Confucius’s Positioning Fail

Confucius never expressed any desire to become one of the world’s most famous philosophers. His great dream was to reach high office so that he could restore the Zhou dynasty to the glory days that followed its founding in 1046 BCE.

To achieve this goal, Confucius positioned himself as the successor to the legendary Duke of Zhou, who acted as regent after the death of his older brother King Wu, the “Martial King”, who died just three years after establishing the dynasty. After fighting off various rebellions, the duke implemented a new feudal system that provided the foundation of what was seen as a golden age of just government and universal prosperity.

Since the Duke of Zhou voluntarily relinquished power to his older brother’s son when the young man came of age, this allowed Confucius to position himself as a loyal and selfless chief minister who would be able to carry out needed reforms for a hereditary state ruler without any risk of him taking power himself.

Although this positioning made perfect sense in theory, it came with one fatal flaw that meant Confucius’s efforts to secure a senior official position that would allow him to restore the Zhou to its former glories were doomed from the outset. Unlike his great hero, who had a strong power base he could build on as a result of being the bother of the former king, Confucius was totally dependent on finding a ruler not only to give him the position but also to allow him all the authority he needed to get the job done.

Confucius thought that he had found such a ruler in Duke Ding in his home state of Lu. After helping the duke triumph in a diplomatic tussle with the neighboring state of Qi in Jiagu in 500 BCE, he looked well placed to rise to the pinnacle of power. Not very long after that, however, Confucius had to flee into exile after losing out in a power struggle against the so-called Three Families, who had a far greater control over the government of Lu than even Duke Ding himself.

Although other state rulers such as Duke Ling of Wei were happy to welcome Confucius into their courts when he visited them during his fourteen years of exile, they were too busy partying, hunting, and trying to sort out family fights over the succession to go through the hassle of putting him in charge of their government. Strong opposition from their own officials, who feared losing their jobs and were not convinced in any case that the great sage was quite as capable as he purported to be, made the chances of Confucius receiving an appointment even more remote.

Confucius therefore committed a common mistake made by salespeople targeting large corporate accounts who think that the best way to win a deal is to go straight to the top of the organizational tree instead of first building support for it among key executives at the operational level. His failure to recognize the importance of cultivating relationships with the ministers and officials who directly served the ruler of the state meant that he fell at the first hurdle along the path towards achieving his dream.

In Analects 7.5, we see Confucius lament that all his efforts to emulate the achievements of his great hero have been in vain:

“I am becoming terribly weak. It has been a long time since I last saw the Duke of Zhou in a dream.”

How ironic that despite his positioning fail, Confucius ultimately became even more famous than the Duke of Zhou has ever been!



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

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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.