Leadership lessons from Confucius: like a wooden bell clapper

wooden bell clapper

A border official at the town of Yi requested a meeting with Confucius. He said: “Whenever a distinguished man comes to these parts, I never fail to meet him.” The follower arranged for him to meet Confucius. After coming out of it the official said: “Sirs, why worry about his dismissal? The world has been without the way for a long while. Heaven is going to use your master like a wooden bell clapper.”

How to deal with a career-threatening setback? Stay and fight your corner or flee the scene for pastures new? Confucius opted for the latter course in 497 BCE ostensibly out of outrage at his ruler Duke Ding cavorting with a troupe of dancing girls sent by the ruler of the state of Qi but more likely because of the failure of his policies to rein in the power of the Three Families by razing the walls that surrounded their cities.

This decision led to fourteen years of exile spent tramping from state to state in a fruitless search for employment as a senior official by an enlightened ruler. By the time he returned to his home state of Lu in around 484 BCE, it was late for him to return to government and he is said to have spent his final years writing Spring and Autumn Annals, a history of the state of Lu, studying the Book of Changes, and editing the Book of Rites.

Given Confucius’s rise to prominence after his death, the humble border official at the town of Yi was correct in saying that heaven was going to use him “like a wooden bell clapper” to enlighten the world with his teachings. He just failed to mention that this wouldn’t take place within his lifetime.

This article features a translation of Chapter 24 of Book 3 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 3 here.

I took this image at the Beijing Great Bell Temple. You can read more about it here.

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