Stories from Ancient China: Governing a Country with Virtue and Appointing Officials Based on Sagacity

An individual without virtue cannot establish him or herself in the world. Cultivating virtue should be a priority in life.

"Governing a country with virtue and appointing officials based on sagacity" builds a foundation to govern a country well and bring peace to the world. This saying comes from China's age-old and profound culture, which is said to have been imparted by the gods. It is a virtue that should forever be remembered and passed on.

One who is sagacious often displays a nobility of character as well as the capacity to effect people's well-being. Ancient Chinese people appointed officials who adhered to the principle of virtue and displayed valuable talents, but these qualities had differing degrees of importance. Virtue was primary as it would then guide one's leadership abilities, leading to the saying "talents support virtue, while virtue leads to talents."

Sima Guang (1019-1086) was an upright scholar, statesman, and poet. He Zi Zhi Tong Jian, i.e., Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government, a general chronicle of Chinese history from 403 BC to AD 959. It is considered one of the finest single historical works from the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Sima Guang divided individuals into four groups based on their virtue and talents: sagacious persons, who have both virtues and talents; foolish persons, who have neither virtue nor talents; noble persons who have virtue but no talents; and inferior persons, who have talents but no virtues.

When it was time to appoint an official, the first choice would be a sagacious person and then a noble person. If neither a sagacious person nor a noble person could be found, it would be better to use a foolish person rather than an inferior one, because individuals with talents but without virtue were most dangerous. They were worse than those who have neither talents nor virtue.

Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), when appointing officials, always used this criterion: "When a person is appointed, his virtue is most important while his talents are secondary," and "the best candidate is the one who has both virtue and talents, and one with talents but without virtue is worse than one with virtue but lacks talents."

There is a story from the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.). King Hui in the Wei Nation asked King Wei from the Qi Nation, "As king of the Qi Nation, what kinds of treasures have you collected?" King Wei replied, "Nothing." King Hui said, "In a small nation like mine, I have collected several pearls that are about one inch in diameter. These pearls can emit light that can shine on twelve carriages. In your nation that has thousands of carriages, how come you have no treasures?" King Wei replied, "The treasures most valuable to me are sagacious people, and they are different from the treasures you have. I have an official named Tanzi. I let him govern Gaotang, so the Zhao Nation does not dare to invade our nation. I have another official named Qianfu whom I have appointed to govern Xuzhou. He takes charge of over seven thousand families that have moved there from different places. I have still another official called Zhongshou under whose governing people lead peaceful and happy lives: no one picks up things that others have lost, and families don't worry, even if they don't shut their front doors at night. Treasures like these can shine over thousands of miles, far more than twelve carriages." King Wei's words revealed why the Qi Nation was rich and powerful.

Prime Minister Zhuge Liang (181-234 AD), one of the most accomplished strategists in Chinese history during the Kingdom of Shu (the Three Kingdoms era, 220-280 AD), recommended Jiang Wan to the emperor as his successor. He commended Jiang for emphasising his personal cultivation, his lofty character, his willingness to accept criticism, and his unselfishness. After Zhuge's death, Jiang managed the nation's affairs prudently and effectively. People's interests were the core of his work; he was forgiving and enjoyed people's trust. At that time, the Kingdom of Shu was not as strong as the Wei Kingdom, which had many outstandingly capable people and attacked the Kingdom of Shu several times. The fact that Jiang Wan and Jiang Wei (a famous general who succeeded Zhuge Liang in commanding the military) were able to safeguard the Kingdom of Shu and its people for as long as 29 years was testament to Zhuge's correct choice of officials. Zhuge himself was a visionary. To lead a northern expansion and unite China, he lived up to his own words, "exhausting myself for the nation till I die." In his letter to King Liu Chan just before he died, Zhuge wrote, "I have 800 mulberry trees [which can be used to feed the silk worms to produce silk], which should be enough for my children to support themselves. After I die, I would not want them to have surplus silk or external incomes, so as to prevent them from failing to live up to expectations." All the officials Zhuge had appointed led thrifty lives. Jiang Wan "Was elegant and modest in nature. He did not accumulate and hoard wealth in his home. He ordered all his children to wear plain clothes and eat plain food, so that their living habits were not different from those of the ordinary people." Similarly, Jiang Wei also "lived in a simple house, did not have savings, and had no servants with him when he traveled."

Governing a nation with virtue is quite important, as it might either negatively or positively impact the use of one's power to benefit or not benefit the people. Virtue also significantly impacts the officials' and people's conduct as well as the safety of the nation.

Ever since ancient time, ethical, virtuous officials and those with good personal integrity have constituted the foundation of honest and fair politics. Such officials are able to put the interests of the people as a priority at all times. By contrast, appointing officials according to kinship can only lead the country and the people into danger. They take personal interest as their starting point, which promotes selfishness and allows inferior persons to control everything. The result is lasting damage to the country. Historically viewed, the appearance of corrupt officials or prodigal sons has been due to this. The reason behind the biggest calamities is that those involved have no virtue.

Today, when people's morals are in rapid decline, reviving traditional, god-imparted, Chinese culture has become ever more important. Laws can restrict people's behaviour, but adhering to morals restricts people's minds. Only an inferior person will be subject solely to laws governing a nation. Governing oneself by virtue can guide one to become noble. Only by adhering to morals can people follow a righteous path and have a bright future. Acting in this way will produce righteous customs and conduct, and make everything prosperous and peaceful.

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