The birds and the beasts

Changju and Jieni were plowing the fields together. Confucius passed by and sent Zilu to ask where the ford was. Changju said: “Who is in the chariot?” Zilu said: “Confucius.” “Confucius from Lu?” “Yes.” “Then he already knows where the ford is.” Zilu then asked Jieni the same question. He replied: “Who are you?” “I am Zilu.” “The disciple of Confucius from Lu?” “Yes.” “The whole world is inundated by the same flood. Who can reverse its flow? Instead of following someone who keeps fleeing from one man to the next, wouldn’t you be better off following a man who has forsaken the world?” All the while he kept on harrowing the field without stopping. Zilu went back and reported the incident to Confucius. With a furrowed brow, Confucius sighed: “I can’t associate with the birds and beasts. If I can’t associate with men, who can I associate with? If the world were following the Way, I would not have to try to reform it.”

A well-aimed barb from Jieni, one of the two Daoist hermits that Zilu encounters on his wanderings: why is he hanging on to Confucius’s coat tails as he conducts his fruitless quest to find an employer? Wouldn’t Zilu, and by extension Confucius, be better off giving up their worldly cares and retiring to the countryside?

Confucius, of course, can’t allow himself to do this. He has no choice but to continue stumbling along carrying his self-imposed burdens on his increasingly slender shoulders.

Like the preceding and succeeding chapters of Book 18, this passage is written in a much more sophisticated (perhaps you could say affected) style than the rest of the Analects – marking them as much later additions to the text. Even the names of the two hermits appear to be metaphorical rather than real. Changju (長沮) means “standing tall above the marsh”, while jieni (桀溺) means “rising above the mud”.

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