Leadership Lessons from Confucius: keep it in the family?

The Lord of She declared to Confucius: “Among my people, there’s a man we call ‘Upright Gong.’ When his father stole a sheep, he informed on him.” Confucius said: “Among my people, the ones we consider to be ‘upright’ are different. Fathers watch the backs of their sons and sons watch the backs of their fathers. ‘Uprightness’ can be found in this.”

When you find out that a relative has broken the law, do you report them to the authorities or do you stay quiet about it? What is more important: the family or the state?


This article features a translation of Chapter 18 of Book 13 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 13 here.

(1) Confucius has attracted a huge amount of criticism over the millennia for his blustering attempt to place filial devotion higher than any notion of justice. Although apologists have tried to argue that this passage reflects Confucius’s deeply held belief that the family forms the rock upon which a just and stable social order is built, they have failed to explain how allowing someone to get away with the theft of a sheep would contribute towards fairness and harmony for all!

(2) One aspect of filial devotion that Confucius and his supporters completely ignore in their discussions of the topic is that once families gain wealth and power, they tend to become corrupt self-serving organisms that leech off society at large and do everything they can to protect their unearned privileges. Even as he railed against the corrupt practices of the Ji Family that had to all intents taken over the reins of power in his home state of Lu, Confucius appears to have remained oblivious to the dangers of excessive loyalty to the family.

(3) It’s worth repeating that Confucius himself wasn’t exactly a paragon of family values in his personal life. Although he was deeply devoted to his mother, Yan Zhengzai, and stepbrother, Mengpi, he had a difficult marriage with his wife, Qiguan Shi, that, according to some accounts, ended in divorce. His relationship with his only son Boyu wasn’t exactly a close one either.


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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.