Analects Book 19 followers: Zizhang overshoots the mark

Zizhang was forty-eight years younger than Confucius and regarded as one of the most intelligent and articulate of his followers. Although Confucius certainly recognized Zizhang’s intellectual talents, he was critical of him for being arrogant and overly ambitious, pointing out in 11.16 that he “overshoots the mark”.

The shots taken at Zizhang by Ziyou and Zengzi in 19.15 and 19.16 echo Confucius’s criticism of his attitude and show that he had no chance of being accepted by his peers as the sage’s successor:

“My friend Zizhang is a man of great ability, but he has not yet achieved consummate conduct.”

“Zizhang is so full of himself that it is difficult to cultivate consummate conduct by his side.”

Despite showing an interest in pursuing an official career in 2.18, Zizhang devoted himself to studying the teachings of Confucius after the death of the sage and set up his own school to promote them. His pronouncements in 19.1 and 19.2 give you a flavor of his rather robust and uncompromising approach:

“A scholar-official who is ready to submit to fate when faced with danger; who does the right thing when presented with an opportunity of profit; who shows due reverence when carrying out a sacrifice; and who truly grieves when in mourning. Such a person is acceptable.”

“If you fail to embrace excellence with all your spirit and fail to follow the way with all your heart, does it really matter whether you exist or not?”

Zizhang’s seeming arrogance may have been his way of masking his insecurity at coming from a poor family with no social standing and, according to some sources, being a convicted criminal. Perhaps by trying too hard to impress others, he simply rubbed them up the wrong way and scuppered any hopes he may have entertained of becoming Confucius’s spiritual heir.

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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.