Ran Qiu said: “Does our Master support the Duke of Wei?” Zigong said: “Well, I am going to ask him.” Zigong went in and asked Confucius: “What sort of people were Boyi and Shuqi?” “They were virtuous men of old.” “Did they complain?” “They sought goodness and attained goodness. Why should they have complained?” Zigong left and said to Ran Qiu: “Our Master does not support the Duke of Wei.”
It’s a good job that Confucius and Zigong were on the same wavelength in this conversation. I certainly would have missed its subtle implications if I had been in a similar situation.
The Duke of Wei only ascended to the throne of Wei because his father, the former crown prince, had been exiled from the country in disgrace by the duke’s grandfather. When the duke’s father returned to take the throne from him, the duke’s legitimacy was thrown into doubt because he was holding a position that should by hereditary right been assumed by his father.
Instead of asking Confucius directly for his opinion on this extremely sensitive political matter, Zigong poses an unspoken question about his thoughts on Boyi and Shuqi, two brothers who, depending on your viewpoint, out of a sense of noble self-sacrifice or misguided zealotry ended up starving to death in the wilds of Shanxi province rather than compromise their ethical principles. You can read more about their story here.
Confucius replies to Zigong’s unspoken question with his own unspoken answer: like Boyi and Shuqi, the Duke of Wei should follow the right path even at the cost of heavy personal sacrifice.