An incorrigible rogue

原壤夷俟。子曰:「幼而不孫弟,長而無述焉,老而不死是為賊。」以杖叩其脛。
Yuan Rang sat cross-legged waiting for Confucius. Confucius said: “You were disobedient when you were young, achieved nothing of note when you grew up, and you’re still not dead now that you’re old: you’re nothing but an incorrigible rogue.” Then he struck him across the shin with his staff.

Yuan Rang was reputedly an eccentric old friend of Confucius, so this passage is probably meant to be humorous. I certainly hope this is the case, though a more censorious interpretation like the one below is by no means unfeasible:

Yuan Rang sat with his legs sprawled out waiting for Confucius. Confucius said: “A disobedient and disrespectful young man will grow into an adult who achieves nothing. When he grows older he doesn’t have the dignity to pass away and becomes a burden.” He then struck him on the shin with his staff.

There are multiple interpretations of the exact position that Yuan Rang was sat in, ranging from open–legged to squatting on his heels. The point is that he was casual and could therefore have been either rude or just comfortable in front of a friend.

There is also some debate over whether Confucius struck with Yuan with his staff to punish him or as a sign of affection. I guess it depends on whether Yuan Rang was a young or old man at the time when the incident happened. That’s another question people argue about.

There’s another story about Confucius and Yuan Rang in the Book of Rites (禮記/lǐjì). When Confucius went to help Yuan to prepare for his mother’s funeral, Yuan jumped on his mother’s coffin and started singing away happily. Although Confucius left, pretending not to hear it, he didn’t make any attempt to stop Yuan from singing.

If true, this story would lend further credence to the theory that this passage is meant to be humorous and Confucius was simply being indulgent towards his free-spirited old friend.

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