Dizi Gui (弟子规) (Standards for Being a Good Student and Child) is an ancient Chinese text for children that teaches moral values and etiquette. It was written during the Qing Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (康熙帝) (1661-1722) by Li Yuxiu.
Beneath the conservative, “old-school” verbose of this ancient classic, one can still find gems of wisdom that remain surprisingly relevant to our modern society. A new lesson is covered in each issue.
This issue, we continue exploring Chapter 6 of Dizi Gui, “Be Close to and Learn from People of Virtue and Compassion”.
While it is a short chapter, it nevertheless teaches valuable lessons about learning from others’ example.
When we surround ourselves with morally good people, we have a better idea of the standard that we too should strive towards.
One of the lessons in this chapter goes, “If I can be close to and learn from people of great virtue and compassion, I will benefit immensely. My virtues will grow daily and my wrongdoings will lessen day by day.”
Improving one’s character is a never-ending process of observation and reflection. And when we surround ourselves with people of good morals and character, we have a better idea of the standard that we too should strive towards.
The great Mencius was a Chinese philosopher from 4th-century BC China, and is possibly the second most famous Confucian after Confucius himself. But his journey to becoming one of China’s greatest philosophers started from the tender age of three, thanks to a very important person in his life.
Tales of Mencius’ Mother
Mencius’ high moral standards are often credited to his mother, Zhang Shi, a lady of exemplary character. After Mencius’ father passed away when he was three, Mencius’ mother raised him and did everything in her power to give him a virtuous upbringing.
The most famous tale is of Zhang moving her family three times, in order to find a good environment to bring up her son.
The family first lived near a cemetery, and funeral processions often went by their front door.
Soon, Zhang found her son imitating the wailing of mourners visiting the cemetery. Feeling that this was not appropriate for an undiscerning child to learn, she moved them to an area near the marketplace.
At their second home, Mencius began imitating the shouts, jostling, and banter of salesmen. Again, Zhang felt that this wasn’t how her son should learn to behave, so she moved near a school.
There, her son observed how the students bowed to each other and their teachers, and how they courteously let others go before them. He, too, began to emulate their behaviour. “Now this is where my son should grow up,” Zhang determined.
Zhang weaved cloth to pay for her son’s school fees, and one bolt of cloth could take weeks to make. But as a child, Mencius wasn’t always an ideal student, and there was once he skipped school.
When he got home, his mother tore up a cloth that she had been weaving at her loom. She said, “My son, studying is like painstakingly weaving each thread on a piece of cloth. It needs to be done diligently and consistently in order to amount to something.
“If you slacken or destroy your efforts before you can finish, all your past efforts would amount to nothing, just like this ripped piece of cloth.”
Mencius was in tears when he saw all his mother’s effort go to waste, but he understood the lesson she was trying to teach him. He applied himself to his studies diligently, and eventually went on to become one of China’s most famous philosophers.
Mencius was very fortunate to have a virtuous mother who taught him the right values from a very young age. By being close to people of great virtue, he too became a great moral force of his own.
Yu Fu Sells Paint
But what happens if we choose to do the opposite?
As opined by Dizi Gui, “If I choose not to be close to and learn from people of great virtue, I will suffer a great loss. People without virtue will get close to me and nothing I attempt will succeed.”
During the Spring and Autumn Period, there was a man named Yu Fu who was tired of being poor. Seeing how wealthy his merchant friends were, he wanted to become rich as well.
Yu Fu consulted a merchant friend, who suggested he enter the paint business. “Right now paint is in demand. Why don’t you plant some sumac trees? Later, you can harvest the sap and make paint to sell.” (Note: in ancient China, the sap of sumac trees was used to make lacquer paint.)
Yu Fu went home excitedly and, with his friend’s guidance, managed to cultivate a large garden of sumac trees.
After three years, the sumac trees were finally mature. While Yu Fu was harvesting the sap and preparing the paint for sale, his brother-in-law visited. He said to Yu Fu, “I often go to Wu Country to do business, where paint is in high demand. If we play our cards right, we can double our profit!”
Eager to make a quick and easy buck, Yu Fu anxiously badgered his brother-in-law to tell him more.
His brother-in-law replied, “I have seen many paint merchants dilute their paint with the water of boiled sumac leaves. This way, you can double the quantity of paint you can sell, without the people of Wu noticing.”
As dishonest as this idea was, Yu Fu thought it was too good to pass up. That night, he gathered and boiled many sumac leaves, and took both the boiled water and the paint to Wu Country.
At that time, paint was virtually impossible to find in Wu. So when the merchants in Wu heard that Yu Fu had paint for sale, they greeted him with great joy and even arranged his food and lodging.
After they found Yu Fu’s paint was truly of good quality, they delightedly settled on a price and sealed the containers. They agreed to make the payment the next day in exchange for the goods.
But when the merchants had left, Yu Fu opened the seals. He removed half of the good paint from each container, and topped up the balance with the boiled water. However, in his haste he carelessly left traces of his deed outside the containers.
The next day, the merchants discovered the seals had been tampered with, and they became suspicious. They thus made excuses and suggested closing the deal some days later.
Yu Fu waited several days in the inn, but never saw the merchants again. As time went by, his mixed paint deteriorated, and he failed to sell a single drop of paint. With no money to travel back, Yu Fu became a beggar, and eventually died poor and far away from home.
The people we choose to associate with and emulate can have a significant impact on our lives. Yu Fu chose to learn from his unscrupulous brother-in-law, which ultimately cost him dearly and rendered his years of hard work worthless.
This is a lesson that still applies today—businessmen who learn to be virtuous and run honest businesses will attract a large and loyal customer base, thereby generating better returns.
Stories adapted from Pureinsight.org