Boyu (伯魚) was the only son of Confucius and his wife Qiguan Shi (亓官氏), and was born in around 530 BCE, about a year of his parents’ marriage when Confucius was twenty. When Duke Zhao, the ruler of the state of Lu, sent him a prize carp to congratulate him on the birth of his son, Confucius gave the infant the formal name of Kong Li (孔鯉), which literally means “Kong-Carp.” He also gave his son the more informal name of Boyu, which literally means “Oldest-Son-Fish.”
Little is known about the details of Boyu’s childhood except that he had two younger sisters, one of whom is believed to have died at an early age. It appears, however, that the relationship between him and Confucius was a distant one, perhaps because his intellectual powers nowhere near matched those of his father.
Even though Confucius took Boyu on as a student and follower, he certainly didn’t show any favoritism towards him. In Chapter 13 of Book 16 of the Analects, he tells Chen Gang, who is commonly believed to be the follower Ziqin, that he receives no special teaching from his father and adds that the only two lessons he had from him were that he should study the Book of Songs and ritual. Chen Gang is described as having taken his leave of Boyu feeling “delighted” because he had learned “how a leader keeps his distance from his son.”
Boyu died in about 480 BCE at the age of fifty, leaving an infant son called Kong Ji (孔伋). The boy must have inherited his grandfather’s genes because went on to become the highly distinguished philosopher Zisi (子思), who wrote the seminal work “The Doctrine of the Mean (中庸)”.
Sticking to his own strict ritual code, Confucius refused to give Boyu an elaborate funeral, insisting instead on a simple coffin and ceremony. In Chapter 8 of Book 11, he tells Yan Lu, the father of his favorite follower Yan Hui: “When my son Li died, he was buried in an inner coffin but there was no outer coffin. I wouldn’t go on foot in order to give him one because it wasn’t proper for me as a former minister to go on foot.”
In Chapter 11 of the same book, he goes on castigate his followers for holding a lavish funeral for Yan Hui against his wishes: “Yan Hui looked upon me as his father, but I was not given the chance to treat him like my own son. This is not my fault, but yours, my friends.”
Given that Confucius spent many years away either on official business or in exile, it’s likely that Boyu focused much of his time taking care of the family while he was away, most notably his mother who was estranged from her husband and may have even been divorced from him. Despite his lack of towering intellectual achievements, he embodied the values of filial devotion that Confucius promoted much more strongly than his father.
顏淵死，顏路請子之車以為之 。子曰：「才不才，亦各言其子也。鯉也死，有棺而無 ；吾不徒行，以為之 ，以吾從大夫之後，不可徒行也。」
When Yan Hui died, his father Yan Lu asked Confucius if he could sell his carriage so that he could pay for an outer coffin for his son. Confucius said: “Talented or not, a son is a son. When my son Li died, he was buried in an inner coffin but there was no outer coffin. I wouldn’t go on foot in order to give him one because it wasn’t proper for me as a former minister to go on foot.”
Chen Gang asked Confucius’s son Boyu: “Has your father given you any special teaching?” Boyu replied: “No, he hasn’t. Once, when he was standing on his own and I was hurrying across the courtyard, he asked me: “’Have you studied the Book of Songs?’ I replied: ‘Not yet.’ He said: “If you don’t study the Book of Songs, you won’t be able to speak.’ I retired and studied the Book of Songs. On another day, when he was again standing on his own and I was hurrying across the courtyard, he asked me: “Have you studied the rites?” I replied: ‘Not yet.’ He said: ‘If you don’t study the rites, you won’t be able to take your place in society.’ I retired and studied the rites. These are the two lessons I received from him.” Chen Gang left delighted and said: “I asked one thing and learned three. I learned about the Book of Songs, I learned about the rites, and I learned how an exemplary person keeps their distance from their son.”
Confucius said to his son Boyu: “Have you studied the first and the second parts of the Book of Songs? Anyone who hasn’t studied the first and second parts of the Book of Songs will remain stuck as if standing with their face to a wall.”