Bu Shang, also known as Zixia, was a descendant of the aristocracy of the state of Jin, but his family had fallen on hard times by his generation. Despite his family’s poverty, he was diligent and eager to learn. He became an important disciple of Confucius, and was a fellow student of Zi You in the literary arts. He excelled in literature and had a deep understanding of the “Classic of Poetry”. He established a school and taught in Xihe in the state of Wei (now Weinan, Shanxi). The Wei Wen Hou once asked him questions. His students included Li Ke, Wu Qi, and Ximen Bao, and it is generally believed that Gong Yang Gao, who taught the Gongyang Zhuan, and Gu Liangzi, who taught the Guliang Zhuan, were also his disciples.
Born into poverty, Zixia came to the state of Lu and became a disciple of Confucius around 483 BC. In 476 BC, he traveled to Xihe in the state of Jin (now Weinan, Shanxi) and founded a school where he taught. After the partition of Jin into three smaller states, Xihe became part of the state of Wei. The “Xihe School” that he established trained many talented individuals who would later play important roles in governance, and it became a cradle for the growth of early Legalism. The people of Xihe regarded Zixia as highly as they regarded Confucius. According to legend, the study of the Mao Commentary was passed down by Zixia. It is also suspected that he and his disciples wrote much of the Analects of Confucius.
Zixia was well-versed in literature, with a deep understanding of the “Classic of Poetry” and was able to understand its meaning and principles. He wrote poetry and was known for his poetry commentaries. He also taught his students the methods of seeking knowledge and cultivating benevolence, saying, “One’s learning should be broad, and one’s aspirations should be firm. One should be meticulous in inquiry and think from a simple perspective, extending one’s understanding to more profound matters. The path to benevolence is within this process.”
Later generations criticized Zixia mainly for two things: first, his famous saying “When you learn, learn with an eye to where you will apply your learning; when you work, work with an eye to where you can be of greatest service.” And secondly, his mourning for his deceased son was so intense that it caused him to become blind, disregarding his own physical health.
According to the “Xunzi,” it is said that Zixia’s family was poor, and his thoughts on not being able to serve were: “If the lords are arrogant towards me, I will not serve as a vassal; if the great ministers are arrogant towards me, I will not see them again. Liuxia Hui wore the same clothes as the servant, but there was no suspicion, and this was not something that happened in a day. Fighting for profit is like fighting for fleas, and losing control.” His character can be seen from this. In “The Analects,” Zixia believed that “life and death are predetermined, and wealth and rank are bestowed by heaven,” and also said, “Within the four seas, all men are brothers.” However, according to “The Analects,” Zizhang once criticized Zixia’s narrow-minded approach of “refusing to be friends with those who cannot be accepted,” suggesting that if he was rejected by others, he would not be able to refuse others with pride from the beginning. It can be seen that among Confucius’ disciples, there were different opinions on Zixia’s character.
Zixia, who was one of Confucius’ favorite disciples in his later years and considered to be a top scholar alongside Zilu, had a deep understanding of literature. During one discussion with Confucius regarding a line from the Classic of Poetry, “With a coquettish smile and beautiful eyes, so charmingly bright「巧笑倩兮，美目盼兮，素以為絢兮。」,” Confucius believed that “素以為絢兮” was the key point of the sentence and commented that “繪事後素”. He emphasized that “美目” and “巧笑” are like “painting”, and one’s character or “素” is the foundation. Zixia’s response, which suggested that ritual, like beautiful eyes and charming smiles, is an external embellishment that enhances a person’s charisma, while one’s inner substance forms the foundation, was in the form of a counter-question: “Is ritual (禮) placed after substance?” This idea aligns with Confucius’ statement: “If a person is not humane, what use is ritual?” Confucius replied by stating that he began his research with the ritual of the Shang Dynasty and now he can discuss the principles of embellishment with the Poetry from various states.
Zixia stood out among Confucius’ disciples due to his diligence and eagerness to learn, earning him praise and encouragement from the sage. He was recognized for his expertise in the Classic of Poetry, and it is believed that some interpretive traditions in the Yi Jing were passed down from him. Zixia also had knowledge of the music of the Zhou dynasty, as shown in the “Music” chapter of the Records of the Grand Historian, where Wei Wen Hou asked him about it. According to the Mencius, after Confucius’ death, Zixia, Zizhang, and Ziyou planned to recommend You Ruo as his successor because You Ruo looked “similar to Confucius” in appearance, while Zengzi opposed it. Their plan was unable to carry out in the end. Zixia then left the Confucian school to teach his disciples in other states, becoming well known as the teacher of Wei Wen Hou as recorded in the “Wei Family Annals” of the Records of the Grand Historian.
Zigong asked, “Who is superior between Zizhang and Zixia?” Confucius replied, “Zizhang goes too far, and Zixia falls short.” Zigong asked again, “Does that mean Zizhang is stronger?” Confucius said, “Going too far and falling short are equally bad.” Confucius’ evaluation is thought-provoking. Zhu Xi commented on this passage, saying, “Zizhang has a wide range of talents and interests, but he likes to be strict and harsh, so he often goes too far. Zixia is dedicated to following and upholding principles, but his scope is narrow, so he often falls short.” Confucius also warned Zixia in person, saying, “As a scholar of the noble class, do not become a scholar of the petty class.”
歷代追封 Posthumous Title
Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty honored him as “Wei Hou.”
Emperor Zhenzong of the Song Dynasty posthumously titled him as “He Dong Gong.”
Emperor Duzong of the Song Dynasty further honored him as “Wei Gong.”
In the ninth year of the Jiajing reign of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Shizong renamed him “Wise Men Baozi.”