A bitter gourd

Bi Xi summoned Confucius. Confucius was tempted to go. Zilu said: “Master, in the past I have heard you say, ‘A leader does not enter the domain of those who commit evil.’ Bi Xi is using his stronghold of Zhongmou as the base of a rebellion. How can you contemplate going to join him?” Confucius said: “It’s true I said that. But hasn’t it also been said, ‘so tough that it can withstand grinding; so white that it can withstand black dye’. Am I no more than a bitter gourd that is hung on a piece of string instead of being eaten?”

This is the third job opportunity that Confucius is tempted to pursue in Book 17 of the Analects. His blustering and self-pitying response to Zilu’s biting criticism does him no credit at all and reveals how desperate he must have become to achieve a position of influence – even it meant consorting with a rebel of dubious character.

As galling as it must have been for him to be “a bitter gourd that is hung on a piece of string,” surely that would have been preferable to selling out his long-held principles for a fleeting taste of power?

For fleeting it would most certainly have been, because – just as Yang Huo and Gongshan Furao – Bi Xi, a treacherous steward of a great family in the state of Jin, failed in his attempted revolt and went on to meet an untimely end.

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