A Daoist insurgency

Jieyu, the Madman of Chu, walked past Confucius singing: “Phoenix, oh Phoenix! How your virtue has withered. The past is beyond repair, but the future is still worth pursuing. Give up! Give up! Those who serve in court are in peril.” Confucius stepped down from his chariot and wanted to speak with him, but he hurried away and disappeared. Confucius did not succeed in speaking with him.

This is the first of three allegorical tales of encounters between Confucius and Daoist hermits he supposedly happened to come across during his wanderings. Curiously, and probably deliberately, Confucius doesn’t actually speak directly with any of the hermits himself. He either fails to talk with them, as in this case, or his disciple Zilu acts as the intermediary.

Some commentators speculate that these tales were the work of Daoist insurgents who somehow managed to sneak them into the Analects to criticize Confucius’s thinking. Others suggest that they were a pre-emptive strike by supporters of Confucius aimed at taking the sting out of any possible attacks on his teachings. Regardless of their origins, the tales beautifully illustrate the huge philosophical gulf between the two different schools.

Confucius and Laozi, the author of the Daodejing, lived at around the same time, but reports that they met are, to borrow from Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated.

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