Ancient Chinese Stories of Gentlemen: Integrity, Compassion, and Not Sweating the Losses in Life

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By Qing Yan

There are many wonderful stories from ancient China about gentlemen who possessed great wisdom and moral virtue. Many of these stories remain relevant today, and can teach us useful lessons on how to lead our lives with integrity and compassion, and to be free of worry.

Making Integrity and Keeping Promises a Priority

Those who practice honesty, integrity, and keep their promises are trusted and well respected. This has been true through the ages and across the world.

He did not write a receipt because he trusted me. How can I not keep my promise?
Xu Shaoyu (Qing Dynasty)

The following story about integrity took place during the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912 AD):

Xu Shaoyu was from Qiantang. In early August of the third year of the Guangxu Emperor’s reign, he borrowed one hundred silver coins from his friend Yi Zhai. They did not write a receipt. Instead, they orally agreed that the money would be returned one year later.

In August of the next year, Xu Shaoyu was critically ill. In his last moments, he had been talking to himself while lying in bed, “It is almost time for me to return the money. What should I do if I die?”

His wife said, “You are so ill and we have spent so much on medicine. In addition, you don’t have a written document about the borrowed money. Therefore, you don’t have to worry about returning the money.”

But Xu Shaoyu said, “He did not write a receipt because he trusted me. How can I not keep my promise?”

At last, Xu Shaoyu asked his wife to sell a piece of jade and two fur coats from their home. They got ninety silver coins. They then borrowed ten coins from others. As such, they managed to return the money on the due date.

Several days later, Xu Shaoyu was completely cured.

A Compassionate Man Wins Respect

Ren Dijian was a man from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) in China. He worked for a military general named Li Jinglue.

One day, Li Jinglue held a banquet for the army. Ren Dijian was late for the banquet, so as “punishment” he was made to drink a large chalice of wine. However, the server mistook a bottle of vinegar as wine and poured him a large chalice of vinegar.

Ren Dijian knew it was vinegar when he raised the chalice to his lips. But he knew Li Jinglue to be a very austere and strict man. If Li Jinglue knew the server had served him vinegar instead of wine, the server would surely be executed. Hence, he decided to drink the large chalice of vinegar to cover up the server’s mistake. Before the server could give him more, he asked for a different “wine” and used an excuse that he preferred stronger wine.

Instead of wine, Ren Dijian was served a large chalice of vinegar by mistake, but he drank the vinegar to protect the server from execution.

Ren Dijian became ill and collapsed when he went home. He could not stop vomiting up blood, but he did not tell anyone about it. When Li Jinglue’s officers and the soldiers discovered what Ren Dijian had done, they were brought to tears. Li Jinglue, too, was deeply touched, so he decided not to punish the server.

Liu Gongquan and Zhang Shuai realised their lost property were, in the grand scheme of life, simply material goods. One could not take them along in birth or death.

Who is without fault or mistake? He who is willing to understand and forgive other people’s mistakes has a broad heart. Ren Dijian won the respect of an entire army because he was compassionate and placed the server’s wellbeing before his own.

After Li Jinglue passed away, all the officers and soldiers asked to have Ren Dijian take his place. When Emperor De heard about Ren Dijian’s story, he appointed Ren to be governor of Fengzhou prefecture and military general of Tiande before he promoted him to Vice-Minister of the Ministry of Public Works. After he passed away, he was given the honourable title of Minister of Justice.

Gentlemen Cared Little About Loss and Gain

In ancient times, gentlemen were indifferent to power and profit, and personal loss or gain, and therefore anything they lost would not cause them much worry.

During the Spring and Autumn Period ( 770-476 B.C.), there was an official named Ziwen of the Chu State. Ziwen was assigned the position of premier three times, and was also dismissed three times from the position. However, he never appeared unhappy or angry at any time.

Another gentleman, Liu Xiahui ( 720-621 B.C.) from the Lu State ( 1100-256 B.C.) was also dismissed three times from his job as governor, but he never harboured any hatred.

These two gentlemen knew their destinies, so they could behave calmly, without worrying about loss or gain, and they did not let happiness or anger show on their faces.

Liu Gongquan (778-856 A.D.) was a Chinese calligraphy master who lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). One day, Liu Gongquan’s silver cup was stolen by his servant. When questioned, the servant said he did not know anything about it. The gentlemanly Liu Gongquan smiled and said, “The silver cup must have ascended when it became a deity.”

During the Liang Dynasty (502-557 A.D.) of the Southern and Northern Dynasties period, there was a military aide named Zhang Shuai. Zhang Shuai once sent his servant home with a ship carrying three thousand pounds of rice. But when the rice arrived home, only half of it was left.

The servant told him that the birds and mice had stolen half of the rice. Zhang Shuai smiled and replied, “Those birds and mice are very capable!” He then let the matter drop.

Liu Gongquan and Zhang Shuai realised their lost property were, in the grand scheme of life, simply material goods. One could not take them along in birth or death. By being able to let go of minor losses, they avoided worry and vexation.

There is a famous Chinese fable about an old man who lived near the border of Northern China. One day, one of his horses escaped and was lost in the Northern territories beyond the border.

His neighbours lamented the old man’s loss, but he replied, “Perhaps this will turn out to be a blessing.”

A few months later, the runaway horse returned, leading a fine horse from the north. Everyone congratulated him, but the old man said, “Perhaps this will turn out to be a cause of misfortune.”

Some time later, the old man’s son broke his thigh bone after falling off the new horse, and became lame in one leg. Everyone lamented the old man’s misfortune, but he again replied cryptically, “Perhaps this will turn out to be a blessing.”

A year later, the northern tribes launched a big invasion at the border. All able-bodied young men were recruited to fight against the invaders. Nine out of ten men were killed during the war, but the old man’s son was not recruited due to his disability. As a result, both the old man and his son survived.

In life, we will all experience losses and gains.If one stresses about even the tiniest upsets, one can never be happy in life.

If we can view our blessings, misfortunes, losses, and gains with indifference and tranquillity, we will free ourselves from much worry.

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