Leadership lessons from Confucius: what’s done is done

what's done is done

Duke Ai asked which wood should be used for the altar pole of the land god. Zai Yu replied: “The Xia used pine; the Yin used cypress; the Zhou used chestnut. It’s said that they wanted it to make people tremble with fear.” When Confucius heard of this, he said: “What’s done is done; no need to dredge up the past; let bygones be bygones.” (1) (2)

When someone does something dumb like Zai Yu here, it’s best to move on and forget that it ever happened. What’s done is done. There’s no point in upsetting yourself by bringing up the past.


This article features a translation of Chapter 21 of Book 3 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 3 here.

(1) The follower Zai 予 (宰我), also known as Zai Wo (宰我) as Ziwo (子我), had a playful personality and silken tongue that drove Confucius up the wall. In Chapter 10 of Book 5 Confucius famously castigates him when catching him asleep during the day: “Rotten wood cannot be carved; dung walls cannot be troweled. What’s the point of scolding him anymore?”

(2) Zai Yu is probably teasing Duke Ai, the successor to Duke Ding as the ruler of Lu, with his (untranslatable) pun on the character 栗 (lì) which means both “chestnut” and “tremble”, because the Zhou Dynasty was known for its enlightened rule rather repressiveness. Some scholars suggest, however, that Zai Yu was indirectly brushing off a request from the duke to support his plans to launch a crackdown against opponents of his rule since the altar pole was used for executions as well as ritual ceremonies. Perhaps he was smarter than Confucius sometimes gave him credit for.

I took this image at the Confucius Temple on Nishan (尼山) – the hill on which, according to popular belief, Confucius was born and possibly even conceived. You can read more about Nishan here.

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