Leadership Lessons from Confucius: unnecessary friction

Jieyu, the Madman of Chu, walked past Confucius singing: “Oh phoenix, oh phoenix! Why has your virtue withered so badly? The past is beyond repair, but the future is still worth pursuing. Give it up! Give it up! Those who serve in government are in peril.” Confucius stepped down from his chariot and wanted to speak with him, but Jieyu hurried away and avoided him. Confucius did not get to speak with him.

Once someone has made up their mind, there is no point in spending any more time attempting to dissuade them from following their chosen course of action. Even if you think they are insane, respect their decision and wish them the best of luck in their new endeavor. Any additional advice you try to give will only result in unnecessary friction.

This article features a translation of Chapter 5 of Book 18 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 18 here.

(1) This is the first of three perhaps allegorical tales of encounters between Confucius and recluses he might have come across during his wanderings. Curiously, and probably deliberately, Confucius doesn’t actually speak directly with any of the recluses himself. He either fails to talk with them, as in this case, or his follower Zilu acts as the intermediary.

(2) Jieyu became known as the Madman of Chu after he feigned insanity in order to avoid serving as an official of King Zhao of Chu. This encounter with Confucius is said to have taken place after the sage had met with the king, who had intended to offer the sage an important position in his government but was dissuaded from doing so by his chief minister. Although Jieyu urges Confucius to give up on his pursuit of a senior political post, he does not bother to stop and discuss the subject with him because knows that the sage would not listen to his counsel.

(3) Jieyu makes an ironic comparison between Confucius and the Phoenix in his song. Traditionally, a sighting of the mythical bird was regarded as an auspicious sign that a wise ruler had already arrived to restore peace and prosperity. In the case of Confucius, however, no such ruler has appeared for him to serve, no matter how hard he looks for one. Hence Jieyu laments that the times have become so desperate that even the virtue of the phoenix has declined.

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.