Leadership Lessons from Confucius: going to hell in a handbasket

Changju and Jieni were plowing the fields together. Confucius passed by and sent Zilu to ask where the ford was. Changju said: “Who is in the chariot?” Zilu said: “Confucius.” “Confucius from Lu?” “Yes.” “Then he already knows where the ford is.” Zilu then asked Jieni the same question. He replied: “Who are you?” “I am Zilu.” “The follower of Confucius from Lu?” “Yes.” “The whole world is inundated by the same flood. Who can reverse its flow? Instead of following a teacher who just avoids the bad people in the world, would you not be better off following one who avoids the world altogether?” All the while he kept on harrowing the field without stopping. Zilu went back and reported the incident to Confucius. With a furrowed brow, Confucius sighed: “I cannot associate with the birds and beasts. If I cannot associate with people, who can I associate with? If the world were following the way, I would not have to try to reform it.”

When everything is going to hell in a handbasket, do you continue to plug away even though you know your efforts will be in vain? Or do you walk away from the fray and wash your hands of any responsibility to intervene?


This article features a translation of Chapter 6 of Book 18 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 18 here.

(1) Like the preceding and succeeding chapters of Book 18, this passage is written in a much more sophisticated (perhaps you could say affected) style than the rest of the Analects — marking them as much later additions to the text. Even the names of the two recluses appear to be metaphorical rather than real. Changju (長沮) means “standing tall above the marsh”, while Jieni (桀溺) means “rising above the mud”.

(2) Changju and Jieni are questioning why Zilu continues hanging on to Confucius’s coat tails as he conducts his fruitless quest to find an employer who will give him an opportunity to rescue the world from chaos. Wouldn’t Zilu, and by extension Confucius, be better off giving up the struggle and retiring to the countryside to lead a life of peaceful seclusion? Confucius, of course, can’t allow himself to do this. It is his duty to continue his mission to restore order to the world no matter what the personal cost is — even though he knows he has little chance of success.

I shot this image in a hillside temple on the Four Beasts near to 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.