Although Zeng Dian (曾點) only makes a single appearance in the Analects, he packs quite a punch with the contrarian stance he adopts in 11.26. When Confucius asks Zilu, Ran Qiu, Gongxi Chi, and Dian what each of them would do if they were given the opportunity to exercise their talents, he says he would like to bathe in the Yi River and enjoy the breeze on the Rain Dance rather than govern a middle-sized state, run a large territory, or preside over an important diplomatic conference.
After listening to each of his follower’s aspirations Confucius famously agrees with Dian, inspiring thousands of years of scholarly debate over whether this means that the sage was a Daoist at heart.
Zeng Dian was born in 546 BCE in the state of Lu, and was also known as Zixi ( 子皙) and Zeng Xi (曾皙). He was only five years younger than Confucius, and became a close friend and follower of him.
When his son, later known as Zengzi, reached the age of 16, Dian sent him to study with the sage. Zengzi went on to become one of the leading proponents of Confucius’s teachings after the sage’s death, placing a particular emphasis on the importance of filial devotion. Indeed, Zengzi was said to have been so overcome by grief at the deaths of his father and mother that he was unable to read the text of the mourning ritual without bursting into tears.
Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Zilu, Zeng Dian, Ran Qiu, and Gongxi Chi were sitting with Confucius. Confucius said: “Forget for a moment that I’m your elder. You often say: ‘Nobody recognizes our talents.’ But if you were given the opportunity, what would you wish to do?”
Zilu eagerly replied first: “Give me a middle-sized state wedged between powerful neighbors that is under attack from invading armies and gripped by drought and famine. If I were to govern it, within three years I would give its people courage and set them in the right direction.”
Confucius smiled at him: “Ran Qiu, what about you?”
Ran Qiu replied: “If I was allowed to run a territory of sixty or seventy or, say, fifty to sixty li, within three years I would secure the prosperity of its people. As for ritual and music, they would have to wait for a true leader to take over.”
“Gongxi Chi, what about you?”
“I’m not saying that I would be able to do this, but I would like to try: in the ceremonies at the Grand Ancestral Temple, such as a diplomatic conference, wearing a ceremonial cap and robes, I would like to act as a junior official.”
“And what about you, Zeng Dian?” Zeng Dian plucked one final chord of the zither he’d been playing and put it down by his side. He replied: “My wish is very different than those of my three companions.”
Confucius said: “What harm is there in that? After all, each one is simply speaking from his heart.”
Zeng Dian said: “In late spring, after all the spring clothes have been made, I would like to go out together with five or six companions and six or seven children to bathe in the Yi River, enjoy the breeze on the Rain Dance Terrace, and then return home singing.”
Confucius let out a wistful sigh and said: “I’m with Dian!”
After the other three followers had left, Zeng Dian stayed behind and said: “What did you think of their wishes?” Confucius said: “Each was indeed speaking from his heart.”
Zeng Dian asked: “Why did you smile at Zilu?” Confucius said: “You should govern a state according to ritual, but his words showed no such restraint. That’s why I smiled.”
“But wasn’t Ran Qiu also talking about governing a state?” “Of course. Have you ever seen ‘a territory of sixty to seventy, or fifty to sixty li?’”
“And Gongxi Chi? Wasn’t he also talking about running a state as well?” “A diplomatic conference in the Grand Ancestral Temple! What could this be but an affair of state? And if Gongxi Chi were there merely to act as a junior official, who could possibly be qualified to act as the senior one?”