Like a solar or lunar eclipse

Zigong said: “The errors of a leader are like an eclipse of the sun or the moon. When he makes an error, everyone notices; when he corrects his error everyone looks up to him in admiration.”

A leader doesn’t make many mistakes. But on the rare occasions he screws up, he doesn’t attempt to hide them so that everyone can see he deals with them. Continue reading Like a solar or lunar eclipse

Zigong challenges conventional wisdom

Zigong said: “Zhouxin can’t have been as evil as people say. That is why a leader hates to dwell downstream. All the world’s effluent finds its way to him.”

By challenging the conventional wisdom about Zhouxin (紂辛), the depraved last king of the Yin or Shang Dynasty whose name became a byword for evil, Zigong is warning people to stay on the high ground (ie behave in a proper fashion) to avoid the same fate. Continue reading Zigong challenges conventional wisdom

Zengzi takes his final bow

The Meng Family appointed Yang Fu as a judge. Yang Fu asked for advice from Zengzi. Zengzi said: “The authorities have lost the Way; the common people have been left to their own devices for too long. When you succeed in getting the true facts of a case, respond with compassion but never take any pleasure from it.”

Zengzi takes his final bow in the Analects with his call for his disciple Yang Fu to show compassion when dispensing justice. Rather than seeing the successful conclusion of a case as triumph, Zengzi cautions, Yang should regard it as a reflection of the failure of the government to set the right example to the common people and inculcate the proper values in them. Continue reading Zengzi takes his final bow

Zengzi on filial piety

Zengzi said: “I heard this from the Master: If a man ever reveals his true nature, it’s when he mourns his parents.”

Zengzi said: “I heard this from the Master: The one facet of Meng Zhuangzi’s filial piety that others couldn’t match was that he retained his father’s officials and continued his father’s policies.”

Zengzi is reiterating Confucius’s comments in Chapter XI of Book 1 and Chapter XX of Book 4 of the Analects that the true test of a son’s filial piety is whether he observes the three-year mourning period after the death of his parents: Continue reading Zengzi on filial piety

Zizhang gets a kicking

Ziyou said: “My friend Zizhang is a man of great ability, but he has not yet achieved goodness.”

Zengzi said: “Zizhang is so full of himself that it is difficult to cultivate goodness by his side.”

I presume that it wasn’t an editorial accident that these two put-downs of Zizhang are paired together. Continue reading Zizhang gets a kicking

Lifelong learning

Zixia said: “When an official has time to spare from his duties, he should study. When a student has time to spare from his studies, he should undertake official duties.”

The meaning of this passage isn’t entirely clear. The key message appears to be that learning and officialdom are inextricably linked. To be a truly excellent official, you need to continue learning. To be a truly excellent student, you need to serve as an official in order to practice the principles you have learned. Continue reading Lifelong learning

The pursuit of major virtues

Zixia said: “As long as you don’t overstep the bounds when it comes to major virtues, it doesn’t matter if you take the occasional liberty with minor ones.”

Just as Zixia urged his students to focus on reaching their most important goals rather than wasting their time on minor diversions in Chapter IV of Book 19, he was willing to overlook minor missteps from them if they showed they were fully committed to the pursuit of the major virtues. Continue reading The pursuit of major virtues


Zixia said: “A petty person always tries to gloss over his mistakes.”

Zixia said: “A leader has three different aspects: from a distance, he looks stern; close up, he looks warm; when you hear his voice, he sounds serious.

Zixia said: “A leader only mobilizes the people for labor after earning their trust. If he hasn’t earned his trust, the people will feel they are being exploited. He only offers criticism to his lord after earning his trust. If he hasn’t earned his trust, the lord will feel he is being slandered.”

Zixia is certainly on a roll, though he is merely recycling points already made by Confucius rather than adding any fresh new insights to them or developing them any further. Continue reading Recycling

Stay on the highway

Zixia said: “Although there’s a lot to see when you stroll along the byways, you risk getting get stuck in the mud if you have to travel far. That is why a leader should avoid them.”

Zixia said: “If you recognize day by day what you still need to learn and don’t forget month by month what you have already learned, you truly love learning!”

Zixia said: “Expand your learning and stick firmly to your purpose; question everything and reflect deeply: this is how you find goodness.”

Zixia said: “Artisans of all types live in their workshops to master their trade. A leader learns to master the Way.”

In contrast with the extroverted Zizhang, Zixia was one of the more conventional, some might say pedantic, disciples of Confucius. He had no time for fripperies and was relentlessly focused on the application of the teachings of his master by both himself and the students who joined his school. Continue reading Stay on the highway