Duke Ai (魯哀公) was the hereditary ruler of the state of Lu, but had little actual power because it was concentrated in the hands of the Three Families, the Jisun (季孫), Mengsun (孟孙), and Shusun (叔孫).
During the course of his reign (ca. 494 to ca. 467 BCE), the duke attempted to restore the primacy of his family, but was forced to flee from Lu towards the end of it. Soon after arriving in the state of Yue (越), he went back to Lu but never returned to the court and lived out his finals days at the home of a family called Shan (山). No wonder his posthumous name literally means Duke Sadness!
Duke Ai was the son of Duke Ding (定公), who ruled the state of Lu from ca. 509 to ca. 495 BCE.
Duke Ai asked: “What should I do to win the support of the people?” Confucius replied: “Promote the upright and place them above the crooked, and the people will support you. Promote the crooked and place them above the upright, and the people will not support you.”
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.”
Duke Ai asked: “Which of your followers love learning?” Confucius replied: “There was Yan Hui who loved learning; he never vented his anger; he never made the same mistake again. Sadly, his allotted time was short and he died. I have not heard of anyone else with such a love of learning.”