Despite making just three appearances in the Analects, Sima Niu (司馬牛) succeeded in keeping his name preserved for posterity while many far more deserving figures had theirs disappear into obscurity.
It’s not as if he comes up with any stunning intellectual or ethical insights in the three brief and rather melodramatic appearance he makes in Book 12 of the Analects either. At best, he functions as a foil for Confucius to expound in detail on the nature of goodness and leadership and for Zixia to utter the famous phrase: “within the four seas all men are brothers” – which ironically is often misattributed to the sage himself rather than his dour follower!
The true identity of Sima Niu isn’t totally clear either. In the Records of the Historian, Sima Qian gives no details of his life or family background, simply saying: “Sima Niu was a follower of Confucius; his given name was Geng, and courtesy name Ziniu.” The great historian’s brevity is a little surprising given that the commonly accepted story of who Sima Niu was has plenty of the juice that he liked to include in his accounts, but then again wasn’t exactly short of colorful figures to write about.
According to most commentators, Sima Niu was a minister of the state of Song who came from a powerful family as descendants of Duke Huan of Qi (齊桓公) is recorded in the Commentary of Zuo (左傳/Zuǒ zhuán) as visiting the state of Lu in 483 BCE. He had at least two other older brothers, the eldest of whom, Huan Tui (桓魋), the minister for military affairs, was plotting a coup to overthrow Duke Jing, the ruler of the state of Song. A second brother, Xiang Chao, another senior minister, was also said to be in on the plan.
To add a further dash of spice to the mix, Huan Tui had tried to assassinate Confucius himself in 492 BCE when the sage visited the state to prevent him from visiting the duke. Not surprisingly, however, his hairbrained scheme to chop down a tree that Confucius and his followers were holding a ritual under in order to crush them to death ended in abject failure. See 7.22.
Rather than ask Confucius directly what he should do about his eldest brother’s plans, Sima Niu couches his first question in general terms in 12.3 with an enquiry about the nature of goodness. This gives Confucius, who was presumably aware of the situation, the opportunity to warn the reputedly loquacious and impulsive Sima Niu to be “cautious in speech” to avoid getting in any unnecessary trouble while coming to a decision. Very sensibly, however, Confucius doesn’t give him any specific advice on how to deal with the exquisite dilemma he faces: as a loyal official, should he alert his ruler of his brother’s nefarious plot or, as a filial brother, should he support Huan Tui or at the very least keep his mouth shut to keep him away from the executioner’s sword?
In 12.4, Sima Niu pushes Confucius for further assurance by asking him what makes a leader. Confucius responds by saying that he has nothing to worry about as long as “he looks inside himself and finds nothing wrong.” It’s worth noting, however, that once again he refuses to give Sima Niu specific advice on what his actions should be. It is up to Sima Niu to resolve his dilemma.
Ultimately, it appears that Sima Niu may have either ignored Confucius’s advice or used it as an excuse to do nothing. Although he didn’t get involved in Huan Tui’s coup, he didn’t warn Duke Jing of it either and had to resign his official post and flee to the state of Lu in 481 BCE after the uprising was put down.
Even though his two siblings managed to escape from Song, a doleful Sima Niu laments in 12.5: “All men have brothers; I alone have none.” This earns him the famous riposte, which is often misattributed to Confucius, from the follower Zixia that “Within the four seas all men are brothers” if they share the same ethical values.
Nothing is known about Sima Niu’s later life after this episode. Even though he is listed as a follower of Confucius, he doesn’t appear to have had a particularly close relationship with the sage or any made any major scholarly accomplishments.
(1) Sima Niu (司馬牛) is the courtesy name of Sima Geng (司馬耕), and literally means of “Master of the Horse Ox”. Sima (司馬) was a military title that the family was allowed to use as a surname as descendants of Duke Huan of Qi (齊桓公). He also had a style name of Ziniu (子牛). The family’s “real” surname was Xiang (向).
Sima Niu asked about goodness. Confucius said: “A person who practices goodness is cautious in speech.” Sima Niu said: “Cautious in speech? Is that what you call goodness?” Confucius said: “When something is difficult to do, how is it possible not to be cautious in speaking about it?”
Sima Niu asked: “What makes a leader?” Confucius said: “A leader has no anxiety or fear.” Sima Niu said: “No anxiety or fear? That’s what makes a leader?” Confucius said: “When he looks inside himself and finds nothing wrong, what does he have to be anxious about or fear?”
Sima Niu was full of sorrow: “All men have brothers; I alone have none.” Zixia said: “I have heard this: life and death are ordained by fate; wealth and honors are assigned by heaven. A leader always shows respect and courtesy to others. Within the four seas all men are brothers. How could a leader complain that he has no brothers?”