An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Yan Hui 顏回, Yan Yuan 顏淵 or Ziyuan 子淵

Jan 4, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Yan Hui 顏回 (521-481 BCE), courtesy name Yuan 淵 or Ziyuan 子淵, called Yanzi 顏子 "Master Yan", was the most important disciple of Confucius. He came from Lu 魯, the home state of Confucius, and is later also known as Yan Shu 顏叔 "Uncle Yan" or Yan Sheng 顏生 "Master Yan". His father Yan Wuyao 顏無繇, courtesy name Lu 路, was one of the earliest adherents of Confucius.

Yan Hui was 30 years younger than his Master and must have died at an early age. Various sources talk of different ages of 18, 29, 31 of 41 sui, of which the last figure seems to be the most probable.

Yan Hui grew up in a poor family, but he had an immense love of learning. He therefore never accepted an office and preferred being a disciple of Confucius. The Master esteemed Yan Hui very highly and praised him for his noble and humankind behaviour. "He was flagging when I set forth anything to him," the Master said, and: "Yan Hui was such that for three months there would be nothing in his mind contrary to perfect virtue. With a single bamboo dish of rice, a single gourd dish of drink, and living in his mean narrow lane," Yan Hui was admirable for the Master. For Confucius, Yan Hui was a model of virtue and an equal to himself, progressing each day on the way of kindheartedness.

Other disciples like Zigong 子貢 envied Yan Hui for his ability to hear one point and knowing all about a subject. Confucius said to Yan Hui: "When called to office, to undertake its duties, when not so called, to lie retired, it is only I and you who have attained to this."

The early death of Yan Hui deeply moved the master, and he cried out that "Heaven is destroying me". If he was not to mourn bitterly for this man, for whom should he mourn, he asked. Confucius had seen Yan Hui's constant advance and never saw him stop in his progress. He also lauded Yan Hui highly, when Duke Ai of Lu 魯哀公 and the regent Ji Kangzi 季康子 asked him who was his best disciple.

Sometimes Yan Hui seemed to despair in his hope to understand the teachings of his Master. He said: "I looked up to them, and they seemed to become more high; I tried to penetrate them, and they seemed to become more firm; I looked at them before me, and suddenly they seemed to be behind. The Master, by orderly method, skillfully leads men on. He enlarged my mind with learning, and taught me the restraints of propriety. When I wish to give over the study of his doctrines, I cannot do so, and having exerted all my ability, there seems something to stand right up before me; but though I wish to follow and lay hold of it, I really find no way to do so."

During his time of wandering from one state to the other, Confucius and his entourage met difficulties in Kuang 匡, and Yan Hui fell behind. When the disciple rejoined his master, Confucius said, "I thought you had died," and Hui replied, "While you were alive, how should I presume to die?" Confucius also said, after Yan Hui's death, "He behaved towards me like a father." He consequently followed the Master's instructions, gave up his self and followed the needs of propriety in the shape of kindheartedness.

The Master instructed him in the four avoidances (look not at, listen not to, speak not, make no movement which is contrary to propriety), and Yan Hui promised to follow this guideline though he was "deficient in intelligence and vigor". It was exactly because of this stubborn obedience that Confucius also criticized Yan Hui as not of a great help for him because there was nothing the Master said in which he did not delight.

On the one hand, Yan Hui had a very high-spirited mind and compared himself with Shun 舜, a saint-ruler of high antiquity, but on the other side, he was very simple, sincere and careful and showed no trace of arrogance or self-satisfaction. The Daoist book Zhuangzi 莊子 often mentioned Yan Hui and his way of thinking because he was admired as someone who had left the average world and followed the inclination of nature.

After Confucius' death, his disciples split into various groups with each a different focus of teaching. The Yan-ists among them (Yanshi zhi ru 顏氏之儒) was a group founding their teachings on Yan Hui. During the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) Yan Hui was elevated to the highest-standing of the 70 wise disciples of Confucius (xianren qishi 賢人七十), and he was often mentioned together with Confucius (Kong-Yan 孔顏) to stress his importance for Confucian thinking.

During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) Yan Hui was bestowed the honorific titles of Yasheng 亞聖 "Second Saint" and Duke of Gun 袞國公, and during the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) he was given the title of Duke Fusheng 復聖公 "Doubling the Saint (i.e. Confucius)". There is a Yan Hui temple in Qufu 曲阜, the home town of Confucius, that is called Fushengmiao 復聖廟.

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