Unlike the sainted Yan Hui, neither Zilu nor Zigong manage to earn unequivocal praise from Confucius in Book 9 of the Analects. Indeed, Confucius rebukes them both for a variety of sins – ranging from a serious violation of ritual protocol to a failure to understand the qualities required of a leader.
Zilu is the one who is responsible for breaching ritual conventions by acting as if he is a retainer of a feudal lord while the sage is seriously ill in 9.12. Given that Confucius doesn’t belong to such an august rank, he roundly scolds his well-meaning if misguided follower after he recovers: “Zilu, this deception has lasted long enough. Who do I deceive with these bogus retainers? Do I deceive heaven? Rather than die among retainers, I would prefer to die in the arms of my followers. I may not receive a grand funeral, but I’ll hardly die by the roadside.”
Even when Confucius compliments him in 9.27 with a line from Poem 33 of the Book of Songs, Zilu manages to snatch defeat from victory by continuously chanting his master’s words of praise. “You’re moving in the right direction,” Confucius chides him, “but is that a good reason to be so self-satisfied?”
Zigong also earns a rap on the knuckles when he leaps to the defense of Confucius in 9.6 against a barbed comment from an unknown Grand Steward or Chief Minister about his master’s humble background. Even though he had to take on a number of menial jobs as a young man to support his family, including working as a warehouse clerk and stockman, Confucius tells Zigong that the “menial skills” he picked up along the way aren’t in any way necessary for becoming a leader or a sage.
When Zigong asks Confucius in 9.13 whether he would be willing to sell a “precious piece of jade” (ie his talents and expertise) for a good price, Confucius responds with a mild rebuke by saying that he would sell it for the “right price” – implying that the buyer would need to have the proper ethical credentials as well as sufficient money. Given that Zigong was a highly successful merchant, Confucius is probably indirectly reminding him that profit shouldn’t be his only motive when making business deals.
It’s a great tribute to the great forbearance of Zilu and Zigong that they remained steadfastly loyal to Confucius for so many years.