Stories from Ancient China: Loyalty, Fairness and Self-Restraint

Guan Yu was a man of the Three Kingdom Period (approximately 3rd century A.D.). He was very loyal, fair, and courteous. As a youth, he befriended Liu Bei and Zhang Fei, and the three became blood brothers. Since then, Guan Yu maintained his loyalty and accompanied Liu Bei in many fierce battles. He was conferred the title of a general of the Shu Kingdom. His character is well known in China throughout history.

Guan Yu enjoyed reading Spring and Autumn, and followed the teaching of "exercise restraint in sounds, colors, clothes, fragrance, tastes, and housing," meaning that one should not listen to music that is too emotional, indulge in sex and good clothes, pay too much attention to appearances and makeup, eat rare or exotic foods, or live in an overly luxurious residence.

In order to protect the two wives of Liu Bei’s, Guan Yu was forced to surrender to Cao Cao, the King of Wei. He frankly told Cao Cao that he was indebted to Liu Bei and had sworn that they would not live without each other. The oath could not be broken, so he would eventually return to Liu Bei.

Cao Cao arranged for Guan Yu to live with Liu Bei’s two wives in the hopes that Guan Yu would break his moral obligations to Liu Bei. Instead, Guan Yu stood outside all night long with a candle and read Spring and Autumn through the night without feeling tired at all.

Cao Cao awarded Guan Yu the title of assistant general and treated him generously. He gave Guan Yu a lot of gold, silver, jewelry, and silk. Guan Yu sealed them all in storage and did not use any of them. Cao Cao gave Guan Yu a residence. Guan Yu divided the residence into two parts. The inner yard was occupied by Liu Bei’s wives and watched by veteran guards. He himself lived in the outer yard. Three times a day, he bowed to the inner yard to greet Liu Bei’s wives. Cao Cao also sent many young women to accompany Guan Yu, but Guan Yu asked all of them to live with and assist Liu Bei’s wives.

Cao Cao saw that Guan Yu’s green army coat was getting shabby, and immediately gave him a new one. Guan Yu wore the new one inside his coat, but still wore the old one outside. Cao Cao laughed and asked him why he was so frugal. Guan Yu said, "I am not frugal. This old army coat was given to me by Liu Bei. When I wear it, I feel that I am with him. I don’t dare to forget the old coat just because you gave me a new one, so I’ll still wear the old coat on the outside."

Cao Cao knew that Guan Yu was a man of loyalty, and respected him for that. When Guan Yu learned Liu Bei’s whereabouts, he left a note for Cao Cao and went to follow Liu Bei in battles.

Later generations built temples to memorialize Guan Yu’s loyalty and morality. A building named "Spring and Autumn Pavilion" was built where he read the book Spring and Autumn throughout the night; it was also called "Pavilion of Great Virtue." Emperor Zhu Yujun of the Ming Dynasty wrote in a poem, "Who could hold a candle in the darkest hour of the morning? Everywhere in China, incense was burned to remember your name." Zhen Ruzhou, local official of Xuzhou from the Qing Dynasty, wrote another poem for the "Spring and Autumn Pavilion": "Holding a candle at midnight to avoid suspicious; a building was divided into two separate yards. Although he surrendered to Cao Cao, he still returned to Han [Liu Bei]; his brilliant spirit remains in Yingchuan today."

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