Leadership lessons from Confucius: a bridge too far

bridge too far

Confucius said: “Who said that Weisheng Gao was as straight as a die? When someone begged him for vinegar and he didn’t have any, he begged a neighbor for some and gave it to the person who asked him for it.” (1)

Perseverance is one of the keys to achieving long-term success. It’s only by consistently grinding out the hard yards that you’ll reach your goals. Achieving something worthwhile requires application and hard work.

Still, there are some occasions when you can go too far and should cut your losses before disaster strikes. Take the curious tale of Weisheng Gao (微生高), for example. According to the Zhuangzi, Weisheng arranged an assignation with a fair maiden under a bridge and promised to wait for her until she arrived. Even when it started pouring with rain and the floodwaters began rising, Weisheng stubbornly held on to one of the piers of the bridge in the vain hope that she would arrive until he was swept away by the torrent and drowned.

Weisheng may not have got the girl, but he did receive admiration from some quarters at least for his determination to uphold his promise to her. Naturally, the verdict from others was that he’d been far too stubborn and should have gone home so he could live to love another day so to speak.

It’s possible that Confucius is trying to defend Weisheng Gao by showing that he wasn’t quite as inflexible as people might think with his story about the vinegar. It’s more likely, though, that he is just having fun in puncturing the myth that had grown up around this rather eccentric character. Given his championing of moderation in all forms of behavior, there’s no doubt in my mind that Confucius thought Weisheng went a bridge too far with his futile gesture.


This article features a translation of Chapter 24 of Book 5 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 5 here.

(1) You can read more about Weisheng Gao here.

I took this image at the Tainan Confucius Temple.

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