Ziyou (子游), whose given name was Yan Yan (言偃), was also known as Yan Ziyou (言子游), Yan You (言游), Yanzi (言子), and Shu Shi (叔氏).
Born in the state of Wu in around 506 BCE, Ziyou became a follower of the sage when Confucius was already an old man. Confucius had a high regard for his literary knowledge and skills, and subsequently praised Ziyou for the work that he did in educating the local people in the rites and music after he was appointed as an official in Wucheng (武城), modern-day Feixian (費縣) in Shandong.
After Confucius died, Ziyou became a teacher himself. But after his works were savaged by the philosopher Xunzi (荀子) [312 – 230 BCE], he was never able to achieve the same levels of prominence as other followers of Confucius.
When Ziyou asked about filial devotion, Confucius said: “These days filial devotion simply means keeping your parents fed. But that’s also how dogs and horses are looked after. Unless you treat your parents respectfully, what’s the difference?”
Ziyou said: “In the service of a lord, overzealousness brings disgrace; in the company of friends, it brings estrangement.”
When Ziyou became governor of Wucheng, Confucius asked him: “Have you managed to get hold of the right sort of people there?” He replied: “There is one called Tantai Mieming. He takes no shortcuts and he has never visited me at home, except on official business.”
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.
Confucius went to Wucheng. When he heard the sound of stringed instruments and singing, he was amused and broke out into a smile: “Why use an ox cleaver to kill a chicken?” Ziyou replied: “Master, in the past I have heard you say: ‘A leader who has been instructed in the Way loves all people; common people who have been instructed in the Way are easy to govern.’” Confucius said: “My friends, Ziyou is right. The remarks I made a moment ago were just a joke.”
Ziyou said: “The disciples of Zixia are well trained for sprinkling and sweeping the floor, responding to instructions, and greeting guests. But these are only details. When it comes to the fundamentals, they are totally lost. How is this possible?” When Zixia heard this he said: “No! Ziyou is badly mistaken! When it comes to the Way of the exemplary person, who is to decide what should be taught first and what should be taught last? Disciples should be taught according to their characteristics in the same way plants and trees are sorted. How can it be the Way of the exemplary person to turn them into fools? Only a sage, however, would be able to master everything from the beginning to the end.”
Ziyou said: “When mourning, give full expression to your grief and then stop.”
Ziyou said: “My friend Zizhang is a man of great ability, but he has not yet achieved goodness.”