Leadership Lessons from Confucius: a rap on the shin

rap on the shin

Yuan Rang sat with his legs stretched out waiting for Confucius. Confucius said: “A person who is disrespectful to their elders when they’re young, achieves nothing of note when they grow up, and lacks the grace to die when they’re old is nothing but a thief.” He then gave him a rap on the shin with his staff.
原壤夷俟。子曰:「幼而不孫弟,長而無述焉,老而不死是為賊。」以杖叩其脛。

The more harshly you criticize someone young for their lack of diligence and respect, the more likely they are to defy you. Ominous warnings about their impending doom aren’t going to deter them either. Why should they care what you think? You probably represent everything they’re against.

Better to adopt a more patient approach and let them come to you when they need to. A few kind words spoken into a willing ear will be a hundred times more effective than a rap on the shin.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 43 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) It’s difficult to know where to start with this passage. Yuan Rang was either a young acquaintance of Confucius or an eccentric old friend of the sage who, according to a story in the Book of Ritual, was such a free spirit that he jumped on his mother’s coffin and sang happily before her funeral. If the latter is the case, a more appropriate translation would be as follows:

Yuan Rang sat waiting with his legs stretched out. Confucius said: “You were disrespectful to your elders when you were young, you achieved nothing of note when you grew up, and you still don’t have the grace to die now that you’re old: you’re nothing but an incorrigible rogue.” Then he rapped him across the shin with his staff.

(2) There are multiple interpretations of the exact position that Yuan Rang was sat in, ranging from open-legged to squatting on his heels. The point is that his adoption of such a casual pose broke ritual conventions and was highly disrespectful towards Confucius. Hence the rollicking and rapping from sage.

(3) It’s possible that Confucius was indulgently chiding his old friend and merely tapped him on the shin as a sign of affection. This is the interpretation I would like to believe, but there is no evidence to support it. It’s more likely that the passage is linked to 14.44, which also covers a youthful ritual impropriety.

I took this image at the Temple of the Duke of Zhou in Qufu. The duke was Confucius’s great hero and role model as a result of his tireless efforts to the establish the foundation of the fledgling kingdom of Zhou while acting a regent to the young King Cheng. You can read more about the temple here.

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