Confucius asked Zigong: “Who is better, you or Yan Hui?” Zigong replied: “How can I compare myself with Yan Hui? He has only to hear ten percent in order to understand everything about a subject while if I hear ten per cent I only understand twenty percent. Confucius said: “You are certainly not his equal, and neither am I.”
Unlike his attitude towards Zilu, Ran Qiu, and Gongxi Chi in the previous chapter, Confucius doesn’t hold back at all in praising his disciple Yan Hui, going as far as to say that even he himself isn’t Yan Hui’s equal.
At least, that is my understanding of the last sentence of this chapter. However, some die-hard Confucianistas have found it so difficult to accept the idea that Confucius would admit someone was his superior that they have argued vehemently that the character 與 (yǔ) should be read as a verb meaning “to approve” rather than as the conjunction “and”.
Such an interpretation would change the meaning of the last sentence to something like “you are not his equal, I agree, you are not his equal.” In addition to being very harsh on poor old Zigong, it ignores the very close relationship Confucius had with Yan Hui.
Thirty years younger than Confucius, he was adopted by the older man as his protégé until his untimely death at the age of 32, which left the sage feeling so bereft that he was accused by his other disciples of showing “excessive grief”. Even Confucius’s own son, Bo Yu, wasn’t treated with such obvious affection by his father. Indeed, Confucius was said to be extremely distant towards him.
Unfortunately, there are no records as to what Confucius’s disciples really felt about his relationship with Yan Hui. Was Zigong just being polite or telling the truth when he asked “How can I compare myself with Yan Hui?” It would be fascinating to know.