Cleverness VS Wisdom
The principle that prestigious families give to their offspring to prepare them as high-rank officials normally comes in three ways: respect the law, morality, and worldly wisdom. This is the well-known three-inone “emotion, reason, and law” principle.
To speak of it, it is clear and concise, but to really put it into practice is extremely difficult. To do the right thing and avoid evil is something that most of us are able to do. To be able to maintain one’s integrity and values in a diverse and complex political atmosphere, while still taking action to do the things you need to do and preserving one and one’s family involves our senses of reason, cognitive abilities, and good judgment.
Some types of behavior are fair and just, while being completely above the law, but no matter how you look at it, it always seems to come across as somewhat improper, bordering on hypocritical and fraudulent, quite like a ‘scheming civil servant.’
During the Song dynasty, Teng Zijing built the Yueyang Tower, turning Teng Zijing into a household name. Fame, though, does not necessarily equate to a good reputation.
According to records in Sima Guang’s
Records of Rumors from Sus hui, Teng Zijing didn’t use any of the local government’s funds to build the Yueyang Tower, neither did he distribute the costs among the commoners. Where did the money come from? He suggested that any long unpaid debts of the commoners could be donated, instead, to the government for the construction of the tower. This not only allowed people to pay off the debts weighing heavily on their consciences, but also proved to be an opportunity to do something charitable. People were able to have their names etched into stone tablets, having their name left behind for ages, while also bringing blessings for one’s progeny.
His method was quite effective, with large sums of money flowing in like a steady stream. As a matter of fact, it was quite ingenious of the clever Teng Zijing, just not quite ethical. He took all of the money and kept it locked up tight, by himself, with only him left to be in charge of all revenues and expenditures. There was not even a single digit written down in the accounting books. The Yueyang Tower was constructed magnificently beyond compare and Teng Zijing made a king’s ransom. The average man did not find him to be greedy, instead thinking of him as quite a capable person.
This is our so-called ‘scheming civil servant.’ However you look at it, what he did was fair, reasonable, and lawful, it even amounted to a charitable deed—he made a good name for himself and fattened up his wallet.
This is cleverness, but it is not wisdom, as what he did harmed the integrity and morality of his name.
In the reign of Qianlong during the Qing dynasty, Zhao Dajing became the Vice-president of the Court of Censors, equivalent to today’s Deputy Minister of Affairs at the Ministry of Supervision. His student, Yong Gui, was the governor of Zhejiang. Before taking office he went to bid farewell to his teacher and ask for advice about the proper governance of state.
Vice-president Zhao asked his student: “A new official upon assuming office sets
three fires, what will your first fire be?”
Yong Gui replied: “To punish the corrupt.”
His teacher and vice-president laughed: “Let me give you a suggestion, you must absolutely not touch anyone who already has received any embezzled money or goods.”
The would-be governor dumbfounded: “Then which corrupt am I supposed to be going after?”
The vice-president and teacher began his enlightenment of officialdom: “Current official circles have already become a large web of profit, it is indestructible and you must most certainly not act imprudently. So, just forget about fighting corruption. But, you can’t idle about doing nothing, I would advise you to go after thieves and robbers—they don’t have any backers or supporters. Arresting them will be your contribution to society and count as one of your professional achievements, all without the slightest consequence or risk.”
The vice-president and teacher’s words had Yong Gui on his knees: “But for your advice, how could I know that these official circles are as deep as the oceans—I might mess up and die in the waters without even knowing who’s harmed me?”
Vice-president Zhao was supposed to be teaching his students the way of proper state governance, seemingly combining emotion and reason. In actuality, he is nothing more than a ‘scheming civil servant.’ Cleverness does not count as wisdom. It maintains one’s position as a government official and protects the profits it brings, while damaging morality, justice, and conscience. Individually it stands to reason, but for a country it is nothing more than courting disaster.
Are there any government officials that stick to their principles while maintaining a good reputation? Certainly. During the Song dynasty, Qian Ruoshui was famous for his benevolence and filial piety, he viewed avoiding a greedy attitude as a treasure, he treated people sincerely, and was honest and straightforward in his dealings with others. He was the state judge of Tong Zhou and was in charge of judicial administration. A colleague of his once tried borrowing money from a wealthy man, but the wealthy man knew that it would be no more than throwing steamed meat buns to a dog and decided to not lend the money. A little time after, a maidservant of the wealthy man went on the run. This co-worker of his abetted the parents of the maidservant to file a lawsuit against the rich family claiming that it was the father and son who killed their daughter and hid the body. Through torture, the rich man confessed to the false charges and was given the death penalty.
Qian Ruoshui, finding the case to be all too suspicious, bottled it up. His colleague came over to his residence, screaming obscenities claiming that he and the wealthy man have a mighty ambiguous relationship.
Qian Ruoshui laughed and said: “When this knife drops, there will be many beheaded, why don’t you let me have a good look for myself, alright?”
Later, Qian Ruoshui secretly sent men to find the run-away maidservant and put the case into the hands of the magistrate, the mayor himself. A case rife with unjust, fake, and falsified charges was thus redressed. The magistrate took off the stocks and chains right then and there, the wealthy man and his family cried bitterly, kowtowing incessantly, overwhelmed with gratitude. The magistrate, not being able to take it anymore said, “It was not I who saved
your family, it was judge Qian.” The wealthy family went to visit and pay their respects to Qian Ruoshui, but Qian Ruoshui kept his door shut and did not come out, only passing on the message, “It is all thanks to the mayor’s discerning eye, it does not have even the slightest to do with me.” The wealthy family went around the corner weeping, not being able to leave for a long time.
Later, when the mayor wanted to recommend Qian Ruoshui for promotion he just shook his head and waved his hand saying, “Sir, I only wish to save the innocent from an unjust death, and this is what I ought to do, I never imagined winning and honors or being promoted. If you insist on reporting this case to the upper authority for my promotion, what would happen to my colleague and his family?”
This is the famous historical story of Qian Ruoshui’s discerning injustice. Qian Ruoshui chose to expel the evil with the good, saving lives, protecting justice, and moreso showing solicitude for human nature, having good sense, which not only avoided the calamity of the destruction of the entire wealthy family but also protected the entire family of his colleague’s.
Qian Ruoshui didn’t take road of a ‘ scheming civil servant,’ he was not opportunistic and he didn’t make compromises, maintaining both his professional achievements and his morality. He was rational and law-abiding, the perfect example of the three-in-one “emotion, reason, and law” principle.
This is the breadth of a wise man and is more so the magnanimity of nobility.
April 11, 2017.Translation:Sam Bowden) ,