Stories from Ancient China: Sima Guang's View on Talent and Virtue

Sima Guang (1019-1086) was an upright scholar, statesman, and poet. He compiled 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 classified individuals into four groups based on their virtue and talents: the sagacious - those who have both virtues and talents; the foolish - those who have neither virtue nor talents; the noble - those who have virtue but no talents; and the inferior - those who have talents but no virtues.

When it was time to appoint an official, the first choice would be a sagacious person, 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. It was because individuals with talents but without virtue were most dangerous. They were worse than those who have neither talents nor virtue.

Sima Guang believed that a gentleman with talents could perform good deeds, whereas an inferior person would use his talent to do evil things. As for the foolish, they do not have sufficient wisdom to perform evil deeds. Whereas the inferior could easily demonstrate their evil side: if sufficient efforts were put in, their work could be very violent, like putting a pair of wings onto a tiger, and the damage done could be immeasurable.

Sima Guang further explained that a person with virtue was respected by others, and a person with talent was well-liked. However, a well-respected person could keep someone at a distance, but a well-liked person generally attracted people. Hence, as a scrutinizer, one may easily overlook the virtuous, but be overwhelmed by the talented. From history, almost all fatuous and self-indulgent emperors, treacherous officials, and prodigal sons were all talented people who lacked virtue. There have been too many examples of such people who caused the defeat of their countries or the loss of their homes. The infamous emperors such as Yin Zhouwang, Zhou Youwang, Sui Yangdi, etc. were all talented, but lacked virtue. They were all inferior persons who brought calamity to their own countries.

Yin Zhouwang, for example, was intelligent and knowledgeable. He was very powerful physically and was capable of combating a wild beast bare-handed. However, he often covered up his mistakes, turned a deaf ear to advice, and showed disrespect to the heavenly gods. He was demonstrative and liked showing off his talent. He felt that the whole world was inferior to him, and he was cruel and brutal. He tortured loyal supporters with a burning iron, cut open a woman's belly to examine the baby, broke someone's bone to extract the marrow, and dissected his own uncle alive to get his heart. Finally, the feudal lords and his people turned against him. Yin Zhouwang was defeated by Zhou Wuwang and his kingdom was overthrown. He died in an immolating fire, and his name has ever since become a laughing stock in history.

Hence, Sima Guang reiterated that when selecting an emperor or appointing an official, virtue comes first.

Reference: Song History - Biography of Sima Guang

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