Lessons from Ancient Chinese Statesmen: Tolerance Brings Blessings

Illustration of Jiang Wan, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Shu during China's Warring States Period.
Jiang Wan was a prominent politician and strategist during the Three Kingdoms period in China, known for his prudent and stable administration which maintained the state's integrity in a time of turbulence. (Image: t0ngo via Pixabay)

The ancient Chinese placed great emphasis on self-cultivation and moral development, believing that tolerance was a form of wisdom. A generous spirit and a kind-hearted approach to others not only accumulated good deeds, but also attracted good fortune and improved the character of others.

Leading with composure and tolerance

During the era of the Three Kingdoms, after the death of Zhuge Liang, the ruler of Shu, Liu Shan, followed Zhuge Liang’s will to appoint Jiang Wan to preside over state affairs. With the death of Zhuge Liang, the Kingdom of Shu had just lost its main commander. They were also facing formidable enemies at the border and internal chaos abounded. Despite being new to overseeing the government, Jiang Wan remained calm and composed, keeping the big picture in mind. “He showed neither grief nor joy, his demeanor and spirit were as usual,” which quickly stabilized the hearts of the people.

Jiang was known for his kindness and tolerance, while his subordinate, Yang Xi, had a proud and reserved personality, and was often reluctant to speak. When Jiang talked with him, Yang would frequently remain silent and not respond. Some people found this disrespectful and said in front of Jiang: “Yang’s disregard for you is going too far!”

Jiang calmly smiled and said: “People have different hearts, just as they have different faces. It is not the way of the ancients to be agreeable in person, but criticize behind one’s back. If I were to make Yang praise me in front of others, it would go against his nature. If I were to make him speak ill of me in public, he would feel that I have lost face. This is an admirable aspect of his character.” This incident led to people praising Jiang Wan or his broadmindedness and tolerance, saying: “The stomach of a prime minister can hold a paddle boat.” 

Jiang knew that people have different hearts, just as they do different faces, and he treated others with tolerance.
Jiang knew that people have different hearts, just as they do different faces and he treated others with tolerance. (Image: Cammeraydave via Dreamstime)

On one occasion, Yang Min, the director of agriculture, stated that Jiang’s performance was far inferior to that of the previous prime minister. Someone informed Jiang that the supervising officials who learned of this were demanding punishment for Yang’s remark. However, Jiang chose not to pursue the matter, stating: “I am truly not as capable as my predecessor, and there is no one else to blame.”

Later, others expected Jiang to seek revenge when Yang Min committed an offense. Surprisingly, Jiang instead generously pleaded for leniency on his behalf. Others could not help but feel indignant on his behalf, but Jiang calmly remarked: “It is a fact that I am not as capable as the previous prime minister. Everyone knows it, so there is nothing to fear from others’ comments. As for his current offense, I hope he will receive fair and impartial treatment.” Jiang’s tolerance overcame any desire for revenge.

During his tenure as prime minister, Jiang Wan adhered to the policies of Zhuge Liang. He was insightful and just in his decisions, governed according to the law, and neither flattered nor listened to slander, earning the respect of all. Historical records state that “he was dignified and had a commanding presence, following Zhuge Liang’s established principles and not changing them. Therefore, the borders were safe, and the country was harmonious.”

 Repaying resentment with virtue

During the Warring States Period, Song Jiu, a great minister in the state of Liang, served as a county magistrate near the border of Chu. The neighboring states of Liang and Chu had border garrisons, and each garrison had melon fields. The residents of Liang were very diligent and regularly irrigated their melon fields, yielding robust melon growth. In contrast, the people of Chu were lazy and negligent in irrigating their fields, resulting in poor growth for their melons.

Photo of a melon in a farm field.
The people of Liang were diligent about irrigating their melon fields, yielding robust melon growth. (Image: Milacroft via Dreamstime)

One night, while everyone in Liang was sound asleep, the people of Chu went to trample and break their melon vines out of jealousy. When the people of Liang discovered this, they went to seek advice from Song, suggesting to him that they should seek revenge by trampling the melon vines of the people of Chu. Upon hearing this, Song shook his head and said: “How can we do such a thing? Holding grudges against others only invites trouble. If others treat us poorly, and we treat them poorly in return, how narrow-minded would that be? I will tell you what to do: Every night, secretly water the Chu people’s melon field without their knowledge.”

The people of Chu checked their melon fields in the morning and found they had already been watered. With the help of the people of Liang, the melon fields of Chu’s border garrison began to thrive. The people of Chu were quite surprised and decided to secretly investigate. They were amazed to discover that the people of Liang had been watering their fields. As a result, they were greatly moved and reported the incident to the Chu court. 

Upon learning of the incident, the King of Chu felt ashamed. He sent representatives with generous gifts to apologize to the personnel of Liang’s border garrison and request the establishment of a relationship with the King of Liang. The King of Chu would later frequently praise the King of Liang for his integrity.

Therefore, the friendly relations between the two states began with Song’s proper handling of the border melon field incident, exemplifying the ancient adage “turning misfortune into a blessing” and echoing Lao Tzu’s wisdom of “repaying resentment with virtue.” Song Jiu’s refusal to succumb to revenge, opting instead for kindness and generosity, not only mended the broken melon vines, but also sowed the seeds of friendship between Liang and Chu. 

The tale of the border melon field incident became a testament to the transformative power of forgiveness and compassion, serving as a timeless reminder of the value of empathy and grace in the face of adversity.

Translated by Joseph Wu

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  • Tatiana Denning

    Dr. Denning has always believed in root-cause medicine. With a focus on wellness and prevention. she has used both her medical degree and her degree in psychology, to create a program with proven results. Dr. Denning's desire to correct the underlying causes underlying cause of many chronic medical conditions has been the driving force for her focus on nutrition and weight management. With years of experience in the field, Dr. Denning has helped thousands of patients lose thousands of pounds.