He hailed from Bian 卞 (modern Sishui 泗水, Shandong) in the state of Lu 魯 and grew up under very poor conditions. He was the oldest of Confucius' followers, himself being only nine years younger than the Master. Asked by Confucius for his greatest wish, he said that "I would have to like chariots and horses, and light fur dresses to share them with my friends, and though they spoil them, I would not be displeased".
Zilu was of a straightforward, courageous and decisive character, but also coarse, uncultivated, bold and soldierly. Zilu was not very fond of academic discussion, and asked "why one must read books before one can be considered to have learned". Confucius therefore said, "He has ascended to the hall, though he has not yet passed into the inner apartments", and he told Zilu that "there is the love of being benevolent without the love of learning, so that the beclouding here leads to a foolish simplicity." Zilu, "when he heard anything, if he had not yet succeeded in carrying it into practice, he was only afraid lest he should hear something else".
Zilu highly venerated Confucius and protected him wherever they went to. In spite of his simple nature he also directly expressed his discontent with his Master's doings and words and did not spare with words like "Master, you are wide of the mark!" Confucius rather loved Zilu's direct kind of speech instead of secretive manners. Zilu would, the Master said, be the only one following him upon a raft and float about on the sea. Zilu would be the right man to manage the military levies of a large state, inspite of not being perfectly virtuous.
The disciple himself described how he would govern a state: "Let it straitened between other large states; let it be suffering from invading armies; and to this let there be added a famine in corn and in all vegetables. If I were entrusted with the government of it, in three years' time I could make the people to be bold, and to recognize the rules of righteous conduct."
He cruelly died during an upheaval in Wei.
The Confucian philosopher Mengzi 孟子 later called him equal to the saint rulers of the past.
During the reign of Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) of the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907), Zigong was bestowed the honorific title of Marquis of Wei 衛侯, and Emperor Zhenzong 宋真宗 (r. 997-1022) of the Northern Song dynasty 北宋 (960-1126) elevated him to Duke of Henei 河內公 or Duke of Wei 衛公.