Zigong asked: “What do you think of me?” Confucius said: “You’re a vessel.” “What sort of vessel?” “A precious sacrificial vessel.” (1) (2)
Just because someone asks you a straight question, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want you to give them a straight answer. Consider the possible reasons they may be raising the question before blurting out an answer and having to hastily correct yourself like Confucius does in this passage.
Perhaps Zigong is looking more for reassurance than a candid assessment of his capabilities. Or perhaps he is looking for guidance on how to improve in the future. Whatever his motivations, Confucius certainly doesn’t take them into account when he describes him as a “vessel”.
If though it may sound a tad insulting in English, Confucius is merely riffing on the same theme he talks about in 2.12 of the Analects in which he famously says, “A leader isn’t a vessel.” [「君子不器。]
He’s telling Zigong that he needs to move beyond passively absorbing knowledge and experience like a cooking pot in a kitchen or a receptacle on an altar and become a true leader by leveraging this strong foundation to make an active contribution to society. Even when he backtracks by describing Zigong as a “precious sacrificial vessel”, Confucius is essentially making the same point –though dressing up the message in a slightly prettier package.
Zigong was one of Confucius’s most faithful followers. Indeed, such was his devotion that he spent six years living near the sage’s tomb following his death – twice as long as the conventional mourning period. It’s reasonable to assume, therefore, that he took this comment from the sage in his stride.
It’s worth noting, however, that many people of a more sensitive disposition wouldn’t have.
This article features a translation of Chapter 3 of Book 5 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 5 here.
(1) You can read more about the follower Zigong here.
(2) A hulian (瑚璉) was an ornate sacrificial vessel often studded with precious gems that was used at important sacrificial rituals held in the presence of rulers and nobles. Some commentators argue that hu and lian were two different types of vessels from the previous Xia and Shang dynasties. If this is the case, Confucius may have been implying that he thought Zigong’s thinking to be well past its sell-by date given that he was a strong proponent of the superiority of Zhou dynasty culture.
I took this image at the Tainan Confucius Temple. This is the oldest and most beautiful Confucius Temple on the island.