Contemporary figures in the Analects of Confucius: Qu Boyu

Qu Boyu (蘧伯玉) was the courtesy name of Qu Yuan, a high-ranking official in the state of Wei, who was celebrated for his never-ending quest for self-improvement and his refusal to serve unprincipled rulers. Such was his renown that he is featured in many of the great historical and philosophical texts of the Warring States period, including the Zuo Commentary, the Zhuangzi, and the Huainanzi.

Some commentators speculate that Confucius may have stayed with Qu Boyu, who was nearly forty years older than him, during the time he spent in Wei – but there is no historical evidence to support this claim. However, it is very clear from Confucius’s comments in 14.25 and 15.7 that he was a great admirer of him.

With his final approving comments about Qu Boyu’s messenger in 14.25, Confucius is probably indirectly praising him for his unstinting efforts to reduce his faults and the positive example he sets for others. The Huainanzi makes a similar point about his relentless, some might say eccentric, efforts to improve himself and reflect on past mistakes: “At the age of 50, Qu Boyu realized that he had been wrong for forty-nine years.”

By describing Qu Boyu as a “true leader” in 15.7, Confucius is expressing his approval for the pragmatic approach Boyu adopts when having to deal with an evil ruler. Rather than rise up in rebellion, he hunkers down in order to preserve his energy so that he is ready for action when more promising conditions emerge.

Qu Boyu was born in 585 BCE and lived to a ripe old age. Some sources claim he died in 484 BCE.

Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 14, Chapter 25
Book 15, Chapter 7

Book 14
Chapter 25
蘧伯玉使人於孔子,孔子與之坐而問焉。曰:「夫子何為?」對曰:「夫子欲寡其過而未能也。」使者出。子曰:「使乎!使乎!」
Qu Boyu sent a messenger to Confucius. Confucius sat together with him and asked: “How is your master?” The messenger replied: “My master wishes to reduce his faults, but he hasn’t succeeded yet.” The messenger left. Confucius said: “The perfect messenger! The perfect messenger!”

Book 15
Chapter 7
子曰:「直哉史魚!邦有道如矢,邦無道如矢。君子哉蘧伯玉!邦有道則仕,邦無道則可卷而懷之。」
Confucius said: “Shi Yu is truly a man of principle! When the way prevails in the state, he is as straight as an arrow; when the way doesn’t prevail in the state, he is as straight as an arrow. Qu Boyu is a true leader! When the way prevails in the state, he serves as an official; when the way doesn’t prevail in the state, he folds up his principles and hides them in his breast.”

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