Why was Confucius so devastated by the death of Yan Hui that his followers felt compelled to take the extraordinary step of admonishing their master for displaying excessive grief? Book 11 of the Analects not only poses this question with its vivid portrayal of Confucius’s anguish at the untimely passing of his favorite follower. It also answers it by showing how close the relationship between Confucius and Yan Hui was and the high regard the sage had for the man he had seen as his protégé and eventual successor.
Indeed, in 11.4 Confucius sounds exactly like a humble-bragging dad when he claims that Yan Hui is of no help to him at all because “he delights in everything I say.” In 11.7, he goes on to tell the strongman Ji Kangzi that the only follower of his who loved learning was Yan Hui (1). In 11.19 he tops that by declaring that he “just about achieved perfection”. Not even a life of grinding poverty can tempt the virtuous Yan Hui to stray from the strict moral path that he follows.
The closeness of the relationship between Confucius and Yan Hui is best illustrated in 11.23, where they share an ironic joke upon being reunited after Confucius had nearly been killed in the rough border town of Kuang: Confucius said: “I thought you were dead.” Yan Hui said: “While you’re alive, how would I dare to die?”
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Confucius saw Yan Hui as the brilliant son he wished he’d always had instead of being saddled with the unremarkable Boyu. In 11.11, he laments: “Yan Hui treated me like a father, but I was not given the chance to treat him like a son.”
It was probably for the best that Boyu had already passed away and so wasn’t around to hear those words.
(1) It may also be possible that Confucius was sending a coded message to Ji Kangzi to keep his grubby hands off his other followers with this comment.
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 Ritual, Book of Music, and Book of Changes.