Analects Book 19 followers: superior to Confucius?

Were the claims made by Shusun Wushu and Chen Ziqin in 19.23 and 19.25 that Zigong was superior to Confucius justified? This is a very interesting question, not least because by many conventional measures Zigong was a lot more successful than the sage.

Before becoming a follower of the sage, Zigong had already established himself as a wealthy merchant with a proven track record in taking advantage of market opportunities. Rather grudgingly, Confucius points to this in 11.19 when comparing him to the poverty-stricken Yan Hui:

Zigong is never satisfied with his lot and engages in trading and speculation. He frequently succeeds in his business ventures.”

Confucius, in contrast, was never particularly rich and became so short of cash towards the end of his life that he had to rely on financial support from Zigong and other followers and friends such as Ran Qiu to fund his retirement.

Thanks to his can-do attitude and problem-solving skills, Zigong also became an accomplished official and statesman in his own right, solving some tricky diplomatic disputes for the rulers of the states of Lu and Wei. His ability to get things done made him a far more effective political operator than Confucius, who blew up his own official career in spectacular fashion by storming out of his home state of Lu after his attempts to rein in the power of the Three Families ended in failure and was never able to secure a senior government position after that.

In 19.25, Zigong laments that Confucius was never given the opportunity to achieve his dream of restoring the Zhou dynasty to its former glory:

“If our master had been entrusted with running a country or a family estate, he would have lived up to the old adage: ‘If he helps them to stand, they will stand up; if he leads them, they will march; if he gives them peace, they will flock to him; if he mobilizes them to work, they will follow his call. In life, he is glorified; in death, he is mourned.’ How can his achievements ever be equaled?”

Zigong was such a great admirer of Confucius that he is most likely criticizing the ruling class of his day for not having sufficient foresight and courage to recognize the great talent of his master by appointing him to a senior role in government that would have enabled him to usher in a new golden age.

As one of the most loyal and devoted followers of Confucius, it probably never occurred to Zigong that his master would have had a much greater chance of achieving his lifelong goal if had learned from him some of the diplomatic and problem-solving skills he possessed in abundance. Although Confucius may have been superior to him in terms of intellect and learning, there is little doubt that Zigong outshone him when it came to achieving tangible results.

This image was taken at the Longshan Temple in Lukang, Taiwan.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.