Historical figures in the Analects of Confucius: Guan Zhong

Guan Zhong (管仲) was the chief minister of the state of Qi (齊) during the seventh century BC. He was born in c. 720 BCE and died in c. 645 BCE, just over a hundred years before Confucius was born.

After his appointment to the position of chief minister in 685 BCE, he encouraged Duke Huan of Qi (齊桓公) to implement a raft of political, administrative, and economic reforms that ultimately made Qi one of the most powerful and wealthiest states during the Spring and Autumn period (771-476 BCE).

Confucius had mixed feelings about Guan Zhong. Even though he strongly defends him in Chapter 16 and Chapter 13 of Book 14 of the Analects, his sharp criticism in Chapter 22 of Book 3 suggests that he also blamed him for destroying traditional Zhou dynasty culture and institutions with his technocratic reforms.

Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 3, Chapter 22
Book 14, Chapter IX
Book 14, Chapter XVI
Book 14, Chapter XVII

Book 3
Chapter 22
Confucius said: “Guan Zhong had his limitations.” Someone objected: “Do you mean that Guan Zhong wasn’t frugal?” Confucius replied: “Guan Zhong had three households, each one staffed by a huge retinue. How could he be called frugal?” “But didn’t he know ritual?” “Even though only the ruler of a state can place a screen to mask the view of his gate, he also had one installed. Even though only the ruler of a state can use a special stand to place his inverted cup on when meeting with another ruler, Guan Zhong had one too. If you say Guan Zhong knew ritual, then who doesn’t know it?”

Book 14
Chapter IX
Someone asked about Zichan. Confucius said: “He was a generous man.” “And what about Zixi?” “Don’t even mention his name!” “And what about Guan Zhong?” “What a man! He seized over three hundred households in Pian from the head of the Bo family. But even though he was reduced to eating coarse food until the end of his days, the poor man could never bring himself to utter a single word of complaint against him.”

Chapter XVI
Zilu said: “When Duke Huan put Prince Jiu to death, Shao Hu took his own life but Guan Zhong chose to keep his. Should we say that Guan Zhong was a man without goodness?” Confucius said: “Duke Huan was able to bring the rulers of all the states together nine times without having to resort to military force because of the power of Guan Zhong. Such was his goodness, such was his goodness!”

Chapter XVII
Zigong said: “Surely Guan Zhong was not a good person. After Duke Huan had Prince Jiu put to death, he not only chose to live but also served as the Duke’s prime minister.” Confucius said: “By serving as Duke Huan’s prime minister, Guan Zhong imposed his authority over all the states and brought order to the world; the people still reap the benefits of his actions until this day. Without Guan Zhong, we would still be wearing our hair loose and folding our robes on the wrong side. Or would you prefer it if he had drowned himself in a ditch like some wretched husband or wife in their small-minded faithfulness and died with nobody knowing about it?”

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