Gongye Chang (公冶長), also known as Zichang (子長), Zizhi (子之), or Gongye Zhi (公冶芝), was born either in the state of Lu or the state of Qi. Even though he spent some time in prison, Confucius believed he was innocent and gave his daughter to him in marriage.
Nothing else is known about Gongye, unless you count some fantastical tales of his amazing supernatural abilities based on his ability to understand the language of birds and other animals.
According to one such story, Gongye met a distraught old woman who was looking for her lost son while he was on his way back to Lu from the state of Wei. When he overheard the birds saying that they were going to a place called Qingxi to eat a dead man’s flesh, he told the woman about it. The woman then asked some local men to go and search for her son there, and when they found her son’s body the headman of her village accused Gongye of murder and threw him in prison.
Naturally, proving to his jailers that he had only known about the location of the dead man’s corpse because he could understand the language of birds was a tough challenge for Gongye. One day while he was in prison, he saw his opportunity when he overheard some excited birds chattering about their plans to fly over to the main gate of the city to eat some grain that had been spilled out of an upturned cart and reported this to his jailer. When a man sent by the warden to check out the story found it to be true, Gongye was able to prove his innocence and was freed after sixty days of imprisonment.
Presumably it wasn’t this particular story that convinced Confucius not just to believe in Gongye’s innocence but also to offer him his daughter in marriage. But whatever the real reason was, Confucius showed great courage and conviction in flouting social convention by marrying his daughter off to a man with a criminal past when other suitors from wealthier and better connected families would most likely have been available.
Gongye Chang appears to have justified the faith that Confucius showed in him, becoming a prominent teacher and scholar. He was also offered many opportunities to become a government official or minister because of his great virtue but declined them so that he could focus on his academic pursuits.
Following their marriage, Gongye Chang and Confucius’s daughter are said to have produced two sons, one of whom died very young. The names of the sons haven’t survived; more remarkably, neither has that of the sage’s daughter and Gongye’s wife.
Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 5, Chapter 1
Confucius said of Gongye Chang: “He would make a good husband. Although he has spent time in prison, he was innocent.” He gave him his daughter’s hand in marriage.