Leadership lessons from Confucius: a sensible choice

sensible choice

Confucius said of Nan Rong: “In a well-governed state, he will not be overlooked for an official position. In a badly-governed state, he will avoid punishment and disgrace.” Confucius arranged for him to marry his niece. (1) (2)

What are the qualities you would prize in a business or life partner? Would you look for someone who is more outgoing and ambitious than you are to move things forward faster than you would be able to? Or would you go for someone who is calmer and more measured than you are who would bring more stability to the union?

Confucius chose the latter option with his selection of Nan Rong as the husband of his niece when she was old enough for marriage. Not only did he have the abilities required to hold an official position when times were good; he also had the maturity and composure to keep well out of harm’s way when they turned sour.

Given that officials in ancient China served at the whim of their rulers, their career paths were a lot more volatile than their modern counterparts. While opportunities for advancement and enrichment were numerous, a sudden change in command at the top or even an innocent slip of the tongue could lead to dismissal, disgrace, or even a painful appointment with the executioner.

Confucius therefore appears to have made a sensible choice in giving his niece in marriage to the level-headed Nan Rong. But as to how she felt about it, we’ll never know because, just like Confucius’s daughter, not even her name has survived.


This article features a translation of Chapter 2 of Book 5 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 5 here.

(1) Nan Rong is believed to have been one of the followers of Confucius. Some scholars speculate that he was the younger brother of Meng Yizi (孟懿子), who subsequently rose to become head of the Mengsun (孟孙) clan, one of the notorious Three Families that were the real power in behind the throne of the state of Lu. If that was the case, Confucius’s niece married into a much more powerful family than his daughter, who was made the wife of the ex-convict Gongye Chang. You can read more about Nan Rong here.

(2) Confucius’s niece was the daughter of the sage’s step-brother Mengpi, who died when she was young. Confucius was thus entrusted with the responsibility of finding a husband for her. You can read more about the colorful history of the sage’s father here.

I took this image at the Tainan Confucius Temple. This is the oldest and, in my opinion at least, the most beautiful Confucius Temple in Taiwan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *