A false note

Zilu fell behind while traveling with Confucius. He met an old man who was carrying a basket hanging from his staff over his shoulder. Zilu asked him: “Have you seen my master?” The old man said: “You don’t toil with your four limbs, and you can’t even distinguish between the five types of grain. Who is your master?” He planted his staff in the ground and started weeding. Zilu stood respectfully, his hands clasped in front of him. The old man invited him to stay with him overnight, killed a chicken and cooked some millet for him to eat, and introduced his two sons to him. The next day, Zilu resumed his journey and reported to Confucius. Confucius said: “The man you met is a hermit.” He sent Zilu back to see the old man, but when he reached his place Zilu found that the old man had gone. Zilu said: “It is wrong to withdraw from public life. The codes that govern the rightful relationship between the old and young cannot be discarded. How can the rightful relationship between ruler and subject be discarded? You cannot disrupt the most basic human relationships just to preserve your purity. A leader takes office and performs his rightful duties even if he already knows that the Way will not prevail.”

This final allegorical tale warms up nicely with its lyrical opening scene – only to end on a false note in the final section. Zilu’s closing comments are way too harsh to ring true and have only the most tenuous of connections with the rest of the story. Indeed, it’s not even clear who Zilu is meant to be talking to at the end because in the previous section the old man had already disappeared.

The only explanation I can think of is that the final part of the passage was tacked on by some unknown scribe or editor, though I have no idea for what purpose.

This is the final appearance that the loyal but hot-headed disciple Zilu makes in the Analects. You can read more about him here.

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