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The Governing Principles of Ancient China

Almost a thousand years have passed since the heyday of King Cheng and King Kang, and many rulers having tried to attain the same glory. But this golden era of peace and prosperity never returned. Why has this been so?  It is because rulers have forsaken the law and moral standards, and have instead pursued selfish desires, spoiling themselves with extravagance, and totally neglecting the practice of benevolence and righteousness. (Scroll 19: Han Shu, Vol.7)


In general, anything that develops too fast will fall apart just as quickly, whereas a slow and steady development is more assured of yielding favourable results. Plants that unravel into full bloom in early morning may wither and fall by the evening, but the slow-growing pine trees will not wither even in the extreme winter cold. Hence, a superior person does not hasten to achieve results. (Scroll 26: Wei Zhi, Vol.2)


Duke Yi of the state of Rong was known for monopolizing wealth and profits for himself and for being oblivious to its adverse effects on the society. One should know that wealth and profits are the very sources of survival for hundreds of materials nurtured between heaven and earth. To monopolize them will give rise to an unbalanced situation thereby causing much harm. How can one monopolize the resources when they are needed by so many? To do so will arouse anger from the public. If we teach our lord to monopolize resources instead of urging him to take precaution against major disasters, can his reign last long? (Scroll 11: Shi Ji, Vol.1)


Craving for visual splendor can distort our vision and impede our ability to see the truth about things. Basking in musical amusement can numb our hearing and impede our ability to appreciate the finer meanings in music. Excessive indulgence in fine cuisine can dull our taste buds and impeded our ability to appreciate the food. Wallowing in the thrill of game hunting can make us reckless and lose our sanity. Being desirous of rare and precious objects can cause our greediness to grow and drive us to behave wickedly.  (Scroll 34: Lao Zi)


King Yu of antiquity said: “If a ruler is obsessed with womanizing and hunting, drinking fine wine, singing and dancing, living in lofty mansions with intricate wall paintings and carvings; any one of these will surely bring forth the ruin of his county.”  (Scroll 2: Shang Shu)


Hence, a ruler who can ruin a country will be a leader zealous about expanding his territory but unconcerned with his duty to advance benevolence. He is concerned with pursuing a position of great authority but does not care too much about promoting virtues. By doing this, he has in fact given up all the conditions that can assure his country’s survival. Inevitably he will lead the country to a path of destruction.  (Scroll 35: Wen Zi)


Nothing can do more harm to a leader than widespread knowledge of the fact that he craves adoration and popularity. Once a leader falls into the traps of wanting an inflated name for himself, his officials will know what he wants and conform to his wishes.  (Scroll 48: Ti Lun)


The ancients said:” If a farmer refuses to work, some people will starve. If a woman refuses to weave, some people will suffer in the cold.” When the growth of all things is limited by seasons, but we consume them as if they will be available without limitation, the resources will sooner or later be depleted. The ancients governed and planned meticulously, and they would have had the foresight to ensure the treasury had enough reserves to sustain the nation.  (Scroll 14: Han Shu, Vol.2)


Thus, to cultivate oneself in order to rule a country, nothing can be more significant than to restrain one’s desire. The book of Li Ji said: “Don’t give in to desires.” We have seen rulers and senior ministers of the past and present had achieved success through hard work and lived frugally, and that those who failed did so were extravagant and wasteful. Frugal people will restrain their desires, but spendthrifts will let their desires run free. Self-gratification will endanger one’s life while moderation will keep one safe.  (Scroll 47: Zheng Yao Lun)


Before a ban has been stated clearly by the government, severe punishments were enforced to suppress disorderliness. Before a well-planned military strategy has been devised, the armed forces were deployed in full force to invade a neighboring country.  Is this not like cutting down the crops in order to destroy the locusts; or chopping down trees to get rid of infestations of worms or bugs; or swallowing poison in order to kill lice and fleas; or tearing down a house in order to chase away sparrows and rats? (Scroll 50: Bao Pu Zi)


Thus, a sage ruler always has the welfare of the people at heart. He would never wage a personal vendetta at the expense of public justice. (Scroll 17: Han Shu, Vol.5)


Confucius said: “When I walk along with others, they will serve me as my teachers. I will select their good qualities and follow them; but as far for their bad qualities I will correct them in myself.”  (Scroll 9: Lun Yu) 


Confucius said: “To make a mistake and not correct it, is a real mistake.”  (Scroll 9: Lun Yu)


Zigong said: “The faults of superior person are analogous to the eclipses of the sun and the moon. When he is at fault, everyone can see his faults clearly. But when he corrects his faults, everyone will look up to him with respect.”  (Scroll 9: Lun Yu)


The government of the ancient sage-kings had official historians who recorded the mistakes made by the rulers, and official musicians to sing ballads to remind the ruler of his mistakes. Ordinary folk could be heard making criticisms against the ruler on the roadside, and businessmen could be heard discussing the ruler’s faulty actions in the marketplace. Thus, sage rulers were able to hear about their mistakes and correct them, and to implement sensible policies that were just and honourable. There were factors that contributed to the longevity of their government.  (Scroll 17: Han Shu, Vol.5)


Confucius said: “A leader who loves his parents will not despise the parents of other people. And as he respects his parents, he will not be contemptuous towards the parents of other people. A leader who is wholeheartedly dedicated with love and respect, to taking care of his parents will impart the same highest degree of virtuous conducts to teach and reform his people, setting an exemplary standard for the whole world to follow. This is the filial piety of the Son of Heaven! The book of Lu-Xing said: “When a leader respects and loves his parents, all his people will trust and rely on him, and so the nation will enjoy long and lasting stability. “(Scroll 9: Xiao Jing)


There were reasons why the sage kings of Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties loved and respected their wives and children. For the wife, she was the key lady attending to matters related not only to the rites of remembrance of the ancestors, but also to the king’s parents, as well as to the education of his heirs. As for the children, they were the heirs to the king’s legacy. So how could the king not be respectful of his wife and children? A king therefore will not be disrespectful toward anybody. Regarding the virtue of respect, a person will first respect his own self, for his life is an extension of his parents. How can he not be respectful of himself? Not respectful of one’s self is tantamount to hurting one’s parents. Hurting one’s parents is amounting to hurting one’s root, and when the root is damaged the branches will die off subsequently. Since the commoners and the king both have these three things in common – own self, wife, and children, they will naturally follow the king’s example. As the king respects his own self, he extends this respect to other people. As he loves his children, he extends this love to the children of other people. And as he respects his wife, he extends this respect to the wives of other people. When a king can manage these three matters well, this profound and far-reaching education will then be able to spread to the whole world. (Scroll 10: King Zi Jia Yu)


Although a leader may love his relatives deeply, he should maintain his authority over them, or they will become arrogant and disrespectful. The status of the relatives may be privileged but they must be held accountable by law in order to restrain them from behaving wildly and uncontrollably. (Scroll 24: Hou Ham Shu. Vol.4)


Good deeds and good people are revered because they embody propriety and justice. Bad deeds and villains are despised because they embody wickedness. Now that we use what is revered to teach and demand the common people to behave well on the one hand, but use what is despised to teach and allow members of the royal family to behave repulsively on the other hand, is this not going against moral and virtue? (Scroll 45: Chang Yan)


The foundation of virtue is built upon a mind that is righteous. When the mind of a ruler is righteous, his conduct will be righteous. When his conduct is righteous, the conduct of his ministers will be righteous. When the conduct of his ministers is righteous, the government will be just. When the government is just, the country will be just. And when the country is just, the whole world will be just. (Scroll 49: Fu Zi)


Zengzi said: “Every day I reflect upon three things: Have I done my best to do my job well? Have I been a trusted friend? Have I put into practice lessons given to me by my teacher, or prepared my lessons before teaching them to my students?” (Scroll 9” Lun Yu)

The Son of Heaven does not speak playfully. Once said, official historians will record it; ceremonial proceedings will be held to fulfil it, and songs will be sung to glorify it. (Scroll 11: Shi Ji, Vol.1)


Confucius said: “Reprimand yourself harshly but reprimand others more forgivingly. You will avoid making enemies this way.” (Scroll 9: Lun Yu)

If a leader is unvirtuous, he will bring danger to the nation and chaos to his people. A virtuous leader, on the other hand, will bring stability to the nation and order to his people. The fate of a nation therefore lies in the hands of a good ruler who is capable and wise, independent from the changing of seasons. (Scroll 31: Liu Tao)


King Tang who founded the Shang dynasty said: “If in my person as a king I have committed offenses, oh Lord of heaven, do not hold the people of the myriad regions responsible. If people in the myriad regions committed offenses, let the punishment fall on me alone, for I have not taught people the proper way to behave.” (Scroll 9: Lun Yu)


When a sage ruler committed a mistake, he would reflect upon the mistake and correct it. When he accomplished any achievement, he would attribute the achievement to the people. The self-reflection would help him to stay disciplined, while the attribution of success to others would bring great joy and happiness to the people. Making people feel happy while he remained watchful over his own actions is the successful governing principle of a good leader. (Scroll 32: Guan Zi)


In the book of Zuo Zhuan, it was said: “King Yu and King Tang took all blames upon themselves and their countries prospered. King Jie and King Zhou put all blames upon others and their downfall was hastened.” Hence, we can see that the key to a good and lasting government is dependent on the virtuous character of the leader. (Scroll 47: Zheng Yao Lun)


Mencius said to Duke Xuan of the state of Qi: “When a lord treats his subordinates like brothers, they will pledge allegiance to him in return. When a lord treats his subordinates like slavish animals, they will regard him as a stranger on the street. When a lord treats his subordinates like dirt and weeds, they will regard him as a robber and an enemy.” (Scroll 37: Meng Zi)


Duke Jing of the state of Qi asked Yanzi: “The task to bring wealth to the people and stability to the state – Will this be difficult to achieve?” Yanzi said: “Not difficult at all. Frugality on the part of the ruler will bring prosperity to the people, and fair trials will bring stability to the state. Doing these two things well will suffice.”  (Scroll 33: Yan Zi)


A sage ruler worries about three things. His first worry is that his high position may shelter him from hearing criticisms of his mistakes. Next, he worries that his success may spur him to arrogance. And last, he worries that he may not be able to govern abased on the truth and reality that he had gathered from all quarters of the society. (Scroll 43: Shuo Yuan)


Open upon a time, severe drought hit the land ruled by King Cheng Tang. Cheng Tang then used the following six questions to reproach himself: “Is my governance not in accord with laws and regulations? Have the people been made to labour too hard? Are my palace and dwellings too luxurious? Have the favoured court ladies interfered too much in politics? Have briberies become rampant? Have the obsequious and the slanderers become too reckless?” (Scroll 22: Hou Han Shu, Vol.2)


Zengzi said:” The government has deviated from the righteous way of leadership and the people have long been left to their own devices. If you can finally uncover the truth behind the making of a crime, you ought to be sympathetic toward the criminals instead of being delighted in your ability to solves crimes.” (Scroll 9: Lun Yu)


It is not right for a ruler who has deviated from the righteous way of leadership to put his officials and subjects to death. Even though the people are not being taught the way of filial piety and the proper behaviour that goes along with it, they are being convicted and put into prisons. To do so amounts to killing the innocents. (Scroll 10: Kong Zi Jia Yu)


A good government must first eradicate the Four Perils before it can carry out the Five Correct Policies.

The Four Perils are:

  1. Hypocrisy, for it will upset social customs.
  2. Bribery, for it will wreck the legal system.
  3. Unruliness, for it will overstep propriety.
  4. Luxury, for it will breach rules and regulations.

If these Four Perils persist, benevolent rule cannot be put into practice because of the following:

When social customs are upset, moral decadence will ensure, and no divine beings can hope to safeguard the purity of human nature. When the legal system is wrecked, society will fall apart, and no leader can hope to uphold any law at that point. When propriety is overstepped, proper rites will wither away, and no saints can hope to defend the path of righteousness. Lastly, when rules and regulations are breached, a ruler’s desires will become so unfettered that even the vast territories of the four corners of the world could not hope to satisfy his insatiable appetites. Such are the Four Perils.

As for the Five Correct Policies, they are:

  1. Revive farming to provide food for the people.
  2. Distinguish what is right from wrong to establish good social customs.
  3. Proclaim cultural and educational policies to advocate the education effort made by the government.
  4. Establish military facilities to uphold the dignity of the country.
  5. Unify the national legal system by being strict and impartial in meting our rewards and punishments. (Scroll 46: Shen Jian)


No country will enjoy everlasting peace and no common people will stay forever submissive. When the wise are recruited to serve in the government, the country will enjoy peace and prosperity. To lose them could mean an end to a government. From ancient times until today this recurring theme has not changed at all. (Scroll 43: Shuo Yuan)


The ancients said: “An extraordinary leader will use the services of extraordinary ministers. Together with these extraordinary ministers they will attain extraordinary achievements in history.” (Scroll 26: Wei Zhi, Vol.2)


Confucius said: “A leader must respect his ministers because they are the representatives of the people. He must choose ministers close to him carefully because they are the role models for the people.” (Scroll 7: Li Ji)


King Wen’s benevolence had helped him to revive a government that was beneficent to the people. When he obtained the services of virtuous people, he paid great respect to them and continued to treat them in accord with the proper rites and protocols. Had he not treasured the virtuous people he would not have been able to gain their confidence and enabled them to work in peace and maximize their potential to help him secure his objectives. Likewise, the wise king of antiquity would respect the jurisdictions of his ministers, their stipends, and take good care of them. He would regularly visit ministers who had been stricken ill. And when a minister died, he would personally offer condolences to the minister’s bereaved family and attend the complete funeral rites conducted in three stages. A king would not drink wine or eat meat until the body of the deceased minister had been placed in the coffin. Neither would he entertain himself with music before the burial rites were done. If a minister died during an ancestral offering ceremony, the king would call off the ceremonial music as a sign of mourning for the deceased minister. Thus, the kings in ancient time did everything they could to live up to the requirements of the propriety, and their ministers would repay them with undying devotion. (Scroll 17: Han Shu, Vol.5)


The Duke of Zhou taught his son, Bo Qin, this lesson: “I am the son of King Wen, the younger brother of King Wu, and uncle to King Cheng. My position is therefore not lowly. However, there were times when I had to stop several times in the course of washing my hair; or stop several times in the course of eating, so that I could greet virtuous men who came by for a visit. Still, I am afraid that I might have overlooked any virtuous man. When you arrive at the state of Lu, you must remember this – Never regard your status as a king and look down on anybody.” (Scroll 11: Shi Ji, Vol.1)


There are Ten Hindrances that can render difficult the task of appointing virtuous and able people to a government position:

  1. The inability to recognize an able person.
  2. If such a person is recognized, no appointment is offered to him.
  3. If such a person is appointed, his ability is under-utilized.
  4. The service of this person is terminated before him term is over.
  5. A person’s virtues are overlooked, and his service is disregarded due to minor resentments from the leader.
  6. This person’s outstanding contributions are dismissed because of some minor offenses he has committed.
  7. This person’s overall excellence is concealed because of some minor flaws in his character.
  8. This person’s integrity is hurt because of disparaging attacks waged against him by malicious parties.
  9. Deviant beliefs have disrupted regular laws.
  10. A virtuous and able person is dismissed because of unfounded accusations made by back-stabbers who are jealous of his presence.

If these Ten Hindrances are not eradicated, the able and virtuous ministers will not be able to serve and assert any influence within the government. And when good ministers are not put to good use, a country’s ability to survive will be challenged. (Scroll 46: Shen Jian)


King Wen posed this question to his strategist Jian Tai Gong: “A ruler is enthusiastic in recruiting the best of minds to work in the government, but little has been gained. Social disruptions are on the rise and they are threatening the security of the country. How can this happen?” Tai Gong said: “If you select the best of minds but cannot put them in positions of influence, the presence is only useful in name but not useful in practice.” King Wen asked: “So who is at fault here?” Tai Gong replied: “These problems arose because a leader favours a so-called celebrity made famous by worldly standards and not somebody with any ability to do the job properly.” (Scroll 31: Liu Tao)


If a leader habitually humiliates his ministers and subjects, wise strategist will become reluctant to devise plans for him; eloquent people will become reluctant to embark on diplomatic missions for him; courageous men will become reluctant to engage in warfare for him. Without the advice from the wise strategists, the country will be trapped in danger. Without the services of eloquent diplomats, the relations with other countries will be put under strain. And without the dedication of brave men to fight gallantly, the frontiers will soon become targets of invasion. (Scroll 42: Xin Xu)


A country is governed well because it has a wise leader. A country is in ruin because it has a foolish leader. A wise leader will listen and gauge opinions from all sides, but a foolish leader will only listen to opinions that echo his own mind. So, if a leader is broad-minded and able to accept suggestions from all parties, his sagacity will increase day by day. On the contrary, if he insists on listening to the one-sided, sly, and fawning remarks, his foolishness will also increase day by day. (Scroll 44: Qian Fu Lun)


We have heard that a good leader will not refuse to hear from the loyal and forthright ministers, and distance himself from the obsequious and the servile. However, government after government had fallen throughout history because forthright and loyal ministers were punished while obsequious ministers were rewarded and favored. Perhaps it is easier to accept flattery than to accept honest advice. (Scroll 23: Hou Han Shu, Vol.3)


A wise leader worries about being surrounded by flatterers, a situation that can isolate him from hearing the truth about his own mistakes. Hence, he opens the channels where people who defy his wishes. As long as the proponents express their opinions out of loyalty and sincerity for the common good, he will gladly accept them even though their propositions may not be right all the time. (Scroll 49: Fu Zi)


Emperor Shun said: “If I made a mistake you must help to current me. Do not seem agreeable in front of me but stir up negative remarks against me behind my back.” Likewise, a good government will encourage people to submit their dissensions to the government and guide them to speak out truthfully. This way a government will be able to get to the bottom of things and draw up sensible policies. (Scroll 44: Qian Fun Lun)


A leader who brings greatness to his nation welcomes criticism directed at him. A leader who brings chaos to his nation prefers praise that glorifies his name. For the former, good fortune will follow him because he will make fewer mistakes over time. But for the latter, misfortune will beset him as he sinks deeper into the false acclaim that is detrimental to his virtues. (Scroll 28: Wu Zhi, Vol.2)


On seeing men of integrity being dishonored and witnessing officials who dared to speak up being silenced, many ministers knew this was wrong, but nobody dared to stand up and fight to remedy this situation. When everybody is wary of admonishing the government, this is indeed the greatest misfortune that besets a nation. (Scroll 19: Han Shu, Vol.7)


Confucius said: “Effective medicine is bitter, but it can cure sickness. Truthful words are not enticing but they can help people to correct their mistakes. The nation enjoyed prosperity under King Tang and King Wu because they listened to admonitions extensively from all sides. On the country, the brutal King Jie and King Zhou preferred to listen to agreeable words that appealed to them, and this eventually led to their downfall.” (Scroll 10: Kong Zi Jia Yu)


If we make judgment lightly before all facts have been taken into consideration, what is right or wrong will no longer be clear, and the customs of making false accusations and engaging in flowery rhetoric will soon become fashionable. (Scroll 49: Fu Zi)


Rare indeed is a leader who will not favor his admirers. Little does he know that his admirers are not deserving of his unquestioning trust. When a leader is charmed by these scheming ministers and refuses to dismiss them, he wishes but nonetheless be truly helpful to his government. In the end, the right people will not be appointed to the right positions. (Scroll 47: Liu Yi Zheng Lun)


A house full of gold and jade cannot be safely kept forever. When wealth and honor lead to arrogance, it sows the seeds of one’s own downfall. To retire at the height of one’s own merit and fame, is in accord with the law of nature. (Scroll 34: Lao Zi)


The ability to “listen and observe” is the door to life or death, the key to safety or danger. If a leader cannot listen and observe from diverse sources but relies only on opinions provided by his trusted sources, his plans will be deficient and incomplete. On the other hand, if he were to hear from diverse sources, and yet were to embrace this information in an unsuitable manner, or were to fail to evaluate them accurately, the resulting plans would still be disastrous. (Scroll 48: Ti Lun)


Confucius said: “If everybody likes him, observe and study him carefully. If everybody dislikes him, also observe and study him carefully.” A virtuous sage will neither make decisions based on public opinions, nor insist that his personal opinion be the only right way, Instead, he will consider both sides of the argument and measure them by the standards of righteous virtue, so that good candidates will not be omitted from the government, and save the government from becoming corrupt and meeting with its demise. (Scroll 44: Qian Fu Lun)


One of the biggest problems about a leader is that when he spends too much time on minor details and not enough time on what is important. He can be too concerned about immediate issues but lacks foresight to plan. History has shown us that such a leader will certainly bring forth destruction. (Scroll 46: Zhong Lun)


Duke Qi asked Yanzi: “In the past, kings who dispersed their citizens and ruined their states – what was their leadership like?” Yanzi said: “While the country struggled in poverty, they craved for greatness and grandiosity. While their ability and intelligence were weak, they craved for absolute power and clung on stubbornly to their own views. They favored the flatterers and disdained those who were virtuous. They were arrogant and contemptuous of the people. They did not impose consistent laws, nor did they set behavioral standards for the people. They misidentified pugnacious officials as being intelligent and assumed that these officials’ oppression of the people was a sign of their allegiance. In great lavishness the leaders forgot their duties to the nation and merrily they waged war with no concerns for the welfare of the people. They were quick at convicting and executing the condemned but slow at rewarding those with a fine record of services. They delighted in causing miseries to others and took advantage of others’ sufferings. They have so little virtue to speak of that they could not possibly appease the people, and their ironclad rules could do little to transform the people. In other words, the reward system was insufficient to compel people to do good things, while the penalty system was insufficient to deter people from breaking the law. All the above will ruin a country. Now that the people despise the laws imposed on them, this is tantamount to the consequences caused by leaders who dispersed their citizens and lost their states in the past. (Scroll 33: Yan Zi)


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