Leadership Lessons from Confucius: a calculated insult?
Ru Bei wanted to see Confucius. Confucius declined due to illness. As Ru Bei’s messenger was leaving, Confucius picked up his zither and sang loudly enough for him to hear.
If you are determined to teach someone a lesson they will never forget, it is best to deliver it in a manner that will not leave them scratching her heads trying to figure out what you meant by it. Mocking their ignorance with a deliberate insult will only serve to further obfuscate the point you are trying to make — not to mention providing proof that if anyone needs teaching a lesson it is you.
This article features a translation of Chapter 20 of Book 17 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 17 here.
(1) Not much is known about Ru Bei, though some commentators speculate that he may have been a follower of the sage. It is not clear what he did to anger Confucius either. The consensus seems to be that he committed some form of ritual violation when attempting to arrange an audience with him.
(2) Some commentators praise Confucius for the alleged subtlety and elegance of the calculated insult he delivers by playing his zither and singing within earshot of his unwelcome visitor. According to their interpretation, the purpose of this insult was to encourage Ru Bei to reflect on his error and take the appropriate steps to correct his future behavior. Other observers, however, might wonder whether Confucius really needed to act so crassly in the way he treated Ru Bei. To this observer, at least, he comes off as a pompous prig.
I took this image in the Four Beasts Scenic Area in Taipei.