Leadership Lessons from Confucius: a bitter gourd

Bi Xi summoned Confucius. Confucius was tempted to go. Zilu said: “Master, in the past I have heard you say, ‘An exemplary person does not enter the domain of those who commit evil.’ Bi Xi is using his stronghold of Zhongmou as the base of a rebellion. How can you contemplate going to join him?” Confucius said: “It is true I said that. But has it not also been said, ‘so tough that it can withstand grinding; so white that it can withstand black dye.’ Am I no more than a bitter gourd that is hung on a piece of string instead of being eaten?”
佛肸召,子欲往。子路曰:「昔者由也聞諸夫子曰:『親於其身為不善者,君子不入也』。佛肸以中牟畔,子之往也,如之何?」子曰:「然,有是言也。不曰堅乎?磨而不磷;不曰白乎?涅而不緇。吾豈匏瓜也哉?焉能繫而不食!」

It feels good to vent when the world conspires against you. Maybe, if you are really lucky, cathartic. Just do not make a habit of it. The more you blame everyone else for your problems, the less you will be committed to addressing them yourself. The more you hope that some distant savior will swoop down to save you, the less you will take responsibility for your actions. Before you know it, you will be skulking in some dark and lonely corner ignored by everyone who passes by you.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 7 of Book 17 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 17 here.

(1) This is the third potential employment opportunity that Confucius is tempted to pursue in Book 17. His blustering and self-pitying response to Zilu’s biting criticism reveals how desperate he must have become to achieve a position of influence. By arguing that he is “tough” and “white” enough to withstand “grinding” and “black dye,” even he admits that Bi Xi is not exactly a man of pristine moral character. As galling as it must have been for him to be regarded as “a bitter gourd that is hung on a piece of string,” surely that would have been preferable to selling out his long-held principles for a fleeting taste of power. For fleeting it would most certainly have been, because — just like Yang Huo and Gongshan Furao — Bi Xi failed in his attempted revolt and went on to meet an untimely end.

(2) Bi Xi was a retainer for Zhao Jianzi, the most powerful minister in the state of Jin. In this role, Bi ran Zhongmou, a city in the state that belonged to Zhao. In 491 BCE, however, Bi incurred the wrath of Zhao by giving assistance to his lord’s enemy Fang Zhongxing. After carrying out an attack on the neighboring state of Wei, Zhao went to Zhongmou to make him pay for his treachery.

(3) Just like Gongshan Furao, Bi Xi claimed that he was rebelling against Zhao Jianzi in order to protect the Duke of Jin against a plot his lord was hatching to usurp the duke’s power. It is based on this rather dubious claim that Confucius justified his interest in working for Bi. He was fortunate to have Zilu around to quash his fanciful notions.

I took this image in the Four Beasts Scenic Area in Taipei.

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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.