Leadership Lessons from Confucius: like carving and polishing stones

like carving and polishing stones

Zigong said: “’Poor but not subservient; wealthy but not arrogant.’ What do you think of that?” Confucius said: “Not bad, but this would be better still: ‘Poor but content; wealthy but loves ritual.’” Zigong said: “In the Book of Songs it is said: ‘Like carving and polishing stones, like cutting and grinding gems.’ Is this not the same idea?” Confucius said: “Wonderful, Zigong! At last I can discuss the Book of Songs with you! Based on what I’ve already said, you can work out what’s coming next!” (1) (2)

“Like carving and polishing stones, like cutting and grinding gems.” This line from the ancient Book of Songs that Zigong  quotes to Confucius during their bout of poetic banter provides the perfect metaphor for the process of self-cultivation. The modern-day equivalent would be, I suppose, “sharpening the saw.”

Don’t let success go to your head. Treat other people with courtesy respect. When times are good, don’t correlate your wealth and status with superiority over others. By the same token, when times are bad, don’t give up on yourself. No matter what trials fate happens to throw at you, stick to the right path.


This article features a translation of Chapter 15 of Book 1 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 1 here.

(1) The Book of Songs (詩經/shījīng) is the oldest existing collection of ancient Chinese ceremonial hymns and folk songs. It features a total of 305 works dating back to the 11th to the 7th centuries BC. Also known as the Book of Poems, Classic of Poetry, and Book of Odes, it is one of the Five Classics that form a significant part of the traditional Confucian canon. Indeed, the texts are believed by some to have been edited by Confucius himself, though it is impossible to prove this.

(2) Zigong was the richest of Confucius’s followers. Confucius may very well be giving him a subtle reminder here not to get too far ahead of himself because of his vast wealth.

This image shows the spot in the Kong Forest in Qufu where Zigong spent six years mourning Confucius following his death in 479 BCE. This was twice the length of the three-year mourning period that was prescribed by ancient traditions of filial piety, and is regarded as a sign of the exceptional loyalty that Zigong showed towards his great mentor and friend. You can read more about it here.

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