Analects Book 19 followers: Zigong launches the Confucius myth

At the time of his death, Confucius was by no means the towering philosophical giant that he subsequently became when the Han dynasty emperor Wu Di made his doctrines the official state ideology over 200 years later.

Indeed, many of his contemporaries had serious reservations about Confucius’s abilities as a scholar and an official. After all, it cannot have been a complete accident that after he left his home state of Lu in 497 BCE, Confucius was unable to secure suitable employment in any of the courts he visited during fourteen years of self-imposed exile. At the very least, we can say that he rubbed an awful lot of very important people up the wrong way with his moralism and harsh criticisms of what he saw as the decadence of the ruling elite.

In the last three chapters of Book 19, we see some examples of this skepticism about the sage when Shusun Wushu, a high official in the state of Lu, and Chen Ziqin, a follower of the sage (gasp), go as far as suggesting that Zigong was superior to Confucius.

As one of Confucius’s most loyal and devoted followers, Zigong is naturally horrified by these claims and refutes them with such vigor that his language reaches almost absurd levels of hyperbole. In 19.23, he says:

“Let us take the surrounding wall of a residence as a comparison. My wall is only shoulder-height; so, you can simply peer over it to see the beauty of the house inside. Our master’s wall would tower many yards higher; so, unless you are allowed through the gate, you cannot imagine the magnificence of the ancestral temple and the majesty of the other buildings.”

In 19.24, he ramps up the rhetoric, likening Confucius to the sun and moon:

“Confucius cannot be vilified. The worthiness of other people is like a hill that you can ascend; but Confucius is like the sun or the moon, which are impossible to climb over.”

In 19.25, he goes even further by elevating Confucius to god-like status:

“Our master’s achievements cannot be equaled, just as there is no stairway to heaven that you can climb.”

Zigong’s panegyrics mark the beginning of the myth-making process for Confucius. He is no longer a mere man, but an ethereal sage. Even though the world failed to recognize his greatness during his lifetime, he is still there ready to impart his peerless wisdom after his death.

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.