顏回 Yan Hui
Yan Hui, also known as Ziyuan, Yanzi, or Yanyuan, was a native of the State of Lu during the Spring and Autumn period in ancient China. He was the foremost among Confucius’ seventy-two disciples and ranked among the top ten wise disciples in terms of moral character. Despite being born into poverty, Yan Hui was content with a simple life, renowned for his intelligence, love of learning, and ability to quickly grasp new concepts. He was highly respected for his moral character, and Confucius praised him as a virtuous and wise disciple, who was also the direct heir to his teachings. However, Yan Hui died young, at the age of 40, and later generations referred to him as “Fu Sheng,” meaning “saint returned.”
Once, Yan Hui and Zilu were attending to Confucius, and he asked them to each speak about their aspirations.
Zilu expressed his desire for a carriage and horses, as well as luxurious fur clothes, which he could share with his friends without feeling any regret. This reveals his modest attitude towards material possessions and his sociable nature. Yan Hui, on the other hand, stated that he wished to refrain from bragging about his own merits or causing undue burden on others. This showcases his innate humility and benevolence, as he preferred to avoid drawing attention to his own accomplishments and instead focused on the needs of others.
Confucius praised Yan Hui, saying, “You exhibit resoluteness in action and humility in repose. This quality is shared only by you and me.” Zilu asked, “If you were to lead an army, who would you choose as your companion?” Confucius replied, “I would not choose someone who, like a fierce tiger crossing a river, is fearless of death and has no regret. Instead, I would choose someone who, though fearful of danger, is adept at planning and can ensure success.
Yan Hui sighed and exclaimed, “The more I look up to him, the taller he appears; the deeper I delve to understand him, the more profound he seems. When I focus on him, he suddenly appears to be behind me. Master Confucius guides people patiently, enlightens me extensively with literature, and restrains me with rituals. I cannot resist his charisma. I tried my best, yet I still feel inadequate. Even if I wanted to follow him, I would not know where to begin.”
- While Confucius was trapped in the state of Kuang, Yan Hui remained by his side. Confucius remarked, “I feared that you were dead.” Yan Hui replied, “As long as you are alive, how could I even contemplate dying?”
- At the age of 39, Yan Hui’s hair turned completely white, and he passed away two years later. Confucius was deeply saddened and said, “Since I had Yan Hui, my disciples have become more intimate.” He also said, “Alas! Heaven has bereaved me! Heaven has bereaved me!” His followers said, “The Master is overwhelmed with grief.” Confucius replied, “Is it too much to mourn? If we do not mourn for someone like him, then for whom should we mourn?”
Yan Wuyou, the father of Yan Hui, asked Confucius to sell his carriage in order to buy a coffin for his son. Confucius replied, “Talent or no talent, every man speaks for his own son. When Kong Li, my own son, died, he had a coffin but no outer shell. I could not provide him with one, for as a former nobleman, it would not be appropriate for me to walk without a carriage.” Although the disciples wished to give Yan Hui a grand burial, Confucius refused, saying, “It is not appropriate.” Despite this, Yan Hui was ultimately given a lavish funeral. Confucius remarked, “Yan Hui treated me like a father, but I could not treat him as a son. It was not my intention, but the disciples insisted on it.”
When Lu Ai Gong asked, “Who among your disciples loves learning the most?” Confucius replied, “There was a student named Yan Hui who had the greatest passion for learning. He never blamed others for his own mistakes, nor did he repeat the same error twice. Unfortunately, he died at a young age. Since then, I have not seen anyone who could match his love for learning.”
Yan Hui left behind a son named Yan Xin.
歷代追封 Posthumous titles throughout history
- Since the Han Dynasty, Yan Hui has been considered the foremost of the “72 wise men,” due to his easily verifiable relationship with Confucius. Sometimes, he was the only one offered sacrifices alongside Confucius. Subsequently, rulers of each dynasty have continued to add posthumous titles.
- In the second year of Emperor Taizong’s reign of Tang Dynasty (628 AD), he was posthumously referred to as “First Teacher”.
- In the first year of Emperor Gaozong’s reign of Tang Dynasty (668 AD), he was posthumously appointed as the Grand Protector of the Crown Prince.