Mencius and the Grand Historian

Mencius (372-289BC) was one of the great confucian thinkers of ancient China. He was part of the fourth generation of direct disciples of Confucius, and the text containing his dialogues became one of the canonical texts of Confucianism. It starts with a dialog between Mencius and king Liang Hui. Liang Hui says:


“Old man, not thinking one thousand li is far, you have come to see me. You must have something to profit my kingdom?”

This line has the wonderfully compact phrase:

不 not
遠 far (v. to consider to be far)
千 thousand
里 li (about a third of a mile)
而 and (under those conditions)
來 come [to see me]

Mencius replies:


“Your majesty, why must you say ‘profit’? I have benevolence and right conduct and that’s all. When your majesty says ‘what can I use to profit my kingdom?’ the lords say ‘what can I use to profit my estate?’ the officers say ‘what can I use to profit myself?’ The upper and lower classes compete for profit and the kingdom is endangered.”

Mencius immediately rejects a focus on profit, warning that it will cause dangerous conflict at all levels of society. In addition to creating social conflict, the love of profit endangers the king himself:


“The person who kills the ruler of a kingdom of ten thousand chariots must come from a house of one thousand chariots. The person who kills the ruler of a kingdom of one thousand chariots must come from a house of one hundred chariots. From ten thousand take a thousand, from one thousand take one hundred, it is not a small amount.”

This is a warning not to underestimate the power of regional lords. Even though their might is just a fraction of the kings, it is still sufficient to topple the throne. To avoid that danger the king should cultivate a society based on morality instead of profit:


“So if you put right conduct behind and put profit up front, [the people will] not be content unless they are seizing [profit]. There never was someone who was benevolent and neglected their parents, there never was someone who practiced right conduct and neglected their ruler. Your majesty, you should also say “benevolence and right conduct” and that’s all. Why must you say profit?

In Mencius’ view the pursuit of profit creates two fatal problems: an upward movement of the lower classes that causes them to clash with the upper classes, and a thirsty ambition among the lords that may lead them to overthrow their ruler. In contrast, a society built on the principles of benevolence and right conduct leads the people to care for their families and dutifully serve their ruler. While profit causes movement and strife, morality causes balance and harmony.

But morality is not enough by itself, and simply evangelizing morality is not enough to dispense with the love of profit. Next, Mencius advocates for careful resource management to give the people of the kingdom a good life:


“Don’t interfere with the phases of agriculture and you will have more grain than can be consumed. Don’t let close nets enter the ponds and pools and you will have more fish and turtles than can be eaten. If axes are only brought into the mountain forests at set times of the year, you will have more lumber than you can use. If fish and turtles are more than can be eaten, and lumber is more than can be used, this will cause the people to be able to nourish life and mourn the dead without regrets”

Mencius advocates for two functions of the state: the propagation of morality and right conduct as the basis of a harmonious social organization, and thorough resource management to defend against scarcity. If you do this, Mencius argues, your state will be secure by virtue of its large population of loyal citizens who are both happy and healthy. I remember being struck by the elegant simplicity of this idea when I first read it. It was for that reason that I was so delighted to stumble across a similar sentiment in the Records of the Grand Historian, or Shiji.

The Shiji is an epic history of China completed in the first half of the Han dynasty by Sima Tan and his son Sima Qian. Recently I decided to take a look at it, focusing on the biographies section. Only about 190 years passed between the life of Mencius and the writing of the Shiji, so I thought it would be interesting to read his biography as it would be relatively close to a contemporary source. Before we get into that, however, I want to give an example of the style of the Shiji. Here is some of the first story from the biography of assassins:


“Cao Mo was a man of Lu who bravely served Duke Zhuang of Lu. Duke Zhuang wanted power. Cao Mo became a general of Lu, fought in a war with Qi, and was defeated three times in the north. Duke Zhuang was scared, so he decided to gift the Suiyi territory to Qi to make peace, but still used Cao Mo as his general.”

The story goes on to tell how, at the peace agreement ceremony, Cao Mo captured and held Duke Huan of Qi at knife point and demanded he return the territories that Qi had taken from Lu. Duke Huan promised to do so but after Cao Mo released him, he was angry and wanted to go back on his word. His advisor, the famous political philosopher Guan Zhong, advised against this:


“You cannot do this. If you covet a small gain to quickly advance yourself, you will lose the trust of the lords, and you will lose the favor of heaven. You’re better off giving it up.”

And that is how Cao Mo regained the territories that he lost in battle. This story is characteristic of the style of the Shiji: the language is clear and straightforward, and there is minimal literary flourish. Now compare that to the opening of the biography of Mencius:


“The grand historian says: When I read Mengzi and I get to the part when king Liang Hui asks “how can I profit my nation?” I never fail to throw down the book and sigh. I say: ah, profit is truly the beginning of disorder! Confucius rarely spoke of profit so as to prevent [disorder] from arising. Therefore it is said: “If you walk the way of profit, you will have much trouble.” From the emperor to the common people, the ruin from the love of profit is the same. “

When I read this passage it felt so modern. Not only did the author of the Shiji and I both have the same experience of picking up the Mencius and then putting it back down to sigh, but it was apparently a significant enough experience that he wrote it into his history. He then goes on to tie Mencius’ argument back to Confucius, and reflect on what he sees as the enduring truth contained in it.

Law and Punishment in the Book of Han

I often wonder what law was like in ancient China. To investigate this I decided to look in the Han Shu. The Han Shu, or Book of Han, is the official history of the Western Han (200-9 BC) that was undertaken by government officials during the Eastern Han (25-220 AD). The Book of Han has a section of treatises that cover cultural and scientific topics, and that’s where I found an article called “Treatise on Punishment and Law“. I decided to translate the first paragraph of this article to find out what its contents are like and whether or not we can learn anything interesting about ancient Chinese law from it.

It begins, somewhat unexpectedly, by discussing human nature:


Humankind emerged from the face of heaven and earth, containing the nature of the five constants, intelligent and clear, the most nimble of all life.


Hand and tooth are not enough to provide for want, running away is not sufficient to escape harm, we have no hair or feathers to protect from heat and cold. So we must rely on the use of things to live. We employ our intelligence and don’t rely on the use of force, this is how we become valuable.

It continues with a discussion of why confucian values (benevolence, love, deference etc) are necessary for effective leadership. Leaders must rely on effective paradigms to manage groups effectively, and Confucianism is an effective paradigm because it promotes values that allow people to live together harmoniously and respect leadership.


Therefore if there is no benevolence and love there will be no cohesive group. If you can’t form a group then you can’t master the material world. If you can’t master the material world then you can’t support life.


If you have a group but there is still a lack of resources, there will be contention within the group. The sages brilliantly set forth the virtues of respect, deference, and broad love, the people’s hearts were happy and they followed this example.


If someone has followers who form a group, this person is a ruler. If people come to them from far and wide, this person is a king. Hon Fan said: “The son of heaven is the father and mother of the people, the king of all under heaven”.

The parental metaphor is more than just a trick of language: the king is referred to as the “father and mother” of the people because confucian values operate within a framework modeled off of the nuclear family.


The sages use categories to rectify names, and so call the ruler “father and mother” to make clear the benevolence, love, virtue and deference. This is the root of the kingly way.

But like parents, the ruler demands respect in exchange for love, and also deals out punishments. A fundamental duality is established with respect to the implementation of confucian values within the state:


If love carries respect then it will not be defeated, virtue must have power and then it will endure. Therefore the ritual system is used to gain honor and respect, and punishments are employed to clarify power.

Returning to the connection between intelligence and nature, the following passage sets up a direct connection between the duality of rites and punishments and the two aspects of nature: heaven and earth.


Because the sages are personally endowed with a keen wisdom by nature, they necessarily penetrate the heart of heaven and earth. They institute rituals to instruct, and they set up laws to establish punishments. In this way they manage the circumstances of the people, and accord with heaven and the shape of earth.


Therefore it is said that the sage kings established the rites “principled on the brilliance of heaven and according to the nature of earth.”


Punishments, fines, power and prison are like the heavens trembling awesome death. Warmth, charity, kindness and harmony are like the nurturing power of heaven to grow life.


The Book of Shang states: “Heaven distinguishes those who are courteous, heaven strikes down those who are criminal.”


Therefore the sages, because of “heaven’s distinguishes” established the five rites, and because of “heaven punishes” made the five punishments.

There’s a lot going on here. This translation was hard, and a proper thesis would be full of notations at this point. The general idea is that earth is harmonious: it is covered with forests, mountains, valleys and plains, and each habitat houses creatures adapted to their environment. Our author states that rituals and social customs foster harmony and order within human civilization in the same way that the earth naturally births such order. Because humans are born without such harmonious structures, sages whose heart is directly connected to nature must design and implement them.

In contrast to this, heaven sends fiery lightning, earthquakes and floods that sew destruction on the earth. In the same way, human civilization must be complete with terrifying punishments that effect corrective action against people who go against the harmoniousness of the ritual based society.


Now that we’ve gone through the first paragraph of this article, what have we learned? First, the article presents a theory of human nature which I have seen repeated often in ancient Chinese philosophical texts. This theory holds that humankind is a part of nature, but is also unique in that we rely on intelligence and artifice instead of instinct. The intelligence of “sages”, geniuses, or wise rulers is directly connected to the creative wellspring of nature itself.

The article sets forth Confucianism as the ideal paradigm for managing a large group of people. It does so by providing a duality of nurturing love on the one hand and awe inspiring authority on the other. This duality extends the idea of the loving but stern parents onto the state itself.

Finally, A connection is made between the rites/punishments duality of confucianism and the nature of reality itself. The nurturing aspect of confucianism is compared to the nurturing qualities of earth, whereas punishments are compared to the actions of an anthropomorphic heaven that deals out earth shattering judgements upon human society.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t any information about the actual nature of law, policy making, or judicial process. To find out about that, I’ll just have to keep searching.

Chinese Calligraphy and Landscape Painting

While studying Chinese calligraphy in college I discovered something counterintuitive: simple characters were harder to write than complicated ones. There are two main reasons for this. First, when there are only a few strokes to look at, the shape of each stroke carries more weight. Second, every character lives in a square of whitespace. If a character is simple, it is harder to position it well inside that square.

But this quality only really applies to forms of calligraphy that appeared relatively late in the evolution of Chinese script. Chinese calligraphy wasn’t always full of interesting stroke shapes and challenging whitespace, and the story of how Chinese calligraphy evolved those qualities is fascinating in its own right and can also give us insight into the world of Chinese painting. Before we jump into the story of calligraphy, take a moment to appreciate the unique style of Chinese painting as in the example below:

Seal Script

The first kind of Chinese calligraphy that was standardized has come to be called “seal script” and was used roughly between 1000 BC and 200 BC. Seal script characters are rendered with simple lines, straight or curved, with even thickness and rounded ends, perfectly placed within a vertically elongated rectangle. Here is the character for “ten” in this style:

Screen Shot 2021-10-01 at 8.27.07 AM

Characters in seal script are rendered with geometric precision, and there isn’t a lot of room for artists to express themselves. Of course, at that time in Chinese history, personal expression wasn’t the point of calligraphy. Calligraphers in that era were a small class of official scholars, shamans, and philosophers who wrote characters as a service to the king.

Clerical Script

Around 500 BC a transformation began to take place. The small kingdoms that proliferated at the end of the Zhou dynasty started to be annexed by larger kingdoms. Large kingdoms meant more government structures, and in the process of bureaucratization governments started delegating the work of record keeping and reporting to lesser scribes, military men, or slaves. As a result, the meticulous forms of seal script, once the pride of the scholar class, degraded into a more informal style called “clerical script” that was simpler and easier to write. This script gained dominance during the Qin dynasty because the emperor placed an almost total ban on scholars serving in government.

After the Qin dynasty fell, the Han dynasty became its successor, and professional scholars were welcomed back into the government. When scholars took back the work of writing they didn’t reject clerical script in favor of seal script. The new scholar class embraced clerical script, and the qualities of that script that were born of lazy or careless writing were standardized and refined.

Below are three examples of the character for ten in clerical script. Notice that stroke width, length, and shape are starting to vary, introducing a feeling of expressiveness to the character. Han dynasty writings extolling the beauty of clerical script stroke shapes suggest that this new style appealed to the aesthetic sense of calligraphers and artists.

Regular Script

The next change happened during the period between 200CE and 500CE. A new script slowly gained acceptance and replaced clerical script. It was a combination of clerical script combined with elements of cursive writing, and was to become the final standard for Chinese regular (i.e. non-cursive) script. At the same time a semi-cursive script was also developed which was a more free-form version of regular script with some joined strokes. Here are three examples of the character for “ten” from regular script:

First notice the variety of shapes in each individual stroke. The overall structure of the strokes is more or less the same (the exception being the pointed bottom of the vertical stroke in the first character), but the details of stroke width, the sharpness of the angles, and the curvature of the rounded parts is different in each example.

There is also a slight variation in the position of the character inside the square where it sits. In the examples of clerical script above, despite the variation in the strokes, all three characters have a vertical stroke rooted in the center of the square with a horizontal stroke neatly crossing near the top. In regular script we see that the whole character is leaning slightly to the right, and that this rightward lean is balanced by the left side of the horizontal stroke.

Dynamic Balance

These variations are used by each calligrapher differently to create a feeling of dynamic balance. If you understand this point you’ve grasped a large part of the aesthetic of Chinese calligraphy. To drive home this point look at the character for “center” in regular script, and notice again the variety of stroke shapes and size as well as the balance of the entire character. Think about how these qualities can convey tone similar to the way that tone of voice does.

These three characters use geometry, balance, and negative space to convey three completely distinct feelings. Finally, here is an extreme example: two examples of calligraphy by two famous calligraphers with radically different styles, one of them an emperor and the other a poet. See if you can tell which one is which:

The piece on gold paper is by Emperor Huizong of the Song dynasty, and the piece on a white background is by Hunag Tingjian, who also lived during the Song dynasty.

The Systematization of Expressive Freedom

In both the transition from seal script to clerical script, and from clerical script to regular script, a new script was born out of the systematization and standardization of cursive elements. In regular script a tension between standardization and expressiveness was achieved that created a quality of dynamic balance, turning each character into a composition with weight and movement. With every character the calligrapher must balance the positive and negative space as well the various components of the character. Take a look at an example of the three styles side-by-side so that you can see this evolution for yourself, and notice how the third style almost looks three dimensional in comparison to the first two.


As you can see, there was an extremely well developed sense of abstract balance and composition in Chinese calligraphy that developed at an early time in history. You could say that the Chinese aesthetic was rooted in and grew out of a philosophy of abstract representation through the balance of positive and negative, black ink on white paper. Now lets see if we can find the influence of that philosophy in Chinese landscape painting.

Chinese Painting

The painting below is quite early (1080 ad) but a minimal style with abundant negative space is already apparent. There is a single focal point in the center of the left-hand side, and the rest of the landscape spreads to the right in a v-shaped pattern. The top right is very faint and fans out to create a feeling of depth. The overall feeling, however, is not one of incompleteness. The emptiness stimulates the imagination, and the elements of the painting are balanced so that nothing feels missing even though much is left out.

Fast forward about three hundred years and this aesthetic has blossomed into a new style where the influence of calligraphy is more prominent. The painter uses stark black strokes on white paper and the subject is stylized to a high level of abstraction. In the painting below, notice the role of the poem on the far left in balancing the weight of the trees and boulders on the right. Between these two main actors, a few strands of mountains serve to create the illusion of distance. About half of the canvas is completely blank and yet the composition gives a feeling of fullness purely on account of the expressiveness of the trees and the balance of the composition. The artist’s seal typically adds an additional element of contrast and balance, but unfortunately on older paintings that aspect has been destroyed by the presence of collector’s seals that were added later on.

Many artists who were not professional painters favored this minimal, abstract approach because it made painting more accessible to calligraphers. The simplicity and stylization of the subject matter was expressive in much the same way that calligraphy was expressive: through the balance of composition and use of subtle brushwork to convey feeling. This style came to be known as “写意” which means “to write the meaning,” and can be considered an entirely different branch of art when compared to western landscape painting. Where western landscape painting aims to faithfully reproduce the appearance of a scene on the canvas, this style of Chinese painting uses abstraction to convey  feelings and ideas that the scene evokes in the mind of the painter.

In the early Qing dynasty the style of the amateur “scholar painters” was compiled into a manual that served as a standard for calligraphers who wanted to venture into painting. This manual, the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, demonstrates the same trend towards standardization similar to what we see in the history of calligraphy.

This branch of Chinese painting was clearly influenced by the aesthetic principles of Chinese calligraphy, but there are other, slightly more nebulous factors that also played a part. Chinese philosophy, for example, is abundant with discussions of yin and yang, emptiness and fullness. The balance of black shapes on white space is suggestive of the balance of energy described in Chinese cosmology. The style of Chinese poetry also had an influence on the aesthetic of Chinese painting. Chinese poems often use just a few characters to convey a scene of great depth, leaving most of the scene unspoken. By condensing their compositions to just a few elements full of negative space and by explicitly pairing their compositions with poems, the scholar painters achieved a style that cleverly merged the aesthetics and philosophy of calligraphy, poetry, and landscape.

The fact that poetry and calligraphy were closely associated with government service and the upper class meant that, for thousands of years, educated people devoted their leisure time to the practice of aesthetics and literature, and exploring the relationship between art and nature. If we understand the peculiar history of Chinese art and the culture of the people who practiced it we can more fully appreciate its beauty:

Poetry and Politics in Ancient China

I’m always on the lookout for passages that show the relationship between poetry and politics in China. I recently came across such a passage in the Han Shu, or Book of Han which is the official history of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), one of the golden ages of Chinese history. The passage is in a chapter called “Treatise on Literature” and comments on three aspects of poetry: the intrinsic value of poetry for diplomacy and political commentary, the historical circumstances surrounding the uses of poetry at court, and the reasons why the government collected popular poetry. The passage has four distinct sections, the first of which explains why good poets are suitable for government service:


“The Mao Commentary says: ‘If words are recited and not sung it is called fu. If a man can attain a great height and compose a fu then he can be a senior official.’ This is because they can take their experience of things and craft thoughts from it. If their talent and knowledge are deep and refined, you can consult with them on important affairs and they are thus suitable for high office.”

Writing poetry is described as a creative process where observations are transformed into ideas, and the resulting poetry can be used to judge the intellect of the poet. The next section discusses the historical role of poetry in politics:


“In ancient times when receiving guests from other kingdoms the rulers, lords, and officers used subtle language to communicate, and in the course of greetings and salutes they had to use poetry to convey their intentions. Thus they were able to distinguish who was virtuous and who was weak, and observe which nations were strong and which were in decline. Therefore Confucius said: ‘If someone has not studied the Book of Songs, they have no means by which to discourse.'”

Diplomacy requires subtlety and indirection, and here we see how poetry was used for this purpose at court in ancient China. The cleverness by which an envoy was able to use poetry and wit during diplomacy was even considered a reflection of the strength of the kingdom they represented.

The passage continues by discussing the decline of poetry as a means of diplomacy during the Warring States Period and the corresponding appearance of poems lamenting the chaos of the times:


“After the spring and autumn period the way of Zhou was in decline, friendly diplomacy and music were not practiced in the various states, scholars left the government, and men of talent wrote poems of despair. The great confucian Xunzi and the Chu minister Qu Yuan suffered slander and worried about their country, they took up the pen to put their feelings to words and their compositions contained the anguish and subtlety of ancient poetry.”

During the Warring States period government officials used to poetry to express their criticism of the government and their despair at the state of affairs. This circles back to the ideas presented in the first part of the passage: great officials are able to craft their thoughts beautifully and encode them in poetry. I left the end of this section untranslated because I don’t think it contributes much to the argument of the passage as a whole.

The final section talks about Emperor Wu’s Music Bureau and the reason why he started the collection of popular poetry:


“Since Emperor Wu established the Music Bureau to collect poems and folk songs, we have the songs of Dai and Zhao, and we have the airs of Qin and Chu, all of which express the sadness and happiness that follows from human affairs and also allow us to observe the customs and understand the conditions of those places.”

Before we examine this section I want to introduce an ancient Chinese saying that I think sums up the passage as a whole:


“Poetry expresses the mind”

The belief that poetry expresses the mind inspired government programs to gather intelligence on the common people by collecting their poems and songs, and many of the poems from the ancient classic, the Book of Songs, were said to be collected in this way. There is little concrete evidence to prove that the Zhou dynasty collected poetry as government intelligence. We do know, however, that Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, possibly in imitation of the Zhou dynasty, patronized the collection of poems and folks songs through the Music Bureau that he established. It is possible that Emperor Wu’s initiative may have affected modern day popular culture: it is through the Music Bureau collections from a later dynasty that the story of Hua Mulan was passed down.

This passage shows us that poetry had a variety of important roles in the history of Chinese politics. Poetry was used by government officials to display their intellect and express their criticism, it was used for diplomacy as a vehicle for indirect and subtle communication, and it was used by the government as a form of intelligence to evaluate the social and economic conditions of the people.

The Art of War

A brief demonstration of the style of The Art of War and a summary examination of some of the main ideas of the text.

The Art of War is a book on military strategy written around the 5th century BCE. Like most texts from that era, it is written in a concise style that is difficult to translate but is also elegant and powerful. Before I discuss the contents of the book I’d like to demonstrate this quality of conciseness by presenting first a line from the Art of War in Chinese, then a character-by-character translation of that line, followed by an English rendition.


therefore / general / have / five / danger

must / die / can / kill

must / live / can / capture

anger / quick / can / disgrace

upright / pure / can / humiliate

love / people / can / bother

“Therefore there are five qualities which are dangerous for generals: if they are reckless they may easily be destroyed, if they are cowardly they will easily be captured, if their temper is quick then they may be easily disgraced, if they are honorable and pure then they may easily be humiliated, and if they love their people too much they will be easily vexed.”

After you read the English rendition, go back to the character-by-character translation and notice how just a few characters are used to communicate a relatively large amount of information. Now that you have an idea of the style of The Art of War, let’s examine its contents. The book has thirteen chapters that each discuss a different aspect of warfare. Each chapter contains analysis of both specific problems and general principles.

One of the interesting themes in The Art of War is that principles are important but only if they help you take advantage of your situation, and planning is important but improvisation is necessary to adapt your plan to conditions on the ground. For example, Sunzi insists that you must follow his advice in order to succeed, but he also states:


“Use my rules to aid your planning,  but when you carry out your plans take any external help that may afford itself to you. Circumstances are mastered by way of their advantages.”

This line is difficult to translate, but in the context of the work as a whole the message is clear: victory results not from knowledge alone but from the successful utilization of advantages afforded to you by your situation. Instead of blindly following a plan or following orders, you must do whatever is appropriate given the particulars of your situation.

圮地無舍,衢地合交,絕地無留,圍地則謀,死地則戰, 途有所不由,軍有所不擊,城有所不攻,地有所不爭,君命有所不受

“Don’t camp on difficult terrain, in areas with good roads contact your allies, don’t linger in isolated areas, when you are surrounded resort to stratagem, when you are in a desperate situation, fight your way out. There are roads that shouldn’t be taken, armies that shouldn’t be attacked, cities that shouldn’t be besieged, land that shouldn’t be captured, and orders from above that shouldn’t be followed.”

Understanding your situation and the advantages of your position is a must, but Sunzi makes it clear that it is equally important to understand your enemy. There is a strategy described in The Art of War of investigating the enemy while simultaneously obscuring your own forces:


“Scheme so as to discover the chances of success or failure, provoke so as to reveal the enemy’s patterns of rest and movement, scope out the battlefield to learn its dangers and advantages, measure the enemy to learn their strengths and deficiencies. Therefore the ultimate of shaping a battle is to be shapeless. Without shape, even a deep spy cannot examine you, even a sage cannot scheme against you.”

The two most important words in The Art of War are “shape” and “circumstance”. Circumstance refers to the configuration of actors in a battle including geography and supplies, and shape refers to the distribution of strengths and weaknesses in a military force. You need to understand how a circumstance plays to your advantage or disadvantage and you need to understand the shape of the enemy in order to exploit their weaknesses. To be “shapeless” means the enemy is unable to gather information about you through observation or the use of spies. Here’s another line about shape:


“Therefore I discern the shape of the enemy but stay shapeless myself, I am focused while my enemy is scattered, I am united as one while the enemy is divided into ten, and thus I can take ten units to strike his one.”

If you have a good command of your own situation and also understand the enemy’s situation then you are able to win the battle by deception.


“Warfare is the way of deception. Therefore if you able [to attack], make appearances of being unable [to attack], If you are using [your forces] you must appear to not use [your forces], if you are near you must appear far, if you are far then appear near. If they have the advantage, entice them out of it, if they are disorganized take them, if they are organized then be prepared, if they are strong then you should avoid them, if they are angry provoke them, if they are humble make them arrogant, if they are rested tire them out, if they are close knit divide them. Attack where they are unprepared, appear where you are not expected, and these ways of victory must not be communicated ahead of time.”

Thus a good general will understand their own strengths and limitations, exploit the advantages of terrain, and use information about the enemy to adapt to their plans. It is this insight that was summed up in perhaps the most famous line of all:


“If you know the enemy and you know yourself you will have a hundred battles without a single defeat; if you don’t know the enemy but you know yourself, you’ll have one loss for every victory; if you don’t know the enemy and don’t know yourself, you will be defeated in every battle.”

The Three Bad Omens and the Meaning of “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”

This article contains a translation of a passage from the Garden of Stories and an examination of the symbolism it contains.


This is the second of a two part series about confucian ideas in the Garden of Stories. In my previous post I translated a passage about famous rulers from the Warring States period who demonstrated wisdom through three different fears. In this post I present passage where a famous advisor and diplomat, Yan Ying, gives the duke of Qi a lesson about omens.


One day duke Jing of Qi went out hunting. He saw a tiger when he was up in the mountains and he saw a snake when he was down in the swamp. Upon his return he called upon master Yan and said to him:

“Today I went out hunting. On the mountain I saw a tiger and in the swamp I saw a snake. Should I consider this a bad omen?”

Master Yan replied:

“Nations have but three bad omens and this is not among them. Having people of great ability and not knowing about them is the first bad omen. Knowing about them and not utilizing them is the second bad omen. To utilize them but not give them tasks worthy of their ability is the third bad omen. These things are what we refer to as bad omens. Today you saw a tiger on the mountain, the mountain is the tiger’s home. You saw a snake in the swamp, the swamp is the snake’s lair. To see a tiger in its home and a snake in its lair, how could that be considered a bad omen?”

When I first found this passage I was interested by how Yan seems to steer duke Jing away from superstitious thinking and toward this problem of personnel management. At first, Yan appears to dismiss the idea that omens are found in nature. His return to the issue of the tiger and the snake at the end, however, suggest that there may be some significance to them after all.

In the Chinese literary tradition the tiger and the snake are sometimes used as metaphors for individuals of talent. Take a look at this sentence from the Guangzi, a book  of political philosophy written during the Warring States period.


When a dragon is in water its power will manifest, when tigers and leopards are in dark valleys their fierceness will arise.

This line is in a chapter that draws a connection between the underlying principles of nature and the ruler’s ability to effectively manage their kingdom. The meaning of this line is that nature’s fiercest creatures are adapted to live in certain places and that they must be in those places in order to use their strength. The lesson to be drawn is that talented individuals must be given work that is well suited to their strengths, otherwise their talents will go to waste.

This interpretation is confirmed by the famous idiom “crouching tiger hidden dragon” which was derived from a poem by Yu Xin (513-581 AD). The typical translation of “crouching tiger hidden dragon” is “men of talent in hiding”. In this idiom the tiger and the dragon are metaphors for people of great ability who are either hiding or are undiscovered. If we consider a dragon to be a kind of mythological snake then the animals in the original passage, the line from the Guanzi, and this idiom are essentially the same.

We can then go one step further and propose that the symbolic significance of the tiger and the snake is the same in each example. In the Guanzi it is explained that the tiger and dragon are only powerful when they are in their right places. In the passage from the Garden of Stories, the tiger and the snake are found in the mountain and the swamp respectively, essentially the places described as their homes by the Guanzi. Yan might actually see this as a good omen because it suggests that the affairs of the kingdom are in order. He then explains that a bad omen would be if the men of talent in the kingdom were hidden from the duke, a situation which, a thousand years later, would be described by the idiom “crouching tiger hidden dragon”.

These examples show us that talent discovery and personnel management was a known problem in ancient China and that the image of the tiger and the dragon was used metaphorically to describe it. If you are a manager or a leader of an organization, you can take a look around and ask yourself “who are the dragons and tigers of this business, and are they placed well according to their strengths?” That is the question that the political philosophers of ancient China would have you ask.

The Three Fears of a Wise Ruler

This is the first of two posts about confucian ideology in the Garden of Stories. It contains a translation of a passage from that text and a brief discussion of the ideas of contained in it.

My previous post The Catastrophe Behind You contains a translation of one of my favorite ancient Chinese stories. Before I wrote that post I was only familiar with the story out of context. While writing that article I learned more about the Garden of Stories and decided to search through it to see what else it contained. I discovered lots of anecdotes about Confucius and his followers as well as stories about the rulers of states during the Warring States period.

These passages give us insight into the kind of advice that Confucian scholars gave to rulers in ancient China. In the passage I have chosen for this article we see what kinds of qualities Confucian officials valued in their rulers.


A wise ruler has three fears. The first is to dwell in a place of power and fear you will not hear about your mistakes. The second is to have achievement and fear pride. The third is to hear brilliant words and fear that you can’t act on them. How can we understand their nature?

The passage opens with a declaration of three fears that characterize a wise ruler. The question at the end is answered by three anecdotes about rulers from the Warring States period who demonstrated these fears.


King Goujian of Yue attacked Wu and defeated them, gaining nine new territories for his kingdom. At that time Goujian dominated the states of the south. He called for the ministers of states near and far and declared that anyone who knew his mistakes but did not tell him would be punished with death. This is called dwelling in a place of power and being afraid you will not hear of your mistakes.


In the past, duke Wen of Jin attacked Chu and had a great victory. They torched the opponents army which burned for three days. On the road back duke Wen had a downcast look. His attendant asked: “your majesty has had a great victory but has a downcast look, why is this?” Duke Wen replied: “I have heard that those who can be victorious and remain peaceful are only the great sages. On the other hand, of those who steal their victories there’s not one who escaped danger. That is why I am downcast.” This is called having achievement and fearing pride.


In ancient times duke Huan of Qi obtained the service of Guan Zhong and Xi Peng to improve his rhetoric and lecture him on righteousness. On the morning of the first month of the year he ordered a Tai Lao sacrifice to be made for his ancestors. He stood at the west, and Guan Zhong and Xi Peng stood at the east. He proclaimed: “I have obtained the advice of you two masters, making my vision sharper and my hearing clearer. I do not dare to keep this for myself alone, and instead offer it up to my ancestors.” This is called hearing brilliant words and fearing you are unable to bring them to action.

These anecdotes gives us a picture of three rulers who were obsessed with success and with the quality of their performance. What strikes me about this is how relevant their concerns are to anyone in a leadership position. Below is my attempt at translating the three fears into modern day principles.

1.) Make your team members comfortable with voicing criticism. After every project hold a retrospective where everyone is encouraged to talk about areas for improvement.

2.) Don’t let success make you lazy or careless. Big victories should be followed by increased vigilance to ensure that gains are preserved.

3.) Make sure that good advice is translated into action. Turn the words of talented individuals into actionable goals and track your progress to make yourself accountable to realizing those goals.

The Catastrophe Behind You

A translation of a famous story from Garden of Stories and brief discussion of its significance.


I first came across this story in An Introduction to Literary Chinese and it played a significant role in fostering my interest in Chinese literature. There are two things that impressed me about it. First of all, I was amazed that such a short text could contain so much meaning. The brevity of classical Chinese is something that attracted me to the field, especially in contrast with the verbosity of western philosophy. Secondly, I loved how a simple story about creatures in a garden is used as commentary on military strategy. It was this story that first demonstrated to me the close relationship between poetry and statecraft in the Chinese literary tradition.


The king of Wu wanted to attack Jing so he announced it to his advisors and said:

“Anyone who dares to opposes the attack will be killed.”

There was a young master in court who wanted to oppose the attack but didn’t dare tell the king, so he grabbed his slingshot bullets and went to walk in the rear gardens. The dew moistened his cloak for three mornings before he returned to the court, whereupon the king asked him:

“What have you been doing such that your cloak has become wet?”

The master replied:

“In the garden there is a tree and on the tree was a cicada. The cicada was high up on the tree signing its lament and drinking dew. It did not know that there was a praying mantis behind it. The praying mantis was shifting its body and bending its neck closer and closer, it wanted the cicada so bad it didn’t turn its head to see the yellow sparrow next to it. The yellow sparrow was stretching out its neck, yearning to snatch up the praying mantis, but it didn’t know about my slingshot bullets below it.  These three all desire to grasp the profit in front of them but they don’t look behind at the catastrophe about to happen.

The kind said “perfect!” and called off his troops.

This story is an another example of the theme of using indirect language to navigate a tricky political situation which I brought up in the previous post The Man with No Residence. As I mentioned in that post, Chinese officials in ancient times developed clever ways of communicating indirectly, and would sometimes use poems to suggest their plans instead of stating them outright. In this case, the young master can’t voice opposition to the king’s plan directly so he uses a story to convince the king that his plan is a bad idea.

The Theory of Fundamentals

A translation of the first few sentences of the article The Theory of Fundamentals by Ou-Yang Xiu and a brief discussion of the ideas it sets forth and their relationship to ancient Chinese political philosophy.


The Theory of Fundamentals is an article written by Ou-Yang Xiu (1007-1072CE), a
Confucian scholar and statesman who lived during the Northern Song dynasty. The name of this article in Chinese is 本论. The first character means “root” or “fundamental” and the second means “discussion” or “theory”. The Theory of Fundamentals lays out Ou-Yang Xiu’s ideas about how a government should be established. I have chosen this article because the ideas it contains are interesting and it has a wonderfully succinct and insightful opening line:

天下之事有本末 其爲治者有先後

The affairs of the world have roots and branches. If you want to manage them then
there are first things and last things.

The basic idea is that the affairs of the world generally go through a series of
developmental stages. Like a tree that sets roots in the beginning, grows a strong central stalk, and finally sends out fine branches, human affairs have foundational stages that prepare for later developments.

Next Ou-Yang describes a systematic way of structuring a state such that it will be prosperous and stable. Once the state is stable things like art and culture will arise effortlessly, like healthy branches from the trunk of an established tree.

天下有定數,邦國有定制,民有定業, 官有定職

As for the methods of the three kings: they used reasonable taxes to even out the world, noble ranks to establish hierarchy in the state, the well and field system to house the population, and the management of affairs to delegate officials. In this way the world had set taxes and tributes, the state had an established system, the people had occupation, and the officials had well defined offices.

使下之共上勤而不困,上之治下簡而不勞。財足于用而可以備天灾也, 兵足以禦患而不至于爲患也。凡此具矣,然後飾禮樂、興仁義以教道之。是以其 政易行,其民易使,風俗淳厚,而王道成矣

This makes the public service of the people vigorous and without fatigue, and the government of them by officials simple and effortless. Resources will be
adequate and may be stored to prepare for disasters. The army will be adequate to control a crisis but not large enough to create one. When you have these provisions only then will the state be adorned with music and ritual, and only then will kindheartedness and justice flourish to teach and guide the people. This way government is easily carried out, people will easily serve, popular culture will be simple and sincere, and the way of the king is attained.

From the point of view of the history of ideas this article is interesting because it synthesizes the ideas of Legalism and Confucianism. Legalism proposed that government should consist of a precisely defined bureaucracy with a hierarchy of administrative units and official ranks, and a system of rewards and punishments. Confucianism, on the other hand, proposed a bureaucracy of learned scholars with an emphasis on ritual and leading by example. In The Theory of Fundamentals Ou-Yang sets forth his view that the Legalist style government is a solid foundation upon which the virtues of Confucianism can flourish.

The Man with No Residence

The Strategies of the Warring States is a book that has fascinated me for a long time. It is a compilation of sayings, stories, and political case studies by adherents of the ancient Chinese school of diplomacy. The texts contained in Strategies of the Warring States were written down by various authors between the 5th and 3rd century BC and were later collected and edited by the Han dynasty writer Liu Xiang (77-6 BCE).

The story below is a small excerpt from the first chapter of Strategies of the Warring States:


There was a man from Wen who travelled to Zhou. When he arrived at the border of Zhou, the guards would not let him in. They asked: “Are you a guest?” And he replied: “I am a host”. They asked him where his residence was and he said he didn’t know, so they imprisoned him. The lord sent someone to question him thusly:

“You are not a man of Zhou, and yet you say you are not a guest, what do you mean by this?”

He responded: “When I was young I was already familiar with the Odes. In the Odes it is said: ‘Under heaven, there is nowhere that is not the land of the king. From one coast to another, there is no one who is not a subject of the King.’ Seeing as how Zhou rules all under heaven, how could I say I am a guest? Therefore I said I was a host.

The guard heard this and promptly released the man.


The Odes is the oldest collection of poetry in China and it is believed that poems from the Odes were used as an indirect form of communication for the purpose of diplomacy. For westerners the idea of using poetry to discuss politics might seem strange, but in this story we have a clear example of someone using poetry to negotiate a tricky political situation. Even if the story is apocryphal, it nevertheless gives us an idea of how powerful poetry might have been as a tool to communicate ideas.

It’s also notable that the man in this story uses poetry to manipulate the listener by invoking feelings of patriotism. The Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE) was the first dynasty to fully unite China, but the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE) was the first attempt at unification and was probably the dynasty that put the idea of unification into the cultural narrative of China. At the time this story takes place the Zhou dynasty was very weak, but the guardsman is so moved by the idea that Zhou is the ruler of “all under heaven” that he releases the prisoner. This line of thinking is still alive today. In modern times, the phrase “One China” is used to communicate the idea that the government in Beijing is the ruler of all Chinese territories including Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

So in this small anecdote we see examples of two important cultural phenomenon: the usage of indirect literary language to communicate complex ideas, and the idea that all of China should be ruled by a single governing body.