孔門十哲 The Ten Disciples of Confucius

子貢 Zi Gong

Duanmu Ci, also known as Zigong, was born in 520 BC and died in 446 BC. He hailed from the state of Wei during the late Spring and Autumn period and was one of Confucius’ most esteemed disciples. Zigong was one of the “Ten Accomplished Followers of Confucius” and was considered one of the disciples who had fully “mastered the learning,” despite being 31 years younger than Confucius. Confucius praised Zigong, calling him “a fine jade fit for mounting,” and he was renowned among the Ten Accomplished Followers for his eloquence. The idiom “The wall of the Wanren Palace rises to a great height” originated from Zigong’s high praise of Confucius’ profound knowledge.


Zigong, also known as Duanmu Ci, was not only skilled in eloquent speech but also possessed administrative talent and proficiency in handling affairs. He served as prime minister for both the states of Lu and Wei. Additionally, he was a successful businessman who engaged in commerce between the states of Cao and Lu, amassing a fortune and becoming the wealthiest disciple of Confucius. Despite being unable to attend Confucius’ funeral in time, Zigong mourned him for six years, which is the longest duration among all of Confucius’ disciples.後世,題辭挽商界有成就之人逝世,常以「端木遺風」等,甚至有人奉之為財神。「端木遺風」指子貢遺留下來的誠信經商的風氣。子貢善貨殖,有「君子愛財,取之有道」之風,為後世商界所推崇。司馬遷在《史記·貨殖列傳》中對子貢經商事有記載。與陶朱公範蠡齊名,為儒商初祖。嫡傳子貢之學的孫子為端木叔。子貢死於齊國。

In later times, it was common to use phrases like “the legacy of Duanmu” when mourning the passing of accomplished individuals in the business world, and some even worshiped him as a god of wealth. “The legacy of Duanmu” refers to the honest and trustworthy business practices that Zigong left behind. He was highly skilled in commerce and followed the principle that “gentlemen love wealth, but in a proper way,” earning him great respect in the business world. Zigong’s commercial activities were recorded in Sima Qian’s “Biographies of Merchants” in the “Records of the Grand Historian.” Along with Tao Zhu Gong Aka Fan Li, Zigong is considered one of the founding fathers of both business and Confucianism. Zigong’s true successor in learning was his grandson, Duanmu Shu. Zigong passed away in the state of Qi.

生平 Biography

拜師孔子 Achievement Studied under Confucius


Tian Chang, a prominent official in the Qi state, intended to launch an attack on the state of Lu to exert his power over the four major clans of the Qi state, including the Gao, Guo, Bao, and Yan clans. However, it was Zigong, who considered the state of Lu as his homeland, that ultimately rode out to defend it.
Zigong was dispatched to the State of Qi as an envoy, where he convinced Tian Chang to abandon his plan to attack the State of Lu and instead attack the State of Wu first. He also traveled to the State of Wu to persuade the king to hold off the attack on the State of Yue and attack the State of Qi first. Moreover, he convinced the State of Jin to retreat and defend against the potential strike from the State of Qi. Ultimately, Wu triumphed over Qi, and Tian Chang’s plan failed. Wu then waged a campaign against Jin, but was vanquished by the latter. King Goujian of Yue seized the opportunity and annihilated Wu, establishing his hegemony. Thus, it was said that Zigong’s diplomacy ensured the survival of Lu, plunged Qi into chaos, defeated Wu, strengthened Jin, and allowed Yue to become dominant. Zigong became famous among the feudal states because of his achievements.


On March 9, 479 BC, Confucius died at the age of 73 and was interred on the bank of the Sishui River to the north of the city of Qufu. His disciples observed a three-year mourning period, during which Zigong tended to his tomb for six years.

子貢的個性 Zigong’s Personality


Zigong had three types of people he disliked: 

Those who blatantly copied other people’s ideas but believed themselves to be clever; 

Those who lacked humility but considered it to be bravery; 

Those who attacked others but believed themselves to be righteous. 

One of Zigong’s possible shortcomings was his lack of empathy. Therefore, in the Analects, Confucius reminded him three times to “forgive,” and he was also criticized by his fellow disciple Yuan Xian for this.


Zigong asked, “Is there one word that can guide a person throughout life?” Confucius replied, “It is the word ‘恕(forgive).’ Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” (Analects 15.24)

Zigong said, “I do not want others to impose on me, nor do I want to impose on others.” Confucius said, “Zigong, this is beyond your reach.” (Analects 5.12)

Zigong said, “What about someone who bestows benefits on the people and can help them live well? Can we say that this person has achieved the state of benevolence?” Confucius said, “It is not merely benevolence. It must be the state of sagehood! Even Yao and Shun would find it difficult to do so. A person with benevolence desires to establish himself while also helping others to do the same. He wants to make things easy for himself and others. To apply this principle to oneself and others is the way of practicing benevolence.”

子貢的口才 Zigong’s Eloquence

Zigong had excellent communication skills and was listed in the category of “language and speech” in Confucius’ disciples. He was skilled in persuasion, inquiry, and commentary, which were important abilities in politics and business. His ability to persuade can be seen in the Battle of Qi and Wu mentioned earlier.

As for probing, it was his unique interviewing skill. When Zigong wanted to ask his teacher Confucius an important question (such as his political stance or desire to hold office), asking directly might be too rash and would cause the teacher’s displeasure and unwillingness to answer. Therefore, he would find an analogy and ask Confucius about his attitude towards that analogy event, and then infer what his attitude towards the real question might be.
Ran You inquired, “Would our teacher endorse the ruler of the State of Wei?” Zigong replied, “Let me ask the teacher.” Zigong entered Confucius’ chamber and asked, “What kind of individuals were Boyi and Shuqi?” Confucius replied, “They were ancient sages.” Zigong further inquired, “Did they have any regrets?” Confucius answered, “Having pursued benevolence and virtue, how could they have any regrets?” Zigong emerged and informed Ran You, “Our teacher would not endorse the ruler of the State of Wei.”
Zigong inquired, “Shall I preserve this beautiful jade in a box as a treasure or sell it to an expert merchant?” Confucius promptly replied, “Sell it! Sell it! I am eagerly anticipating a knowledgeable merchant.”
Apart from being skilled in actively asking questions, Zigong was also proficient in using passive questioning. At times, the conversation with Confucius would begin with a seemingly unrelated question, not intended to elicit an answer, but rather to convey his own perspective. Zengzi, with a lesser understanding, would respond with a simple “yes,” prompting Confucius to discontinue the dialogue. However, Zigong would pose open-ended questions in response to Confucius, enabling the teacher to express himself fully.
Confucius expressed, “No one truly comprehends me.” Zigong inquired, “Why do you think people cannot understand you?” Confucius explained, “Rather than attributing fault to the divine or human, I follow the ways of common people while aspiring to attain the will of heaven. It is likely that only heaven understands me.”
Confucius asked Zigong, “Do you think I am someone who learns extensively and remembers everything I have learned?” Zigong responded, “Yes, isn’t that the case?” Confucius clarified, “No, that is not the case. I integrate my knowledge with a fundamental concept.”
Zigong is quite cautious when it comes to evaluating others. The Analects document many instances of him praising Confucius and Yan Hui. Even though he was highly successful himself, and widely acclaimed as being greater than Confucius by various prominent figures, Zigong never fails to express his own shortcomings compared to his teacher, from different angles.
Confucius asked Zigong, “Compared to Yan Hui, who do you think is stronger?” Zigong replied, “How can I compare myself to Yan Hui? When Yan Hui hears one thing, he can infer ten things from it, while I can only infer two.” Confucius replied, “Neither you nor I can match his abilities.”
Ziqin inquired of Zigong, “Whenever the Master visits a state, does he ask for information about its government affairs, or do people voluntarily offer it to him?” Zigong responded, “The Master acquires this knowledge through his warmth, kindness, respectfulness, frugality, and humility. His approach to acquiring information is likely distinct from that of others.”
Shusun Wushu once remarked to the court officials, “Zigong is stronger than Zhongni (Confucius).” Zifu Jingbo later conveyed this to Zigong, who used the metaphor of walls to respond, “The walls surrounding my home only reach shoulder height, allowing one to see the beauty of the buildings inside from outside. But my teacher’s walls are even higher, without any gates to enter, making it impossible to see the magnificence of the ancestral temple and the opulence of the buildings inside. Perhaps only a few can find the gates. Therefore, it is not surprising for Shusun Wushu to make such a remark.”
When Shusun Wushu spoke ill of Confucius, Zigong admonished him, saying, “Please refrain from doing so! Confucius is beyond reproach. The talents of others are like hills that can be surpassed, but Confucius is like the sun and moon, unattainable. Even if one wishes to separate oneself from the sun and moon, what harm can they do? It only reveals one’s own limitations.”




歷代追封 Posthumous titles conferred by successive dynasties

In the 27th year of the Kaiyuan era of the Tang Dynasty (739 AD), he was posthumously awarded the title of “Marquis Li “.
In the 2nd year of the Xiangfu era of the Song Dynasty (1009 AD), he was further posthumously awarded the title of “Duke Li “.
In the 9th year of the Jiajing era of the Ming Dynasty, his title was changed to “Exemplary and Accomplished Sage, Master of Enduring Wood “.

軼事 Anecdotes

The theme for Paper 3 of the 2022 Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination in Chinese Language and Culture was “Social Enterprises”. Through the recording of a teacher’s introduction, it was stated that the modern “social enterprise spirit” is in line with the Confucian merchant culture, and the first to combine Confucianism and business in Chinese history was Zigong.

孔門十哲 The Ten Disciples of Confucius

Yan Hui

Min Sun

Ran Geng


Ran Yong

Zai Yu

Duanmu Ci

Ran Qiu

Zhong You

Yan Yan

Bu Shang

Zeng Shen