Analects of Confucius Book 11 themes: learning and death

Book 11 of the Analects provides the most detailed collection of Confucius’s thoughts on the abilities and characters of his followers. No less than sixteen of them go under the microscope, with — surprise, surprise — the usual favorites Yan Hui (9 appearances), Zilu (9 appearances), Ran Qiu (5 appearances), and Zigong (4 appearances) receiving the lion’s share of the sage’s attention.

The lesser-known Min Ziqian and the arrogant but talented Zizhang come in next with three appearances. Three followers also make their debuts on the Analects, in the form of the “dumb” Zigao, the father of Yan Hui, Yan Lu, and the father of Zengzi, Zeng Dian — the latter two for the first and final time.

Boyu, the son of Confucius, even manages to make an appearance — though he is referred to in less-than-flattering terms by his father, who declares: “Talented or not, a son is a son.” The only other people who appear in the book are Ji Kangzi, the head of the powerful Ji clan and prime minister of the state of Lu, and his relative Ji Ziran.

The main theme of Book 11 is learning: namely, the importance of continued self-cultivation to improve your abilities and character. This is hinted at in Chapter 1, where Confucius draws a stark distinction between the “common people” who have to study ritual and music first in order to have any chance of securing an official post in the government and the privileged nobility who only need to learn these two subjects after they had been hired by dint of their birth and connections.

Confucius makes no bones about which type of person he would select for employment if he had the chance. Indeed, as a member of the emerging class of educated but non-titled men known as 士 /shì, he is very much on the side of those who built their careers by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. He is, therefore, much more interested in assessing people’s abilities rather than their pedigree, and spends most of his time in the book giving short and at times sharp evaluations of the strengths and weakness of his followers so that they can continue to improve themselves.

Death is another major theme of the book, starting with Confucius’s emotional reaction towards the untimely passing of his protégé Yan Hui at an early age and his arguments with Yan Lu and his followers about how the funeral should be conducted. In Chapter 12, Zilu throws him a curve ball by asking Confucius about death — to which the sage famously responds: “If you don’t understand life yet, how can you understand death?”

In the following chapter, Confucius even goes on to express his fears that the “bold and intense” Zilu “won’t die a natural death.” Tragically for Zilu, Confucius’s concerns turned out to be highly prescient, for he was killed during a palace coup in the state of Wei in 480 BCE.

How to make the most of the talents that you’ve spent years honing to perfection? This is the question raised by the final chapter of the book when Confucius asks Zilu, Ran Qiu, Gongxi Chi, and Zeng Dian what they would do if they were given the opportunity to pursue their wishes. While the answers from Zilu, Ran Qiu, and Gongxi Chi are career-focused, Zeng Dian declares his desire to bathe in the Yi River and enjoy the breeze of the Rain Dance Terrace.

To the great consternation of generations of scholars and students, Confucius enigmatically agrees with Zeng Dian. Does this mean that the sage was ready to give up on his long-held ambition of restoring China to the glory days of the Zhou dynasty or that he was dreaming of the day when he could step aside after accomplishing this mission?

I’ll leave that for you to decide…


I took the top image at the Zhusi Academy in Qufu. Confucius is said to have taught his students here after returning to Lu from exile in in 483 BCE, as well as compiling the Book of Songs, Book of History, Book of Ritual, Book of Music, and Book of Changes.