Home China Following the Middle Path: The Righteous Integrity of Confucius’ Grandson

Following the Middle Path: The Righteous Integrity of Confucius’ Grandson

With the possible exception of the semi-legendary Japanese imperial line, the family with the world’s longest-running genealogical record is that of the Chinese educator Confucius. And were it not for the efforts of his progeny, Confucius’ philosophical achievements may have long faded into obscurity.  

Living 2,500 years ago in the different countries that compromised what is China today, Confucius had a single aim: to spread his moral and social teachings to the nobility of each state, and see his wisdom implemented throughout the land. Unfortunately, despite his many travels, few leaders took Confucius’ advice seriously, continuing to fight and scheme against each other. 

Confucius, whose name in Chinese was Kong Qiu, had a single grandson, Kong Ji — known to his peers and to the history books as Zisi (子思). 

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Zisi, the grandson of Confucius, valued sincerity and consistency above all else. (Image: via szsdsh.net)

Even at a young age, Zisi was inquisitive and shared with his grandfather a thirst for moral truth. One day, Zisi saw Confucius alone, sighing deeply. He asked: “Do you sigh because you worry that your children and grandchildren will not be able to carry on your inheritance and promote morality? Or do you envy the wisdom of Yao and Shun [two legendary sage emperors], but cannot match their greatness?”

Confucius responded: “Child, how could you know my aspirations?” 

Zisi said: “If a parent chops wood, but his son does not carry it, the son is unworthy. Whenever I think of this, I study very hard, not daring to slacken at all, so that I may also be able to understand the Way and help the world in the future.” 

Hearing this, Confucius’ mood improved: “I need not worry any more,” he said.

‘Sincerity is the way of Heaven’

Zisi studied the books of the sages diligently. He said: “Sincerity is the way of Heaven.” For Zisi, sincerity, or in Chinese, cheng (誠), basically meant consistency in one’s action.

Once, the Confucian scholar Mencius asked Zisi for advice about sincerity. Zisi said: “The foundation of cultivating one’s body, family, state, and the world is to cultivate one’s moral character, and the key to cultivating moral character is ‘sincerity.’”

“Sincerity is the law of heaven, and the pursuit of sincerity is the law of being human. There is no such thing as a sincere heart that cannot move people; it is impossible to move people without sincerity. A gentleman never deceives his own heart, and he should be all the more prudent when he is in solitary.”

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China during the Warring States era. (Image: Philg88 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

When the Kingdom of Wei was at war, Zisi recommended Gou Cheng to the king of Wei as a general, saying: “Gou Cheng is very talented as a general.” The king of Wei said: “I know. However, when Gou Cheng was an official, he once ate two eggs that belonged to the people when he was collecting taxes, so I did not use him.” 

Zisi said: “Everyone has strengths, but likewise, everyone makes mistakes at times, so if you guide him properly and educate him, I believe he will change. Don’t ignore his strengths and discard him.” The king of Wei paid his respects to Zisi and said: “I accept your advice.”

Ruling with virtue and culture

Later, when Zisi heard that Wei’s ruler proposed an erroneous plan to his ministers, they agreed with him as one voice, he said: “I see that at this time the kingdom of Wei must really be described as ‘the ruler is not like a ruler, and the ministers are not like ministers’!”

When asked why, Zisi said: “The ruler is so presumptuous that he is happy to let others praise him without examining the rights and wrongs of the matter, which is beyond foolishness; to praise without judging whether the matter is justified or not, is beyond flattery. It is fostering a culture of evildoers!”

Zisi continued: “How can the people be happy when [such leaders] rule over them in this way?! To ‘rejoice when one is told of his faults’ is the attitude that the sages took when they received criticism.”

Zisi aspired to rule the country with virtue and culture, and never wavered in his determination no matter what circumstances he was in. He put his personal life and death aside and denounced the harmful acts of the rulers who were fighting for power and profit and bullying the weak, bringing hardship to the people and undermining the Way. 

Once, Hu Mu Bao, a native of Lu, advised Zisi to be more realistic about the world and not stand his moral ground in every situation.

Zisi replied: “My only concern is that my vision and morality are not ambitious enough. I wish to be accepted by society in order to practice the way of benevolence and virtue; if I turn my back on my aspirations and the way of Heaven and seek to be accepted by the world, then what do I do that is worthwhile in the world? That would be a sin, so I will never change the moral righteousness I seek.”

True wealth and true nobility

Zisi traveled around the kingdoms and preached moral doctrines. He was respected by many rulers and loved by the people. Duke Mu of Lu asked him to be the prime minister of the kingdom, but Zisi politely declined because he wanted to teach. Although Zisi was poor all his life, he believed the meaning of wealth and nobility was as follows: not to beg from others is called wealth; not to degrade oneself is called nobility. 

Therefore, not to beg and not to degrade oneself can be considered as wealth and nobility. He denounced as flattery and glory-seeking, and remarked that a high-powered position with generous pay was not enough to bait a truly superior man.

Confucius as depicted by a Western artist. (Image: Public Domain)

Zeng Shen, Zeng Zi’s son, asked him: “Do you bend yourself to achieve the Way, or do you defend your aspirations at the expense of poverty?” Zisi said: “I would like to see the Way spread. It is the right time to do so in the present chaos. It is better to stand by one’ s aspirations to be poor than to bind oneself to be rich and powerful. If you bend yourself to others, you will be controlled by others, but if you stand by the Way, you have not failed to live up to it.” 

According to Zisi, he believed that he should promote moral righteousness. If bending oneself morally was necessary for the sake of gaining wealth and prosperity, it would be better to hold on to one’s moral principles by staying poor and humble, so that one would not be subject to others and would be worthy of his moral principles. He also said: “The Way is not to be left for a moment, otherwise it is not the Way.” In the choice between “the Way” (道) and “the trend” (勢), Zisi displayed the high moral integrity of a true sage.

Zisi strictly adhered to the rules of etiquette and morality in his dealings with people. He followed Confucius then passed on to Mencius. He wrote the classic work of Confucianism, The Middle Path (中庸), which had a great influence on later generations.

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  • Born and raised in China, Lucy Crawford has been living in Canada for over 20 years. With an M.A. in education and having worked on various professions, she now translates and writes about stories in ancient and modern China.

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