Book 5 of the Analects shows some tensions in the relationship between Confucius and Zigong, one of his most loyal and distinguished followers. Zigong had already established himself as a successful merchant when he first met Confucius, but he clearly saw the need for the sage’s guidance in cultivating other aspects of his character. For his part, Confucius was more than willing to help Zigong along this path by providing frank critiques of his shortcomings – perhaps a little too frank at times.
When Zigong asks the sage what he thinks of him in 5.4, Confucius lets him know that he still hasn’t cultivated all the necessary qualities to become a leader (君子) by describing him as a “vessel” (器/qì). Perhaps realizing that he has been a little harsh in his criticism, Confucius softens the blow by adding that he sees Zigong as a “precious sacrificial vessel” (瑚璉/húliǎn), but his implication that the conscientious but unimaginative Zigong still has ample room for improvement remains the same.
In 5.12, Confucius further underlines this message when he tells Zigong that adhering to the golden rule of not doing to others what he wouldn’t want others to do to him is “beyond his reach.” How Zigong reacted to these criticisms from Confucius isn’t recorded; but they certainly don’t appear to have discouraged him from continuing to follow the sage.
Indeed, Zigong appears to be well aware of his own limitations in 5.9 when Confucius asks him whether he or Yan Hui is better. “How can I compare myself with Yan Hui?” he replies. “When he learns one thing, he gets to understand ten more things; but if I learn one thing, I only get to understand two more things.” Perhaps to Zigong’s surprise, Confucius also admits that he isn’t the equal of Yan Hui either.
Zigong makes two other appearances in Book 5. In 5.13, he shows a clear understanding that Confucius has no interest in indulging in abstruse academic theories and speculating about spiritual affairs. His sole focus is on providing his followers with the intellectual and ethical tools they needed to solve issues in the real world.
In 5.15, Zigong goes on to ask Confucius why Kong Yu, a minister of Wei, was given the posthumous name of ‘Kong-the-Refined’ (孔文子/Kong Wenzi) despite his reputation for disloyalty and dissolute behavior. Confucius replies by emphasizing Kong’s strengths, including his intelligence, love of learning, and his willingness to listen to the views of everyone.
Perhaps this response left Zigong wondering why Confucius didn’t show a similarly generous view of his character and abilities. Despite all the dedication and hard work he puts into following the teachings of the sage, Confucius is rarely satisfied with his progress.
I took this image at the Shanghai Confucius Temple. You can read more about it here.