The Analects of Confucius Book 12 brings together a large cast of familiar followers of the sage. It also introduces a new one called Sima Niu, who makes his debut in 12.3 only to head off into the sunset two chapters later never to be seen or heard of again.
Sima Niu was a government official from the state of Song. In his conversations with Confucius, he asks for guidance on how to deal with his eldest brother’s plans to overthrow the rightful ruler of the state with a couple of indirect questions about the nature of goodness leadership. Although Confucius gives him sensible advice on how to conduct himself, he sensibly avoids striking at the heart of the matter. In 12.5, with his brother’s attempted coup a failure, Sima Niu’s lament that he alone has no brothers earns him a withering riposte from the follower Zixia, which is often misattributed to Confucius: “Within the four seas all men are brothers!”
Zixia makes his second and final appearance in the book in 12.22, in which he painstakingly explains to the follower Fan Chi what Confucius meant when he said: “Promote the upright and place them above the crooked, so that they can straighten the crooked.” Whether the reputedly slow and dim-witted Fan actually understood the references Zixia makes to great rulers and their ministers of antiquity in his response is seriously open to question!
After their appearances in the first two chapters of the book, Yan Hui and Ran Yong, two of Confucius’s favorite followers disappear from the scene. Zilu, one of the sage’s most faithful followers and closest companions, also features only once in the book. He can be found in 12.12, where Confucius either marvels or complains: “Only Zilu could pass judgment on a lawsuit after hearing half the evidence.”
Youzi, who for a very brief period after Confucius’s death assumed the leadership mantle primarily because of his uncanny physical resemblance to the sage, is another follower who only appears once. Indeed 12.9 features his final appearance in the Analects. At least he makes the most of it with a perceptive warning to Duke Ai, the ruler of the state of Lu, to cut the taxes levied on the common people to stimulate the economy.
Zengzi, another young pretender to Confucius’s position, also makes a single appearance in the final chapter of the book by expanding on the sage’s musings on friendship to Zigong in the previous chapter.
Zigong appears two more times in the book. In 12.7, he pushes Confucius for deeper insight on governance, and 12.8, he sharply challenges the contention of an obscure minister from the state of Wei called Ji Zicheng that leaders are born and not made.
This puts Zigong second in terms of appearances in the book, just behind Zizhang, who makes four. As is his habit, this bright but perhaps insecure young follower challenges Confucius with a series of seemingly clever questions about subjects as varied as vision, virtue, confusion, celebrity, and accomplishment in 12.6, 12.10, 12.14, and 12.20.
It almost goes without saying that the sage is more than able to handle them. Presumably he must have enjoyed taking his eager but arrogant young follower down a peg or two every now and then.