Confucius (551–479 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 24, 2019, from

3. Disciples

Confucius was tolerant of difference. In fact, on six separate occasions in the Analects, he is asked what he means by ren, an idea that is at the heart of his teachings, and six times he gives different answers. For Confucius, instructing disciples in ren requires that the message be tailored to the conditions of the person asking the question. We have said that, for Confucius, persons are no more than the sum of their specific familial and communal roles and relationships, and that ren emerges out of the quality that they are able to achieve in cultivating them. It stands to reason, then, that to know Confucius, we do best to familiarize ourselves with his community of disciples. The Teacher can best be known by his students.

Some of these disciples come to life in a careful reading of the Analects. For example, although Confucius was reluctant to use the term ren to describe anyone, he did use it of his favourite disciple, Yan Hui, also called Yan Yuan. Living on a bowl of rice and a ladle of water, Yan Hui’s eagerness to learn and his sincerity endeared him to the Master; but he was also possessed of an incomparable character, and was so intelligent that Confucius said of him, ‘When he is told one thing he understands ten’. Although Yan Hui was some thirty years younger than Confucius, it was only him among his many disciples that Confucius saw as his equal. It is no surprise, then, that Confucius was totally devastated by the death of Yan Hui at the young age of thirty-one.

Zilu was another of Confucius’ best-known and favourite disciples. He was a person of courage and action who was sometimes upbraided by Confucius for being too bold and impetuous. When he asked Confucius if courage was indeed the highest virtue, Confucius tried to rein him in by replying that a person who has courage without a sense of appropriateness will be a trouble-maker, and a lesser person will be a thief. Confucius’ feelings for Zilu were mixed. On the one hand, he was constantly critical of Zilu’s rashness and immodesty; and impatient with his seeming indifference to book learning. On the other hand, Confucius appreciated Zilu’s unswerving loyalty and directness; he never delayed on fulfilling his commitments. Being nearer Confucius in age, Zilu with his military temper was not one to take criticism without giving it back; on several occasions, especially in the apocryphal literature, Zilu challenges Confucius’ judgment in associating with political figures of questionable character and immodest reputation. However, Confucius’ enormous affection for the irrepressible Zilu comes through the text.

Confucius was also critical of his disciples. Zai Yu, also called Ziwo, was devoted to Confucius, yet on numerous occasions Confucius criticised him roundly for a lack of character. It was as a metaphorical reference to attempting to educate Ziwo that Confucius said, ’You cannot carve rotten wood, nor can you whitewash a wall made from dry manure’.

Zigong excelled as a statesman and as a merchant, and was perhaps second only to Yan Hui in Confucius’ affections. Confucius was respectful of Zigong’s abilities, and in particular his intellect, but less impressed with Zigong’s use of this intellect to amass personal wealth. Coming from a wealthy, educated home, Zigong was well-spoken, and as such, Confucius’ most persistent criticism of him is that his deeds could not keep pace with his words. Even so, much of the flattering profile of Confucius collected in the Analects is cast in the words of the eloquent Zigong.

Zengzi is best remembered as a proponent of filial piety – devotion and service to one’s parents. A natural extension of this affection for one’s family is friendship. Zengzi rose to prominence after the death of Confucius as one of his leading advocates.

These and many other disciples came from around the central states of China, gravitating to the state of Lu to study with Confucius. In spite of the sometimes severe opinions which Confucius expressed freely about them – and he admonishes almost every one of them – they were devoted to the Master, and responded to him with reverence. There is no greater proof of this enduring respect for Confucius than the fact that they had a hand in recording Confucius’ criticisms of themselves, and then went on to found branch schools based on these same criticisms to perpetuate his teachings.

Citing this article:
Lau, D.C. and Roger T. Ames. Disciples. Confucius (551–479 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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