Leadership lessons from Confucius: beware of Greeks bearing gifts

beware of Greeks bearing gifts

康子饋藥,拜而受之,曰:「丘未達,不敢嘗。」
When Ji Kangzi sent him some medicine, Confucius bowed as he accepted the gift but said: “Since I don’t know what this substance is, I dare not taste it.”

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Or, in the case of Confucius, a messenger arriving with a present from Ji Kangzi, the most powerful man in his home state of Lu who, at least in the estimation of the sage, was leading it into chaos because of his arrogant disregard for the conventions of ritual.

Because of these very conventions, this (no doubt valuable) gift put Confucius in a delicate spot. On the one hand, ritual dictated that there was no way he could directly decline it even if he wanted to. On the other hand, if he did accept the medicine he would be under the (unspoken) obligation to return the favor at some later date. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place!

According to ritual, the recipient of a gift of food (and by extension medicine) was obliged to taste a small portion of it in front of the messenger who delivered it. Confucius took advantage of this opportunity to wriggle out of the dilemma he faced by making the rather feeble excuse that he didn’t dare taste the medicine because he didn’t know what it was made of. In this way he hoped that Ji Kangzi wouldn’t be offended by his action because he didn’t directly refuse to accept it.

There are no records of how Ji responded to this. I can only presume that he wasn’t impressed. 

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 16 of Book 10 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 10 here.

(1) It is hard not to conclude that Confucius is committing exactly the same sin as he vociferously condemned Ji Kangzi for on many occasions: namely, of abusing the conventions of ritual. See Book 3 for his most vituperative criticisms of Ji and his family. At best you can say that while Confucius may have observed the practice of ritual in this instance, he certainly violated its spirit with his mealy-mouthed response.

(2) You can read more about Ji Kangzi here.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Yilan, Taiwan.

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