Analects of Confucius Book 5: Confucius and the impetuous Zilu

impetuous zilu

Confucius is just as frank and open with the impetuous Zilu as he is with Zigong in Book 5 of the Analects. When he says in 5.7 that he expects that Zilu would join him if he decided to take a raft out to sea, Zilu is delighted that his master has chosen him as his only companion. Confucius, however, is quick to burst his bubble by pointing out that although Zilu is braver than he is, he would bring no materials or talent (a play on words using a homonym of the character (材/cái) to the enterprise. Even if Confucius is just making a lighthearted joke, as some commentators claim, his comment has an unnecessarily sharp edge to it.

In the next chapter, Confucius refuses to tell Meng Wubo, a minister of the state of Lu, whether he thinks Zilu is a good person, saying only that he “could be entrusted with military recruitment” in a “middle-sized country”. Although the sage probably had sound political reasons for not answering the question directly, his characterization of Zilu’s abilities hardly counts as a ringing endorsement.

Confucius regularly chides Zilu for this impetuousness throughout the Analects. Even though the description of him in 5.14 isn’t attributed to him, he would certainly have agreed with it: “Whenever Zilu learned something new but hadn’t had the chance to put it into practice, he was afraid that he might learn something else before he did so.”

Despite his criticisms of Zilu, Confucius is extremely fond of him. Zilu’s response to his question in 5.26 asking him what he would most like to do illustrates why: “I would like to share my carriages, horses, clothes, and furs with my friends without getting upset if they damage them.” For all his many weaknesses, Zilu has a kind and generous nature that makes him popular with anyone he comes into contact with him.

I took this image at the Shanghai Confucius Temple. You can read more about it here.

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