Leadership Lessons from Confucius: just a joke
Confucius went to Wucheng. When he heard the sound of stringed instruments and singing, he broke out into a smile and said: “Why use an ox cleaver to kill a chicken?” Ziyou replied: “Master, in the past I have heard you say: ‘An exemplary person who has been instructed in the way loves all people; ordinary people who have been instructed in the way are easy to manage.’” Confucius said: “My friends, Ziyou is right. The remarks I made a moment ago were just meant as a joke.”
Attempts at jocularity can all too easily be perceived as mockery or sneering. Be mindful not just about what you say but how you say it. Even the most seemingly innocuous remark can be taken in a way that you never intended.
This article features a translation of Chapter 4 of Book 17 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 17 here.
(1) Humor doesn’t exactly abound in the Analects. For good reason, judging by this incident, in which Confucius’s attempt at what he claims to be a joke spectacularly backfires and he is forced to backtrack in the face of his follower Ziyou’s indignant protests.
(2) Ziyou was the magistrate of the rough border town of Wucheng, which is located in modern-day Shandong province, at the time of Confucius’s visit and was making great efforts to inculcate the sage’s values into the local population. No wonder he is upset by Confucius’s implication that the musical performance (“stringed instruments and singing”) he is staging is more than a little over the top for the backwater he is in charge of.
(3) To his credit, Confucius hastily backtracks, claiming that his comments were just a joke. However, he does not offer any apologies at all for the disdain he has exhibited towards the rustics of Wucheng with his attempt at humor. For all his grand principles, Confucius shows himself to be an elitist snob at heart.
(4) An alternative interpretation is that Confucius is implying Ziyou is too talented to be in such a minor post and should be given a much more prestigious appointment. Even if that is true, the sage is still showing his lack of regard for the hardy citizens of Wucheng with his implication that they are not worthy of having Ziyou as their magistrate.
I took this image in the Four Beasts Scenic Area in Taipei.