Leadership lessons from Confucius: the phoenix doesn’t appear

phoenix doesn't appear

子曰:「鳳鳥不至,河不出圖,吾已矣乎!」
Confucius said: “The phoenix doesn’t appear; the river doesn’t yield its diagram. It’s over for me!”

When the signs are clear that you have no choice but to give up your quest, face the truth with courage and grace.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 9 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.

(1) With this lament, Confucius comes to the final realization that he has failed to achieve his dream of being the successor to his hero, the Duke of Zhou. The appearance of the legendary phoenix and magical diagram (possibly of the eight trigrams of the ancient classic, the Book of Changes) from the Yellow River were believed to be heavenly omens marking the imminent arrival of a new sage king. Unfortunately for Confucius, they never came calling for him, even though he saw himself as the “chosen one” who would restore Zhou civilization to its former glory. You can read more about this here.

(2) According to come accounts, Confucius spoke these words at the age of seventy-one, a couple of years before his death in 479 BCE.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Yilan, Taiwan. You can read more about the rather convoluted history of this temple in this excellent article by Josh Ellis here.

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