Like Book 8, Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius is a bit of a hodgepodge of various sayings and episodes culled from multiple sources – making it impossible to discern a central theme. It does, however, include some revealing passages involving Confucius and three of his most faithful followers that shed further light on his relationships with them.
Confucius’s protégé and favorite Yan Hui makes the most appearances in the book with three. Zilu and Zigong both make two. The only other possible follower featured is the enigmatically-named Lao (牢) in 9.7. He is usually identified as the fastidious and relatively obscure Yuan Xian.
As is his wont, Confucius praises Yan Hui to the skies. ““If anyone could listen to me without growing weary,” he declares in 9.20, “who else could it be than Yan Hui?” In the following chapter he laments, not for the first or last time, his follower’s untimely death: “What a tragedy! I watched him make progress; I never saw him stop improving.”
Despite Confucius’s effusive praise, Yan Hui expresses his own dissatisfaction at his failure to fully immerse himself in his master’s teachings. Using language that wouldn’t look out of place in a cheap romantic novel, he laments in 9.11: “The more I contemplate it (the way of Confucius), the higher it seems; the deeper I probe it, the harder it becomes; when I catch a glimpse of it in front of me, it’s suddenly behind me… Even if I wanted to stop, I could not. Just as all my talents are exhausted, there seems to be something new towering above me. But although I long to follow it, I can’t find a way to it.”
It is no doubt Yan Hui’s extraordinary devotion to following his master’s teachings that singled him out in the eyes of Confucius. Had he not died at a relatively early age, he would in all probability have assumed the sage’s mantle. It is of course impossible to speculate what impact he would have had if he had taken over as Confucius’s successor.