For all his sharp critiques of his followers in Book 11 of the Analects, Confucius hardly shows himself to be a paragon of virtue either – particularly in his emotional, some might say hysterical, reaction to the untimely death of Yan Hui, which is covered from Chapter 7 to Chapter 11.
His obvious distress at the passing of his protégé doesn’t excuse his attempt to dictate how the funeral of Yan Hui should be conducted. According to the rules of ritual propriety that he so assiduously promoted, no matter how important the role Confucius played in his follower’s life as his teacher, this should have been the sole responsibility of Yan Hui’s father, Yan Lu.
When Yan Lu asks him to sell his carriage to pay for an inner coffin for his deceased son in Chapter 8, Confucius has every right to refuse the request because, as he points out, this would be a major violation of ritual propriety. However, he has no business at all bringing up his guilt at the way he has treated his son Boyu into the conversation. The funeral shouldn’t be about him; it’s to honor Yan Hui.
Confucius’s lament in Chapter 11 that Yan Hui treated him like a father, but he wasn’t given the chance to treat him like a son adds further fuel to the flames of suspicion that his behavior is driven at least in part by his terrible guilt at his failure to develop a strong relationship with Boyu. It also betrays a high level of selfishness in Confucius that is accentuated by his anger at his followers for defying his warning not to hold a grand burial ceremony for Yan Hui. I can’t say I blame them for ignoring him and his precious rules of ritual propriety by giving their friend a well-deserved send-off.
While many commentators try to excuse Confucius’s behavior because of his deep affection for Yan Hui, even his followers are so shocked by his bitter wailing and gnashing of teeth that they tell him in Chapter 10: “Master, such grief is excessive.”
Perhaps they found themselves wondering, just like I do, how a man who spent his lifetime preaching the strictest ethical and moral values to others could so easily have abandoned them when he needed them most. Or perhaps, like me too, they were secretly relieved that their great sage proved himself to be human after all.
I took the top image at the Zhusi Academy in Qufu. Confucius is said to have taught his students here after returning to Lu from exile in in 848 BCE, as well as compiling the Book of Songs, Book of History, Book of Rites, Book of Music, and Book of Changes.