Stories of How People in Ancient Times Repented and Started Anew (part 1)

Huangfu Mi
Huangfu Mi( 皇甫谧) (215-282) was an ancient scholar known for his achievements and influence in literary history and medicine. 
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By Jingyuan  |

Recognising and correcting one’s mistakes is universally considered a noble virtue. As an ancient Chinese saying goes, “Who doesn’t make mistakes? Rectifying one’s mistakes is the greatest good one can do.”

Since ancient times, people have admired and upheld those with the courage to face their faults and better themselves. Here are several stories of historical figures who turned over a new leaf and went on to achieve great things:

1. Huangfu Mi(皇甫谧): The All-Rounded Scholar

Huangfu Mi (215-282) was an ancient scholar known for his achievements and influence in literary history and medicine. As a prolific writer, his works covered a wide range of topics, including history, ethics, literature, and medicine. In particular, his book titled Teachings on Acupuncture is the very first research monograph discussing the theories and practices of acupuncture.

A Teenager Who Loafed Around

Huangfu Mi’s life spanned three dynasties. Born in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 A.D.), he grew up in the Three Kingdoms Period (220-265 A.D.) and died in the Western Jin Dynasty (265–317 A.D.).

Huangfu Mi’s mother passed away when he was very little, so his uncle and aunt adopted him. When he was 15 years old, his adopted parents moved the family from Lingtai County, Gansu Province, to Yingchi County, Henan Province.

During his teenage years, Huangfu Mi spent his time loafing around with his neighbourhood pals. By the time he turned 20, he was still illiterate in history, philosophy, literature, ethics, and religion — subjects that decent young men his age would already have mastered.

One day, he found some sweet melons to give to his adopted mother. When he did, she cried, “You are already 20 years old, yet you are still so poorly educated. It pains me to see you’ve wasted so much precious time. If you truly want to be a good son, you must study hard and become well versed in history, literature, and other subjects young men your age should know.

“In ancient times, Mencius’ mother moved her home three times to find good company for him. Could it be that I failed to choose a good location with good neighbours to have a good influence you? Why is it that you still have no interest in reading books and cultivating moral values?”

Huangfu Mi was moved to tears and promised his mother that he’d start anew and never waste time again. After that he studied books all the time, never stopping for even a day. While working in the fields, he read whenever there was a break. The more he read, the stronger his willpower grew and the calmer he became.

A Prolific Writer With a Positive Impact on Society

When Huangfu Mi turned 26, he decided to pursue a career in writing, because he wanted to write books that had a good influence on society.

Due to his varied interests, Huangfu Mi’s works covered many different subjects.

One subject his books centred on was social hierarchy. They were considered to have great educational value.

Another subject was history. When he noticed there was little literature on pre-Han Dynasty events, he set out to compile Imperial Century, a massive book covering historical events spanning the earliest “Three Emperors Era” to his current dynasty. In addition, he wrote quite a few other books about different historical periods.

Thirdly, he wrote books on virtuous men and women, who held firm to their value systems and never bowed to power, fame or wealth. These included the Lives of Exemplary Gentlemen (Gaoshi Zhuan), Lives of Recluses (Yishi Zhuan), and Lives of Exemplary Women (Lienu Zhuan).

Since Huangfu Mi lived in a time when powers were shifting and a new dynasty was taking shape, he saw many people seduced by power in their pursuit of fame and wealth. He loathed double-crossers who compromised their moral values to please those in power, and he had great admiration for those who were not moved by riches, poverty, destitution, or power. He wrote books on this topic to encourage his fellow countrymen to stay true to their moral values and accumulate more virtue.

The fourth subject he wrote about was medicine. After becoming sick himself, Huangfu Mi began to see the importance of medicine. In his words, “No matter how loyal we are to the Emperor or how filial we are to our parents, we are of no use when we fall ill. Therefore, it is important for us to know about medicine.”

He compiled a book called Teachings on Acupuncture, in which he sorted and listed a total of 349 acupuncture points. He gave detailed descriptions of their locations and connections to the energy channels inside one’s body. He also discussed how music and one’s mental state affects the functions of internal organs. This book was considered a must-read for ancient medical students, and he was called “the founding father of acupuncture”.

Overall, Huangfu Mi emphasised that writers must make sure their work has a positive impact on people and society. He was against exaggeration and overblown, empty words.

A Noble Man Who Stayed True to Himself

Though he became well-known, Huangfu Mi remained low-key and had no interest in fame. When urged to expand his circle of friends and enhance his reputation, he expressed his desire to pursue a simple life instead.

In addition, Huangfu Mi declined many invitations to serve in the royal court. When Emperor Wudi wanted to grant him the title of “Royal Scholar”, he declined the honour and requested that the title be removed.

In his letter to emperor, he wrote, “I’ve heard that a wise emperor will be surrounded by officials who are courageous enough to tell the truth and that a lenient policy will invite people to voice their concerns. With a ruler as wise as Your Majesty, I am asking to be allowed to focus on my writing and practice medicine.” Wudi granted his wish and gave him a whole cart of books to read.

Always reading and writing, Huangfu Mi was too diligent in the eyes of others. When told too much hard- work might shorten his life, he replied, “If I obtain the Dao in the morning, I’ll have no regret should I die in the evening. One’s life expectancy is pre-determined by Heaven.”

Huangfu Mi also pointed out that only by taking fame and self-interest lightly can one prolong life, and only by shunning wealth and power can one obtain the true Dao or Way. He even wrote an article expressing his desire to live a simple life without the burden of material interests and fame. Instead, he revered the harmony between Heaven and Earth (Book of Jin).

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