Book 7 includes yet more episodes in the fractious but close relationship between Zilu and Confucius. How, and perhaps more importantly why, this most loyal of followers continued to put up with the harsh critiques of his master is a great mystery to me. There’s a fine line between a light-hearted joke and a mean-spirited barb.
When Zilu asks Confucius who he would appoint to help him if he were given command of the Three Armies in 7.10, he is of course hoping that the sage will put his name at the top of the list. Instead, Confucius takes this opportunity to give him a sharp (though colorful) rebuke for his recklessness: “I wouldn’t choose someone who wrestles tigers barehanded or swims across rivers without fearing death. But I would choose someone who approaches difficulties with due caution and achieves victories through careful planning.”
Confucius isn’t necessarily wrong to upbraid Zilu for his recklessness. The problem is that his heavy-handed criticisms slid off his faithful friend like water off a duck’s back. Perhaps he should have tried a different approach to helping him curb his impetuousness.
After all, Zilu certainly didn’t lack sensitivity or intelligence. In 7.18, he protects Confucius from the advances of the Duke of She out of concern that this powerful feudal lord was planning to hire him to boost his status. Even though Confucius was annoyed when he heard about this, Zilu knew all too well that the sage was prone to occasional lapses in judging the characters of the rich and powerful hoping to use his name to burnish their own reputations.
Zilu displays his protectiveness towards Confucius once again in 7.34 when he offers to pray for the sage after he falls seriously ill. Rather than scold Zilu for what he regarded as his superstitious beliefs, Confucius chooses to deflect his friend’s offer to call for the aid of the spirits from above and below with an ironic joke. Maybe if he had addressed Zilu’s recklessness in a similar manner, Zilu wouldn’t have been killed after rushing in defend the ruler of the state of Wei in 480 BCE instead of making his escape.