estate. But whether he’s a good person, I don’t know.” “And what about Gongxi Chi?” Confucius said: “Gongxi Chi? Standing resplendent with his sash, he could entertain distinguished guests. But whether he’s a good person, I don’t know.”

Chapter 14
Whenever Zilu learned something new but hadn’t had the chance to put it into practice, he was afraid that he might learn something else before he did so. 

Chapter 26
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 like to provide comfort to the elderly, be faithful to my friends, and cherish the young.”

Book 6
Chapter 8
Ji Kangzi asked: “Is Zilu fit for government office?” Confucius said: “Zilu is resolute. Why isn’t he fit for government office?” Ji Kangzi asked again: “Is Zigong fit for government office?” Confucius said: “Zigong is intelligent. Why isn’t he fit for government office?” Ji Kangzi asked again: “Is Ran Qiu fit to be appointed to government office?” Confucius said: “Ran Qiu has many talents. Why isn’t he fit for government office?”

Chapter 28
Confucius went to see Nanzi (the consort of Duke Ling of Wei). Zilu was not happy. Confucius swore: “If I have done wrong, may heaven punish me! May heaven punish me!”

Book 7
Chapter 10
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.”

Chapter 18
The Duke of She asked Zilu about Confucius. Zilu did not reply. Confucius said: “Why didn’t you say, ‘He’s the kind of man who gets so lost in his passions that he forgets to eat and so caught up in his happiness that he forgets his worries and doesn’t even notice he’s growing old?’”

Chapter 34
When Confucius fell seriously ill, Zilu asked permission to pray. Confucius said: “Does such a practice exist?” Zilu replied: “Certainly. The liturgy says: ‘We pray to the spirits from above and the spirits from below.’” Confucius said: “If that’s the case, I’ve been praying for myself for a long time now.”

Book 9
Chapter 12
Confucius was seriously ill. Zilu had his followers act as if they were retainers of a lord. When his illness went into remission, Confucius said: “Zilu, this deception has lasted long enough. Who do I deceive with these bogus retainers? Do I deceive heaven? Rather than die among retainers, I would prefer to die in the arms of my followers. I may not receive a grand funeral, but I’ll hardly die by the roadside.”

Chapter 27
Confucius said: “Only Zilu can stand in his shabby hemp gown next to people wearing fox and badger furs without feeling embarrassed: ‘free of envy, free of greed, he must be a good man.’” When Zilu continuously chanted these lines, Confucius said: “You’re moving in the right direction, but is that a good reason to be so self-satisfied?”

Book 10
Chapter 27
Startled by a sudden movement, the bird flew off, hovered for a while, and then landed again. Confucius said: “The hen pheasant on the mountain bridge – How timely! How timely!” Zilu clasped his hands and bowed towards the bird, which tweeted three times and flew away.

Book 11
Chapter 3
Virtue: Yan Hui, Min Ziqian, Ran Geng, Ran Yong. Eloquence: Zai Yu, Zigong. Administration: Ran Qiu, Zilu. Letters: Ziyou, Zixia.

Chapter 12
Zilu asked how to serve the spirits and gods. Confucius said: “If you’re not yet able to serve other people, how are you able to serve the spirits?” Zilu said: “May I ask about death?” Confucius said: “If you don’t understand life yet, how can you understand death?” 

Chapter 13
When at Confucius’s side, Min Ziqian was straightforward but respectful; Zilu was bold and intense; Ran Qiu and Zigong were frank but amiable. Confucius was happy but said: “A man like Zilu won’t die a natural death.”

Chapter 15
Confucius said: “What is Zilu doing playing his zither inside my gate?” The followers ceased to treat Zilu with respect. Confucius said: “Zilu may not have entered the inner chamber yet, but he has at least ascended to the hall.”

Chapter 18
Zigao is dumb; Zengzi is dull; Zizhang is frivolous; Zilu is reckless.

Chapter 22
Zilu asked: “When I learn something new, should I put it into practice immediately?” Confucius said: “Your father and your elder brother are still alive. How could you put it into practice immediately?” Ran Qiu said: “When I learn something new, should I put it into practice immediately?” Confucius said: “Put it into practice immediately.” Gongxi Chi said: “When Zilu asked whether or not he should put into practice something new that he’s learned, you told him that his father and elder brother are still alive. But when Ran Qiu asked the very same question, you told him to put it into practice immediately. I’m confused. May I ask for an explanation?” Confucius said: “Ran Qiu holds himself back, so I push him forward; Zilu has enough energy for two, so I hold him back.” 

Chapter 24
Ji Ziran asked: “Would you say that Zilu and Ran Qiu are great ministers?” Confucius said: “I thought you were going to ask about somebody else; I never expected that you would ask about Zilu and Ran Qiu. A really great minister serves his lord by following the way and resigns if there is no possibility of doing so. As for Zilu and Ran Qiu, they might just about be qualified for an unfilled vacancy.” Ji Ziran said: “Do you mean that they can be counted on to follow orders?” Confucius said: “They wouldn’t go quite so far as murdering their father or their lord.”

Chapter 25
Zilu appointed Zigao as governor of Bi. Confucius said: “You’re harming another man’s son.” Zilu said: “There are people there for him to learn from as well as the altars of the spirits of the land and grain where he can learn how to perform ritual ceremonies. Why should learning consist only of reading books?” Confucius said: “It’s this kind of remark that makes me hate people with a smooth tongue.”

Chapter 26
Zilu, Zeng Dian, Ran Qiu, and Gongxi Chi were sitting with Confucius. Confucius said: “Forget for a moment that I’m your elder. You often say: ‘Nobody recognizes our talents.’ But if you were given the opportunity, what would you wish to do?”

Zilu eagerly replied first: “Give me a middle-sized state wedged between powerful neighbors that is under attack from invading armies and gripped by drought and famine. If I were to govern it, within three years I would give its people courage and set them in the right direction.”

Confucius smiled at him: “Ran Qiu, what about you?”

Ran Qiu replied: “If I was allowed to run a territory of sixty or seventy or, say, fifty to sixty li, within three years I would secure the prosperity of its people. As for ritual and music, they would have to wait for a true leader to take over.”

“Gongxi Chi, what about you?”

“I’m not saying that I would be able to do this, but I would like to try: in the ceremonies at the Grand Ancestral Temple, such as a diplomatic conference, wearing a ceremonial cap and robes, I would like to act as a junior official.”

“And what about you, Zeng Dian?” Zeng Dian plucked one final chord of the zither he’d been playing and put it down by his side. He replied: “My wish is very different than those of my three companions.”

Confucius said: “What harm is there in that? After all, each one is simply speaking from his heart.”

Zeng Dian said: “In late spring, after all the spring clothes have been made, I would like to go out together with five or six companions and six or seven children to bathe in the Yi River, enjoy the breeze on the Rain Dance Terrace, and then return home singing.”

Confucius let out a wistful sigh and said: “I’m with Dian!”

After the other three followers had left, Zeng Dian stayed behind and said: “What did you think of their wishes?” Confucius said: “Each was indeed speaking from his heart.”

Zeng Dian asked: “Why did you smile at Zilu?” Confucius said: “You should govern a state according to ritual, but his words showed no such restraint. That’s why I smiled.”

“But wasn’t Ran Qiu also talking about governing a state?” “Of course. Have you ever seen ‘a territory of sixty to seventy, or fifty to sixty li?’”

“And Gongxi Chi? Wasn’t he also talking about running a state as well?” “A diplomatic conference in the Grand Ancestral Temple! What could this be but an affair of state? And if Gongxi Chi were there merely to act as a junior official, who could possibly be qualified to act as the senior one?”

Book 12
Chapter 12
Confucius said: “Only Zilu could pass judgment on a lawsuit after hearing half the evidence.” Zilu never slept on a promise.

Book 13
Chapter I
Zilu asked about government. Confucius said: “Lead the people by example. Work hard for them.” Zilu asked him for further instruction. Confucius said: “Tirelessly.”

Chapter III
Zilu asked: “If the Duke of Wei were to entrust you with the government of his state, what would be your first priority? Confucius said: “It most definitely would be to rectify the names.” Zilu said: “Really? Isn’t that a little strange? How would that make things right?” Confucius said: “How dense can you get! If a leader doesn’t understand what he is talking about, he should remain silent. If the names are not correct, language does not accord with the truth of things. When language does not accord with the truth of things, nothing can be carried out successfully. When nothing can be carried out successfully, the rites and music will not flourish. When the rites and music don’t flourish, punishments and penalties miss their mark. When punishments and penalties miss their mark, the people do not know where to place their hands and feet. Therefore, a leader must be able to give the appropriate name to whatever he wants to talk about, and must also make sure he does exactly as he says. When it comes to speaking, a leader doesn’t allow any carelessness.”

Chapter XXVIII
Zilu asked: “What qualities must you possess to be called a true gentleman?” Confucius said: “Supportive, encouraging, and affectionate: such a man deserves to be called a true gentleman. Supportive and encouraging towards his friends and affectionate towards his brothers.”

Book 14
Chapter XII
Zilu asked how to define a “complete man”. Confucius said: “Take a man as wise as Zang Wuzhong, as abstemious as Gongchuo, as brave as Zhuangzi of Bian, and as proficient in the arts as Ran Qiu, as well as being accomplished in the rites and music, and he may be considered a complete man.” Then he added: “But must a complete man be exactly like this today? Someone who thinks of what is right at the sight of profit, who is ready to risk their life when faced with danger, and who can endure hardship without forgetting the teachings that have guided his daily life may also be considered a complete person.”

Chapter XVI
Zilu said: “When Duke Huan put Prince Jiu to death, Shao Hu took his own life but Guan Zhong chose to keep his. Should we say that Guan Zhong was a man without goodness?” Confucius said: “Duke Huan was able to bring the rulers of all the states together nine times without having to resort to military force because of the power of Guan Zhong. Such was his goodness, such was his goodness!”

Chapter XXII
Zilu asked how to serve a ruler. Confucius said: “Don’t deceive him; be willing to oppose him.”

Chapter XXXVI
Gongbo Liao made accusations against Zilu to Jisun. Zifu Jingbo reported this to Confucius, saying: “My master’s mind is being led astray by Gongbo Liao; but I still have enough power to splay Liao’s corpse open in the market and court.” Confucius said: “Will the Way prevail? That is for fate to decide. Will the Way be cast aside? That is for fate to decide. What does Gongbo Liao matter compared with fate?”

Confucius said: “The wise withdraw from the world; next come those who withdraw from a particular state; next come those who withdraw because of a particular look; next come those who withdraw because of a particular word.” Confucius said: “Seven men did this.”

Chapter XLII
Zilu asked what makes a leader. Confucius said: “Rigorous self-cultivation.” Zilu asked: “Is that all there is to it?” Confucius said: “He cultivates himself to bring comfort to the people. He cultivates himself to bring comfort to the people: this is something even Yao and Shun would have found very difficult.”

Book 15
Chapter II
In Chen, the food supplies were exhausted. His disciples became so weak that they could not rise to their feet. Zilu came to him and said indignantly: “How is it possible for an exemplary person to find themself in such dire straits?” Confucius said: “An exemplary person stays resolute in even the direst of straits but only a small-minded person loses their cool about it.”

Chapter IV
Confucius said: “Zilu, there only a very few people who understand virtue.”

Book 16
Chapter I
The head of the Ji family was preparing to attack Zhuanyu. Ran Qiu and Zilu went to see Confucius and said: “Ji Kangzi is going to intervene in Zhuanyu.”

Confucius said: “Qiu, this is your fault, isn’t it? In the past, our ancient kings gave Zhuanyu the responsibility of offering sacrifices to Mount Dongmeng; moreover it lies in the heart of our borders and is paying tribute to us. Why attack it?”

Ran Qiu said: “It is the wish of our master; it is not the wish of either of us.”

Confucius said: “Qiu! Zhou Ren had a saying, ‘he who has strength stands firm; he who lacks strength withdraws.’ What sort of assistant is one who cannot steady his master when he stumbles or stops him when he falls? In any case, what you said is mistaken. If a tiger or rhinoceros escapes from its cage or if a tortoise shell or a jade amulet is broken in its casket who should be responsible?”

Ran Qiu said: “But Zhuanyu has strong defenses and is close to our master’s stronghold at Bi. If he does not take it today, in the future it is sure to become a threat to his children and grandchildren.”

Confucius said: “Qiu! A leader detests those who invent excuses for their actions instead of simply saying: ‘I want this.’ I have heard it said that a head of a state or the chief of a clan worries not about having a small population but inequality, and not about poverty but instability. For if there is equality there will be no poverty, if there is harmony there will be no lack of population, and if there is stability there will be no unrest. It is for this reason that if people from afar still resist joining you, you must cultivate your virtue to attract them; and then, once they have come, you must ensure they are content with it. But, with you two as his ministers, people from afar are unwilling to join your master and won’t come; his state is racked with divisions and unrest, and he cannot hold it together any longer; but he still plots to wage war within the borders of the state itself! I’m afraid that for Ji Kangzi, the real threat does not come from Zhuanyu, but lies within the walls of his own palace!”

Book 17
Chapter V
Gongshan Furao, using the town of Bi as a stronghold, launched a revolt. He summoned Confucius to join him and Confucius was tempted to go. Zilu was unhappy about this and said: “We may have nowhere to go, but why must we go to join Gongshan?” Confucius said: “Since he has summoned me, it must be for some purpose. If his purpose is to employ me, perhaps I could establish a new Zhou Dynasty in the East.”

Chapter VII
佛肸召,子欲往。子路曰:「昔者由也聞諸夫子曰:『親於其身為不善者,君子不入也』。佛肸以中牟畔,子之往也,如之何?」子曰:「然,有是言也。不曰堅乎?磨而不磷;不曰白乎?涅而不緇。吾豈匏瓜也哉?焉能繫而不食!」Bi Xi summoned Confucius. Confucius was tempted to go. Zilu said: “Master, in the past I have heard you say, ‘A leader does not enter the domain of those who commit evil.’ Bi Xi is using his stronghold of Zhongmou as the base of a rebellion. How can you contemplate going to join him?” Confucius said: “It’s true I said that. But hasn’t it also been said, ‘so tough that it can withstand grinding; so white that it can withstand black dye’. Am I no more than a bitter gourd that is hung on a piece of string instead of being eaten?”

Chapter VIII
Confucius said: “Zilu, have you heard of the six virtues and their six attendant vices?” “No, I haven’t.” “Sit down, and I will tell you. Loving goodness without loving learning leads to ignorance. Loving knowledge without loving learning leads to foolishness. Loving trustworthiness without loving learning leads to criminality. Loving frankness without loving learning leads to offensiveness. Loving valor without loving learning leads to chaos. Loving steadfastness without loving learning leads to recklessness.”

Chapter XXIII
Zilu said: “Does a leader prize courage?” Confucius said: “A leader prizes rightness above all else. A leader who is courageous but lacking in rightness could create chaos; a petty person who is courageous but lacking in rightness could become a bandit.”

Book 18
Chapter VI
Changju and Jieni were plowing the fields together. Confucius passed by and sent Zilu to ask where the ford was. Changju said: “Who is in the chariot?” Zilu said: “Confucius.” “Confucius from Lu?” “Yes.” “Then he already knows where the ford is.” Zilu then asked Jieni the same question. He replied: “Who are you?” “I am Zilu.” “The disciple of Confucius from Lu?” “Yes.” “The whole world is inundated by the same flood. Who can reverse its flow? Instead of following someone who keeps fleeing from one man to the next, wouldn’t you be better off following a man who has forsaken the world?” All the while he kept on harrowing the field without stopping. Zilu went back and reported the incident to Confucius. With a furrowed brow, Confucius sighed: “I can’t associate with the birds and beasts. If I can’t associate with men, who can I associate with? If the world were following the Way, I would not have to try to reform it.”

Chapter VII
Zilu fell behind while traveling with Confucius. He met an old man who was carrying a basket hanging from his staff over his shoulder. Zilu asked him: “Have you seen my master?” The old man said: “You don’t toil with your four limbs, and you can’t even distinguish between the five types of grain. Who is your master?” He planted his staff in the ground and started weeding. Zilu stood respectfully, his hands clasped in front of him. The old man invited him to stay with him overnight, killed a chicken and cooked some millet for him to eat, and introduced his two sons to him. The next day, Zilu resumed his journey and reported to Confucius. Confucius said: “The man you met is a hermit.” He sent Zilu back to see the old man, but when he reached his place Zilu found that the old man had gone. Zilu said: “It is wrong to withdraw from public life. The codes that govern the rightful relationship between the old and young cannot be discarded. How can the rightful relationship between ruler and subject be discarded? You cannot disrupt the most basic human relationships just to preserve your purity. A leader takes office and performs his rightful duties even if he already knows that the Way will not prevail.”

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