"The Disciple": A Novella on Confucius

Japanese novelist Nakajima Atsushi (1909-42) described Confucius through the eye of his  disciple Zilu in a novella titled “The Disciple” (published posthumously in 1943). Nakajima was born into a family of renowned Confucian scholars. Though not a Confucian scholar by profession, he grew up steeped in Confucian learning and was very proficient in Chinese classics. Though he became famous only after his death, his novellas since came to be revered as masterpieces. His novellas are read and studied by Chinese scholars and have been translated into Chinese, too.

Supplementing the Analects with other historical materials, “The Disciple” recounts Confucius' life as a teacher. The protagonist of the story is Zilu who is counted as one of the ten best students of Confucius and the second most mentioned student in the Analects. (The most mentioned is Guanhui who also appears in this novella.) Zilu had been a tough guy before becoming a Confucius’ disciple, and had hard time learning the ways of the cultured literati. By affectionately describing uncouth Zilu’s mishaps and misgivings, this novella makes a lively introduction to Confucianism.

I introduce this novella here partly because of its excellence, and partly because, as far as I know, Nakajima was the first one to successfully describe  Confucius in the form of novel. The standard format to describe Confucius’ thoughts and life has been commentary, expanding the words recorded in the Analects with other historical sources and earlier commentaries. So, Nakajima's novella was quite daring. Similarly, no popular biography of Jesus existed until the French philosopher Ernst Renan attempted in The Life of Jesus (1863) which became a bestseller. Dramatizing Confucius' life still carries some risks today. When the film Confucius was produced in 2009 the celebration of the Republic’s 60th anniversary and Confucius’ 2560th birthday, the dramatization (especially Confucius’ alleged infatuation with the wicked beauty Nanzi) attracted considerable objections.


I offer here a summary of the novella with some  excerpts, since there is a full translation is published by Professor Nobuko Miyama Ochner. I did consult and gained insights from her translation, but the following translation is my own and any mistakes found are mine alone.


“The Disciple” tells that, before becoming Confucius’ disciple, Zilu was a roughneck, very much into the world of swords and fighting, and had no interest in learning. One day, Zilu decided to challenge Confucius who was becoming famous as a sage. Zilu walked into Confucius’ school carrying a rooster and a boar under his arms, intending to disturb the lecture by their squeaking and quacking, and thus provoking Confucius. Unperturbed by the rudeness of this noisy gate crasher, Confucius came out and calmly asked Zilu, “What do you like?” Zilu answered proudly, “I like long swords!”


Confucius could not help but smiling. He saw in the young man’s voice and attitude so much of childish pride. However, this bullish young man’s healthy ruddy face, thick eyebrows, and bright big eyes somehow seemed to suggest underlying likable and earnest nature. Confucius asked again.

“How about learning?”

“What use could there be for learning!” Because saying this was the purpose of this visit, Zilu delivered the line with gusto, nearly shouting.


With learning’s authority thus challenged, Confucius could not just continue smiling. He began to explain patiently why learning is necessary. If a king does not have a subject who would remonstrate with him when he errs, he will lose the right way. If a man does not have a friend who offers moral guidance, he will lose moral qualities. Don’t trees need to be bound by a rope to become straight? Just as horses need whips and bows need the instrument to bend them, doesn’t a man need learning to correct his unruly nature? Everything requires straightening, shaping, and polishing to become useful.


Confucius was a very persuasive speaker, which cannot even be imagined from the written record of his words… The young man gradually lost his rebellious posturing and eventually started to listen attentively.


Still, Zilu had not lost the spirit to fight back. “But they say that the bamboo of the Nanshan Mountain grows naturally straight without being tied, and, if one cuts and uses it, it will pierce even the thick rhinoceros hide. This proves that naturally superior men need no learning.”


Confucius saw no challenge in rebutting such a naïve metaphor. If one puts feathers and arrowhead on the bamboo of the Nanshan Mountain you speak of, and polished it, won’t it pierce more than the rhinoceros hide? When Confucius said this, the lovable simpleton could find no word to say. His face became red. He stood before Confucius a while, appearing to be thinking. All of sudden, he threw away the roster and boar, bowed his head, and submitted to Confucius, saying, “I humbly beg you to teach me.” It was not simply because he could find no words to say. As soon as he had entered the hall room, seen Confucius’s person, and heard his first word, Zilu had realized that the rooster and boar did not belong there and had been overwhelmed by his opponent’s greatness, which was miles and miles beyond of his own.


On the same day Zilu performed the customary ritual to become a disciple of Confucius and entered his school. (Chapter 1)


Zilu had never met a person like Confucius. Confucius was so well-rounded. Confucius was even better at swords than Zilu, but most of times did not care to use his skill. This bowled Zilu over. Zilu sensed that Confucius had lived a hard life and knew the real world. With his physical prowess and real world savvy on one hand, and his lofty idealism on the other, Zilu found Confucius marvelous. For the first time, Zilu met a person who was great not because of some skills or attributes but just by being that person. Within a month, Zilu came to feel that he could not live without Confucius.

Throughout Confucius' wandering years, no one was happier than Zilu to follow his mater. Zilu pursued learning not because he wished to seek a public office or to improve himself. He did it out of his fierce love for Confucius. When Zilu met him, Confucius was not yet forty. Confucius was only nine years older. But to Zilu, their difference seemed immense.

Confucius found Zilu a very difficult student to teach. Zilu had a deep-seated instinctive dislike for following the external forms. Zilu did not want to accept that mastering the forms were necessary to become learned and well-mannered. Confucius found it quite a task to lead Zilu away from his ingrained dislike of the forms.  Zilu believed in Confucius' person. He could not believe Confucius' person was built by following the forms. Confucius scolded Zilu for not thinking enough about how to cultivate qualities in himself.

When he said "The wisest and stupidest do not change," Confucius did not mean Zilu. Confucius did not consider Zilu stupid. He deeply appreciated this uncouth student's unique quality; the lack of regard for personal gain. This was such a rare characteristic that most regarded it a form of stupidity. But Confucius knew this virtue of Zilu was even more precious than his courage or political talent.

The one thing Zilu did immediately follow the required form was his attitude toward his parents. His parents and relatives were deeply impressed by how filial Zilu had become since becoming Confucius' student. "Zilu felt uncomfortable. He felt he was not being filial, but just lying to his parents. He had been more honest when he was a ruffian and making them lament. He felt embarrassed by his parents' happiness over his show of filial piety; they could not see through that his action did not come from his heart. He was not the most astute observer of human psychology, but being extremely honest, Zilu noticed such discrepancies. One day, he suddenly realized his parents had grown old. Remembering how well they used to look when he was a child, he broke into tears. Since then, his filial devotion became real and heartfelt. But that was yet to happen." (Chapter 2)

One day, Zilu run into some friends from his rough and tumble  days. He chatted with them a while. One of them poked fun at Zilu, saying his school uniform look shabby, and asked if Zilu didn't miss his sword. Zilu let that pass. Then, this one went further and said, "I hear your master Confucius is quite a piece of work. Looking serious and preaching what he doesn't mean seems to make a lot of money." He said this just in jest,  but Zilu changed color. He grabbed the offender and punched him hard in the cheeks. The guy fell down. Intimidated by Zilu's fury, his former friends left without a word.  


Confucius must have heard about it. He summoned Zilu. Without mentioning the incident, Confucius told Zilu,  junzi (君子 man/men of great virtue) of the ancient times used loyalty (忠 zhong)  and benevolence (仁 ren)  to govern. They didn't need to resort to force. Petty men (小人 shaoren) tend to mistake insolence for courage, but for junzi, courage means upholding righteousness (義 yi).  Zilu listened to him obediently.

Another day, Zilu overheard a street speaker disparaging Confucius. Zilu went up to the speaker and glared at him. Hi's angry face was enough to scare away the speaker. Similar things happened several times. Confucius scolded Zilu many times, but Zilu told himself, "If the so-called junzi  feel as much fury as I feel and can control it, he is truly great. But I doubt they actually feel as much rage as I do. I bet they feel only little rage so that they can control it."  After a year or so, Confucius said with a wan smile, "Since Yu (Zilu's nickname) entered my gate, I stopped hearing disparaging words." (Chapter 3)


One day, Zilu was playing a zither. Confucius heard his music and commented that Zilu's music showed that his mind was rough and violent. When a fellow student relayed the master's words, Zilu was shocked. He knew he was a bad player, but had believed that was because of his lack of skill and training. Now he was told it was because of the state of his mind. He needed to think. For several days, he stayed in his room, thinking hard. He did not eat  and lost weight. Finally, he believed he had figured it out and played zither very tentatively. Confucius did not comment this time, and showed no sign of displeasure.  A junior student named Zigong told Zilu that the master did not disapprove. Zilu broke out in a broad smile. "Zigong could not help but smiling. Smart Zigong knew that Zilu's music was still full of rough and violent air. And that Confucius did not say anything because he felt for Zilu's earnestness of spending days trying to improve his music." (Chapter 4)

Among the students, Zilu received most scolding. He talked to Confucius most boldly, too. Zilu did not care if others laughed at him. He could not say he agreed to or understood something  when he did not.  Since Zilu was usually a man who held the ideal of independence, self-respect, and trustworthiness, and did not tolerate a talk down, the sight of him getting scolded by Confucius looked strange. Zilu himself sometimes chuckled at himself, feeling that he was dumping all the tough mental work on Confucius, like a child getting thing he can do himself done by his mother.


            However, Zilu had one thing he could not concede even to Confucius. The word heroism did not quite cut it. Calling it trustworthiness (xin) or righteousness sounded too academic and stuffy. What to call it was not important. To Zilu, it was a kind of pleasure. Whatever made him feel it was right, whatever did not was wrong. It was rather different from ren (benevolence/ love of fellow humans) that Confucius tried to teach, but Zilu selectively digested the master's words that fit his view, such as: "The person who is morally determined and the person who has achieved ren will not seek to live at the cost of harming ren. They would even sacrifice their lives to complete ren”; and "'Fine words, a pretentious appearance, and excessive respect; to conceal resentment against a person, and appear friendly with him; I would be ashamed for such conduct." 

At first, Confucius tried to reign in this tendency of Zilu, but later gave up.  Despite his shortcomings, Zilu was a good man. Depending upon the situation, his shortcoming could be of great value. Confucius thought Zilu only needed general guidance. His utterance such as "If you love trustworthiness, but don't like to study, then you will be foiled by deception. If you love honesty, but don't like to study, you will be foiled by back-stabbing" was aimed not personally at Zilu but at Zilu as the eldest and therefore leader among his students.  "Because what could be a desirable quality in the particular individual that was Zilu, could be mostly harmful in other students." (Chapter 5)

At this time, the reigning Zhou dynasty was divided in two factions and fighting each other. More than ten major states were also constantly fighting with each other. In Confucius' home state  Dukedom of Lu, the previous Duke had lost to powerful ministers and fled the dukedom. After seven years in exile, he passed away. The dukedom was de fact owned by three ministers. When the most powerful of them, Yang Hu, fell victim to his own scheming and lost power, the reigning Duke Ting summoned Confucius and appointed him the capital's governor. In a short time, Confucius brought order and prosperity to the capital. Impressed, the Duke asked Confucius, "The way you govern the capital, can you apply it to the entire Dukedom of Lu?" Confucius replied, "It can be applied not only to the Dukedom of Lu, but also to the entire empire." This reply impressed the Duke even more. The Duke promoted Confucius to the minister overseeing the land distribution and civil affairs, then to Minister of Law, with some duties of prime minister. Upon Confucius' recommendation, Zilu became the Chief of Staff to carry out his reform plans. 

Confucius aimed to centralize the power in the hand of the Duke. In order to do so, he had to take on the three clans who were more powerful than the Duke.  Confucius decided to demolish the clans' private forts.  Zilu was to carry out the mission.  Seeing the clear result of his work on such a large scale felt great.  Zilu took deep satisfaction in destroying the organizations and rules the rotten politicians had put in place. He was happy to see Confucius finally implementing his vision into action. Confucius, in turn,  found Zilu a dependable and cable politician.

One clan revolted and attacked the capital. At one point, the emery's arrows were reaching the Duke's hideaway. Confucius' skillful  guidance saved the day. Zilu was again deeply impressed. He had known the master's political skills and personal physical prowess, but this was the first time he saw him conduct a warfare. Needless to say, Zilu himself fought on the front line. After so many years, swinging long sword still felt good.  Grappling with rough reality suited Zilu better than pondering over the classics.

The Duke of Lu was forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty with the neighboring Dukedom of Qi. Confucius accompanied the Duke to the meeting. The triumphant Qi courtiers acted insolently. Confucius reprimanded the Duke of Qi and his ministers for their lack of manners so fiercely that they trembled in fear. This made Zilu grin with pleasure. However, the Duke of Qi became wary of Confucius and the Dukedom of Lu becoming strong under his guidance. The Duke of Qi sent well-trained beautiful dancers to the Duke of Lu, hoping to distract him from his duties. This old-fashioned commonplace tactic worked and the Duke stopped attending court meetings. Ministers followed the suit. Zilu got upset and resigned. Confucius tried his best to coax the Duke back to his duties, but in vain. He finally gave up and resigned. Leaving the dukedom, Confucius composed a song and sung, "Facing such beauties' voice, junzi have to leave, facing such beauties' voice,  junzi have to lose." Thus started his never-ending wandering years. (Chapter 6)

Zilu had one big question. He had the question since childhood.  As an adult and now becoming an old man, he could still not find the answer. It was something nobody else seemed to question. Why do the evil prosper and the good suffer?

Why? Zilu fumed. They say the evil may prosper a while but leap the consequence later.  But that is only saying that humans eventually perish. He rarely heard of the good getting just reward. What is Heaven doing? If Heaven makes such an unjust world, I have to rebel against it. Does Heaven not distinguish  good and evil? When Zilu asked Confucius about this, Confucius only talked about the nature of human happiness. Does that mean the reward of doing good is only in the satisfaction of doing good? Zilu did not like that. He wanted the good get a clear-cut reward.

Zilu felt this indignation most strongly about his master. Why does this greatest man have to suffer such hardships? Why does he, not having a happy family life,  have to live a life of wandering in his old age? When Confucius said to himself, "The phoenix hasn't arrived. The river doesn't show the direction. Alas, what to do?" Zilu could not help but cry. Confucius lamented for the world, but Zilu cried for Confucius.

Zilu resolved that he would become a shield to stand between the sorry reality and Confucius.  The master guided and protected him intellectually and morally, so he would do his very best to protect his master from the drag of daily grind. He knew he was not the most learned or most talented of the disciples. But no one else had his drive to risk his life for the sake of the master. (Chapter 7)

Zigong said, "Here is a beautiful jade. Should we hide it in a box or should we sell to a good buyer?" Confucius immediately said, "Let's sell it. Let's sell it. I will seek a good price." That was Confucius' intention when he left for the life of wandering. Most of disciples who followed him were also looking for a buyer. Zilu was of a different mind. Though he enjoyed the experience in the Dukedom of Lu where he had the  power to put his conviction into action, that was because he was working under Confucius. If not working under Confucius, Zilu would rather hide the beautiful jade and wear a rag. Zilu would rather remain Confucius watchdog all his life than serving an unworthy master.

Among Confucius' students, Zigong, who was 22 years younger than Zilu, distinguished himself by his brightness. Confucius always praised
Guanhui highly, but Zilu thought more of Zigong. Zilu was not fond of Guanhui who was like a younger version of Confucius but without his vitality and political savvy. Zilu liked Zigong's vitality and smartness. Everyone noticed Zigong was still immature in many ways,  but time would take care of that. Zilu thought Zigong had a bright future.

One day Zigong said, "The master says he despises clever words. But he himself is a master of words. This is dangerous. It is very different from the case of Zai Yu (another disciple). Zai Yu's clever words are so obvious that you enjoy his rhetorical flair but do not trust him. His words are safe, in that sense.  The master's words are very different. Instead of being fluent, he has the weight behind his words that make you trust him. Instead of sarcasm, he uses metaphors of significance that wins you over. I believe 99 percent of what the master says is absolute truth. We all should follow him in the 99 percent. But there is a slight danger in the last one percent where his words may be used to defend his personal preference. Maybe I am asking too much because I have gotten to know the master so well. If the later generation venerate him as a saint, that is what ought to be. I have never seen a person so close to perfection and there will be few like him in the world. I just want to say that even such a person has to be questioned in some cases. Guanhui is very similar in his preference to the master, so he would never feel this way. Doesn't the master praise Guanhui so often because of their similar preferences?" Zilu was upset by this youngster's criticism of the master, but could not dismiss Zigong's observation, even though he knew it was partly motivated by jealousy. He harbored a similar discontent about the master.  Zilu felt both admiration and contempt for Zigong for articulating the vague discontent into words.

Zigong asked Confucius, "Do the dead know things? Or they can't?" He was asking about the existence of soul after death. Confucius replied, "I dare not say the deed knows because I am afraid that might drive the filial people into serving the dead at the cost of this life. I dare not say they don't because I am afraid that might make the unfilial sons abandon the parents and not perform funerals." Zigong was not happy with the reply. Confucius knew what Zigong meant. But being a realist and this world oriented, Confucius was trying to redirect this bright disciple's interest.

Zigong told Zilu about this. Such questions as souls' existence after death did not interest Zilu. But he was curious how Confucius saw death. So he asked about death. Confucius said, "I don't yet know what life is. How can I know about death?" Zilu was impressed. Zigong felt Confucius evaded the question again. (Chapter 8)

Duke Ling of Wei was a very weak-willed ruler. Though not so stupid as not to know right from wrong, he would rather believe flattery than hard advice. His wife Nanzi was well-known for her wantonness. Nanzi was a clever one, had her own ideas about politics, and Duke Ling followed her every wishes. If they wanted to be heard by Duke Ling, people first went to Nanzi.

When Confucius entered the Dukedom of Wei, Confucius was summoned by the Duke, but did not see Nanzi. Nanzi summoned Confucius, saying that it was customary to see Nanzi before seeing the Duke . Confucius did not see a reasonable way to avoid the summon, so he went to greet her. Zilu was furious that Confucius greeted such an ill-reputed woman. Confucius was both amused and dismayed by Zilu. While he could act in  politics with realism, Zilu still harbored a big child inside him who showed no sign of growing up.

Duke Ling invited Confucius to accompany him on a wagon ride around the capital, to talk about politics.  Nanzi did not like this. When Confucius greeted the Duke and tried to get on the royal wagon, Nanzi was already occupying the seat next to the Duke's. The Duke dared not say anything to Nanzi, and made Confucius sit in a separate wagon. The wagons went through the capital. The people sighed and lamented at the sight of Nanzi in the royal horse-drawn wagon and Confucius in a shabby cow-drown wagon.

The sight made Zilu mad.  He saw how happy Confucius had been to receive the invitation from Duke. He was about to  crash through the crowd. Two younger students clang to him. Seeing tears in their eyes, Zilu lowered his fist.

Confucius and the disciples left Wei next day. Confucius lamented, "I have yet met a man who loves morality as much as he loves women." (Chapter 9)

Dukes and kings revered Confucius as a wise man but did not want him. Zilu felt that Confucius was too big for them. One offered to make him a royal guest of honor. Others employed his disciples. But none wanted to implement Confucius' full program. Their ministers treated Confucius with jealousy and politicians rejected him.

Undaunted, Confucius and the disciples traveled from state to state, training themselves, and looking for employment. Rather incredibly, they actually believed that they were trying to get employed not for their own sake, but for the sake of the empire and dao (tao: the Way). Because of this conviction, they were cheerful even though poor, and never gave up in the face of difficulty. They were strange fellows.

When Confucius and the disciples were invited by King Zhao of Chu, politicians of the neighboring Chen and Zhai organized a mob to stop them. The politicians were trying to prevent Chu from employing Confucius. Confucius and the disciples were besieged and could not cook for seven days. They were tired, hungry, and some fell ill. Confucius did not show any sign of distress. He kept his daily routines and was singing, playing a zither. Seeing his fellow students in distress, Zilu could not understand this. So he asked Confucius, "Is it because of good manner that you play and sing?" Confucius kept on playing and singing.  After the piece was finished, Confucius said, "Yu (Zilu's  style name), I tell you. Junzi (men of great virtue) practice music so as not to be arrogant. Shaoren (petty men) practice music so as not to be afraid. Who are you  to follow me without knowing me?"

Zilu was taken aback for a moment. So as not to be arrogant, in this situation? But, then, he understood what Confucius meant. Out of joy, Zilu grabbed a spear and danced. Confucius played music for him and they performed three rounds. The others watched, forgetting their worry a while.

Another time during the siege, Zilu asked Confucius, "Can junzi be in a dire strait?" Confucius answered, "Being in a dire strait means  straying from dao. Now, I follow the path of ren (benevolence) and yi  (righteousness) and am facing the mob. I won't call this a dire strait. If you call being hungry and tired a dire strait, junzi can, of course, find himself in a dire strait. The difference is that shaoren lose the calm." Zilu blushed. Shaoren in him was exposed! Zilu realized the great bravery of Confucius who maintained his calm in the face of danger. Zilu also realized what he used to think of as bravery,  facing the blade without fear, was so petty. (Chapter 10)

One day, Zilu was separated from the others and trying to catch up. Zilu ran into an old man.  Zilu greeted him and asked, "Have you seen the master?" The old man replied, "How would I know who is your "master"?"  He continued, "You look like one of those who live by talking empty theories without actually working." The old man started to work in the field. Zilu realized this was a recluse, so he bowed and waited. After a while, the recluse invited Zilu home. The  recluse slaughtered a chicken and cooked millet and the chicken for dinner. He introduced Zilu to his two sons. After dinner, the old man, a little tipsy because of a little wine, played zither. His sons sang along. Though obviously poor, the household felt spiritually rich. The three family members seemed content and intellectual.

The old man said to Zilu, "You use cart to go over land and a boat to go over water. This has always been the case. Would you use a boat to go over land? Trying to apply the Zhou dynasty's ancient laws to the present day is like using a boat over a land." He clearly knew that Zilu was a Confucius' student. "Fulfillment is in enjoying life. Not in climbing to a high official rank." This was not the first time Zilu met recluses. But it was the first time Zilu spent time among such people. Zilu thought,  with a hint of envy, that it was a beautiful life they live.

However, Zilu did not accept the old man's word passively. Zilu said, "I know it would be great to leave the world behind, but a man should not only seek enjoyment. Trying to keep oneself clean by ignoring the greater good is not right. We know well that dao cannot prevail in a world like this. We also know the danger of preaching dao in a world like this. But we believe that we need to dare preach dao  because of the sorry state the world is in."

Next morning, Zilu left the recluse's home and hurried along to catch up with Confucius and fellow students. Zilu mentally compared the recluse and Confucius. Confucius was no less insightful than the old man. Confucius did not desire a high rank any more than the old man. Still, Confucius chose, instead of saving himself trouble, to wander and preach in the hope of improving the world.  Zilu suddenly felt anger for the recluse. 

Near midday, Zilu caught the sight of a group of people walking. When he recognized Confucius for his extraordinary height, Zilu felt a pang of pain for his master. (Chapter 11)

On the boat from Song to Chin, Zigong and Zai Yu were talking. They were discussing Confucius' words, "Even in a small village of ten houses, there will be a person who is similar to me in nature. He just does not like to study as much as I do." Despite these words, Zigong argued that Confucius' great completeness was due to his extraordinary innate qualities. Zai Yu countered that Confucius' conscious effort  to better himself played a larger role. Zai Yu meant that the difference between Confucius and others are quantitative, not qualitative. Zigong argued back that when the quantitative difference was overwhelming, it became a qualitative difference; Confucius' ability to pursue self-cultivation so far proved he was different. Zigong said, Confucius' definitive quality was his unfailing instinct for seeking the balanced middle. 

   Zilu thought they were just idle talkers. If the boat overturned, they would panic. If something happens, it is me who will protect the master.  Zilu silently recited Confucius' words, "Clever words ham morality," and felt proud of himself.

However, Zilu had some issues with Confucius. When Duke Ling of Chin had an affair with his minister's wife and appeared in the court wearing her underwear to rob in the fact, an official named Xieye remonstrated with the duke and was killed. A student asked Confucius about this incident that happened some one hundred years earlier. Xieye's death was like that of Bi Gan, the great minister of the olden day.  Could his act be called the act of ren? Confucius said, no, Bi Gan and Zhou Wang were relatives and  his rank was Junior Tutor, so he could reasonably expect that Zhou Wang would feel remorse after his death. (We will meet Bi Gan and Zhou Wang in Creation of Lesser Gods.) That was ren. In the case of Xieye, he was no relative of Duke Ling and a mere court official. If he found the Duke wrong and the country unruly,  he should have resigned. Without realizing that he could not reasonably expect Duke Ling to repent, Xieye wasted his life. It was far from ren.

Zilu was listening and could not agree. He asked, regardless of if it was ren or not, isn't there something admirable about his drive to try saving the country, forgetting his person? The result was bad, but should you dismiss him as wasting his life?

"Yu, you are so taken by what is admirable in such low form of righteousness and cannot see beyond it. Junzi of the olden days served most loyally when the country followed dao, and resigned from the post when the country fell out of dao. You do not seem to be able to understand the wisdom of such behavior. The poetry says, "When you see many evil people, do not press righteousness." This applies to Xieye."

Zilu thought a while. "Does that mean the most important thing in the world is to keep oneself safe? Is each individual's behavior more important than trying to make the world safer place? If Xieye had resigned, it would have been fine for him. But what about the people of Chin? Isn't dying in trying to remonstrate with the Duke more meaningful for the people of Chin?"

"I do not say keeping oneself safe is the most important. If that were the case, I wouldn't call Bi Gan a man of ren. However, even if dying for dao, there is the right time and occasion to do so. Knowing the right time and occasion requires wisdom.  Rushing to death isn't wise."    

Zilu still felt unconvinced. Zilu sometimes felt that, while he  talked about achieving ren even at the cost of death, Confucius thought that keeping oneself safe was the wisest choice. Other students did not feel the way Zilu did, because keeping themselves safe was the wisest choice was self-evident to them.

Zilu left the master, looking unconvinced. Confucius gazed on his receding back, and commented sadly. "He is a straight arrow when the country follows dao. He is a straight arrow when the country stray from dao. He is like Shiyu of Wei. He won't die a natural death." (Chapter 12)

Zilu followed Confucius, in out of Wei four times,  staying three years in Chin, and from Cao, to Song, to Zhai, to Ye, and to Chu.

Zilu knew that there was no hope of a duke or king implementing Confucius' program, which did not bother him any longer. For many years, Zilu was angry at the world without dao and ineffectual lords, and aggrieved by Confucius' ill fortune. But by now, Zilu started to realize the meaning of their fate to follow Confucius.  It was not a passive acceptance of fate. It was a positive acceptance of the fate to become the alarm bell to the world, not limited by small political divisions or by his historical time. Zilu came to appreciate Confucius' wisdom of not despairing in the face of difficulty, never despising the realty, and do the best within the confine of what was available. Zilu understood why Confucius seemed to care  about what the people of future might think of him. Too taken by the present reality, clever Zigong did not quite see the Confucius' fate that went beyond the confine of his own time. Simpleton Zilu, maybe because of his straight-forward love for his master, came to realize what Confucius was to be in history.

Having spent years in wandering,  Zilu reached 50. Though not exactly mellowed down, Zilu had gained personal gravitas. He had the air of a person who could say, "I have no need for tons of grains. It will not make me a better man." Instead of looking like a self-righteous would-be, he now looked a real statesman.  (Chapter 13)

When he visited Wei for the fourth time,  Confucius, begged by the young Duke of Wei and Grand Tutor Gong Shuyu , made Zilu serve in the dukedom. When Confucius went home to Lu after more than ten years of wandering, Zilu stayed in Wei.

  Wei had been in turmoil for more than ten years because of the late Duke Ling's wife, Nanzi. First, a man named Gong Shuwu schemed to remove Nanzi, but faced Nanzi's counter-accusations, and had to go into exile in Lu.  Then, the son of Duke Ling, Crown Prince Kuai Kuei, tried to assassinate the mother-in-law, but failed, and escaped to Jin.  While there was no Crown Prince, Duke Ling died.  Che, the young son of Crown Prince in exile,  was installed as Duke Chu. With the help of Jin, the former Crown Prince entered the western Wei and was looking for the chance to become the Duke of Wei. The one who tried to defend the duke's throne was the son. The one who tried to usurp him was the father. The Dukedom of Wei which Zilu was to serve was in such a sorry state.

Zilu's duty was to govern the estate of Bo for Grand Tutor Gong Shuyu's family. The Gong family was a highly respected clan and Gong Shuyu was renown for his statesmanship. Bo used to belong to Gong Shuwu who went into exile because of Nanzi. People of Bo were, therefore, rebellious toward the ruling duke. The people of the area tend to be quarrelsome to begin with. Confucius himself had been attacked by a mob in this area.

Before heading to Bo, Zilu asked Confucius for advice. Confucius said, "If you are humble and respectful, you do not need to worry about violence. If you are generous and right, the mighty would welcome you. If you are benevolent and decisive, no one will cheat." Zilu thanked Confucius and headed to Bo.

Once in Bo, Zilu invited the local bosses and had a heart  to heart talk with them. He was not trying to tame them. Confucius always said, "You cannot punish when you haven't taught." Zilu was trying to tell the local bosses what he was thinking.  His unpretentious honesty was welcomed and the local bosses praised Zilu for his clarity and broad-mindedness. By then, Zilu was well known as the manliest man of Confucius' disciples. Confucius's recommendation, “If there is anyone who can judge a case correctly only listening to one party, it is Zilu!” was also widely known. Such reputation surely helped Zilu in Bo.

Three years later, Confucius happened to pass through Bo. When he entered the estate, he said, "Well done, Yu, you are humble, respectful, and trustworthy." When they entered a village, he said "well done, Yu, you are loyal, trustworthy, and generous." When he entered Zilu's mansion, he said, "Well done, Yu, you are insightful and decisive." Zigong, who was accompanying Confucius, asked him why he praised Zilu even before seeing him. Confucius said, "Once in the estate, the farmland is well taken care of. This is because the governor is humble, respectful, and trustworthy, so the people work hard. Once in the village, the houses are well taken care of and trees are thriving. This is because the governor is loyal, trustworthy, and generous, so the people follow his words. Once inside his garden, tit is very clean and no servant disobeys his words.            This is because the master is insightful and decisive that the governance is secure. Even without seeing Zilu, I have already seen how he governs." (Chapter 14)

While Zilu was visiting Confucius in Lu, a court official named She betrayed his state and sought an exile in Lu. He was an acquaintance of Zilu. He  said, "If Zilu guarantees my safety, I wouldn't seek guarantee from Lu." When in exile, a person needed a guarantee from the state for his safety to peacefully settle down. Zilu's decisiveness, honesty, and trustworthiness had such a reputation that She said he trusted Zilu's guarantee more than a dukedom's. Zilu outright refused this request.  Someone asked Zilu, "He said he trusts you more than the state's grantee. Should you not be proud to accept this?" Zilu replied, "That man She betrayed his state. If I guarantee his safety, I will be endorsing a treason.  No way can I do that." Those who knew Zilu could not help but smiling when they heard this. It was so Zilu.

The same year, a man named Chenheng killed the Duke of Qi. After three days' mourning, Confucius begged the Duke of Lu to attack Qi for the sake of justice. Duke was fearful of the might of Qi, and did not agree. Confucius asked three times.  Duke told Confucius to consult Li Song, in full knowledge that Li Song would not agree. Confucius said, "I knew he would not listen. But, as an advisor, I had to try." Zilu was unhappy. Does the master just follow the forms? Does he not feel the righteous anger enough to push harder? Following Confucius for nearly forty years, Zilu still could not understand it. (Chapter 15)


            While Zilu was visiting Lu, old Grand Tutor Kong Shu-yu died and his young son Kong Li became the head of the family. Late Grand Tutor’s widow, Bo Chi, who was the stepmother to the young head of the household Kong Kui, took this opportunity to scheme to make her brother, the former Crown Prince of Wei in exile, seize the title of Duke of Wei. Zilu came back to Wei into this political turmoil.

In the evening of a day in the last month of the fortieth year of King Chao of Zhou, a messenger rushed into Zilu’s house. The messenger was from the elder of the Grand Tutor Kong’s family, Luan Ning. The message said: “Today, the former Crown Prince Meng Gui penetrated the capital. He is now at the Kong mansion. With the help of Bo Chi and her steward Hun Liang, Meng Gui coaxed our young master Li to declare him Duke of Wei. I see no way to change the situation. I escape to Lu, escorting the real Duke. I have to entrust the care of the dukedom in your hand.”


“The day has come,” Zilu thought. “First thing first. Young master Kong Li is a captive and under threat. I have to do something about it.” Zilu grabbed his long sword and ran to the Duke’s palace.


At the outer gate of the palace, Zilu ran into a midget coming out through the gate. It was Zi Gong. Zi Gong was a junior student of Confucius, and had been made an official in Wei on the recommendation of Zilu. Zi Gong was an honest but timid man. Zi Gong said, “The inner gate is already locked.” Zilu replied, “Well, I still have to go and give it a try.” Zi Gong said, “No, it is no use. You might even find yourself in harm’s way.” Zilu raised his voice. “We are in service of the house of Kong. Since when avoiding personal harm is the way to serve?”


Zilu shook off Zi Gong and ran to the inner gate. The inner gate was indeed locked. Zilu banged hard on the gate. Someone shouted from inside, “No one is allowed to come in!” Recognizing the voice, Zilu shouted back. “It’s you, Kung Sung Kan. I wouldn’t change my loyalty just because it’s dangerous. I vowed to serve the house of Kong, so I will save the house from the danger. Open the gate! Open it!”


A messenger happened to come through the gate, and Zilu pushed his way through.


The courtyard inside the gate was full of people. They were the officials in service of the dukedom who had been urgently summoned in the name of Kong Li to celebrate the crowning of the new Duke. They stood looking bewildered and incredulous, not knowing what to do. On the platform facing the crowd, young Kong Li was straggling against his stepmother Bo Chi and his uncle Meng Gui who were trying to force him to make the public announcement.


Zilu shouted at the top of his lungs toward the platform. “What’s the meaning of making Kong Li a captive? Let Kong Li go! Killing Kong Li won’t eliminate the men of justice!”


Zilu wanted to rescue his young master first. Once the crowd turned quiet and turned toward him, Zilu tried to incite them into action. “The ex-crown price is a known coward. If we set fire to the platform, he will surely be scared into letting Kong Li go. Let’s set fire! Let’s burn it!”


It was already at dusk, and there were torches burning in the corners of the courtyard. Pointing toward the torches, Zilu shouted, “Get the fire! Get the fire! You owe it to the late Master Kong!  Set fire to the platform! Save the Young Master!”


The conspirators on the platform panicked and ordered two warriors Shi Qi and Yu Yan to kill Zilu.


Zilu fought hard against the two. As good as he was, his advancing age betrayed him. Zilu started to tire, and his breath became raspy. Seeing Zilu at disadvantage, the crowd finally picked their side. Abuses were hauled at Zilu, and stones and sticks flew at him. One attacker’s halberd blade swiped Zilu’s cheek. The belt  of his official’s cap was severed, and the cap started to drop. When Zilu tried to support the cap with his left hand, the other attacker’s blade dug into his shoulder. Blood gushed out, Zilu lost his balance, and his cap dropped. Falling, Zilu grabbed his official’s cap and quickly tied back into the correct position. With the enemy swords coming down upon him, Zilu, drenched in his own blood, put all his remaining strength into one last yell, “Look! A junzi keeps his proper attire when he dies!”


Zilu died, hacked into pieces.


Confucius was at home in Lu. Upon hearing the news of the coup in Wei, he immediately said, “Chai (Zi Gong) will come back, but Yu (Zilu) will die.” When he learned that his words came true, the old sage stood in silence. After a time, tears streamed down his cheeks. When he heard that Zilu’s body was salted (so that his body would stay on display without rotting), Confucius ordered all the salted food in his household to be thrown away, and never let salted food on his table again. (Chapter 15)



Atsushi Nakajima "Deshi" ("The Disciple")
Nobuko Miyama Ochner, "The Disciple,"
Southern Humanities Review, Vol 32, No. 2 (Spring 1998), pp. 137-172.