Unlike the quasi father and son combo of Confucius and Yan Hui, Confucius and Zilu were more like an elder and young brother who love each other deeply but aren’t afraid to enter into the occasional argument when the occasion demands it.
In Book 11 of the Analects Confucius shows how much he cares for “bold and intense” (11.13) Zilu with his repeated attempts to rein in his recklessness. In 11.12 he famously responds to Zilu’s questions about how to serve the spirits and gods and what he thought of death by telling him to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground: “’If you’re not yet able to serve other people, how are you able to serve the spirits? … If you don’t understand life yet, how can you understand death?’”
Probably not entirely coincidentally, in the next chapter Confucius voices his concern that Zilu “won’t die a natural death” because of his tendency to rush into things. This prediction unfortunately came true in 480 BCE when he was killed in a palace coup in the state of Wei making an heroic but futile last stand to defend the minister he was working for.
In 11.22, Confucius attempts to restrain Zilu’s boisterous enthusiasm by telling him that he doesn’t immediately need to put something new into practice as soon as he’s learned it. When Gongxi Chi challenges him why he gave Ran Qiu diametrically opposite advice, Confucius shows how well he understands the contrasting personalities of these two loyal followers: “Ran Qiu holds himself back, so I push him forward; Zilu has enough energy for two, so I hold him back.”
In a similar incident in 11.26, Confucius further demonstrates how well he knows his Zilu’s quirks when he gives a simple smile after Zilu “eagerly” voices his most cherished desire: “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.”
When Zeng Dian asks the reason for his smile after everyone else has left, Confucius explains that he already knows that Zilu has much bigger plans in mind: “You should govern a state according to ritual, but his words showed no such restraint. That’s why I smiled.”
Given their long and close relationship, it should come as no surprise that Confucius and Zilu had their ups and downs. In 11.15, Confucius display careless, though probably unintentional, insensitivity when he complains about Zilu’s poor zither playing. After learning that his other followers gave Zilu a hard time about this, Confucius attempts to backtrack on his comments – though perhaps a little too late to retrieve the situation.
In 11.25 the two of them have quite an argument when Confucius roundly criticizes Zilu for appointing the “dumb” (11.18) Zigao as governor of a strategically important town called Bi. In response to Zilu’s contention that Zigao can learn what he needs to on the job, Confucius fires back with the withering comment: “It’s this kind of remark that makes me hate people with a smooth tongue.”
Ironically, according to other sources, Zigao was a highly accomplished official who served with distinction in the Lu and Wei state governments. It’s not recorded whether Zilu ever reminded Confucius of his misjudgment. It would have been fun to see the younger brother put the elder brother on the back foot for a change.
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.