A dramatic change of heart

或問「子產」,子曰:「惠人也。」問「子西」,曰:「彼哉彼哉!」問「管仲」,曰:「人也,奪伯氏駢邑三百,飯疏食,沒齒無怨言。」
Someone asked about Zichan. Confucius said: “He was a generous man.” “And what about Zixi?” “Don’t even mention his name!” “And what about Guan Zhong?” “What a man! He seized over three hundred households in Pian from the head of the Bo family. But even though he was reduced to eating coarse food until the end of his days, the poor man could never bring himself to utter a single word of complaint against him.”

Some commentators believe that Zixi (子西) was the successor to Zichan as Prime Minister of the state of Zheng and that Confucius is highlighting the terrible job he did compared to his predecessor. This seems logical to me.

Guan Zhong was Prime Minister of Qi in the seventh century, about 150 years before Confucius lived, and perhaps the biggest political star of his age. In Book 3 Chapter XXII, Confucius delivers a venomous attack on Guan Zhong, so it is surprising to see him praising the man in this passage.

I can’t find any particularly persuasive explanations for Confucius’s dramatic change of heart here, though some commentators suggest that the sage is saying that Guan Zhong made the right decision to confiscate the land from the head of the Bo family because of the nature of his (unspecified) crime. The fact that the man accepted his fate without complaint adds credence to this theory, but it still doesn’t fully explain why Confucius so suddenly champions someone he previously described as being “of truly mediocre capabilities.”

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