The Great Learning in Ancient China (Part 2)
A family, country and the world, though different in size, follow the same principles as self-cultivation because the prosperity or decline of a family, country and world are all closely related to the cultivation of individuals. The methods of self-cultivation can be extended and applied to managing a family, ruling the country and presiding over the world with peace. For instance, self-cultivation leads a person to be filial to his parents. If he shows the same virtue to his emperor, he is a loyal official. Likewise, when a person with brotherly love shows the same virtue to his seniors, it becomes respect. A kind person who shows the same virtue while managing people must be very compassionate. Therefore, a well-cultivated person can manage his family well. Then he can also rule the country well. He will definitely recruit talented people of great virtue and preside over the world with peace. Self-cultivation is the most fundamental thing. If everyone attaches importance to self-cultivation, shoulders his own responsibility and does well on his own, then the world will be peaceful. Not everyone can become a great individual like Emperor Yao or Shun. However, the virtue of a noble man is like the wind, and the virtue of a sly person is like the grass. The virtue of a noble man could affect that of an ordinary person, just as in the relationship between wind and grass.
On the contrary, if no one cultivates himself, but always thinks of how to control others, then no one can improve. Officials at higher positions will have no virtue or talent and use suppression and torture to “manage” people. People at lower positions will have no choice and find it difficult to keep an upright mind. As a result, none among the emperor, officials, parents and children does well in his position. When conflicts intensify, the world will be in chaos. This results from taking the branch as the root. Therefore, the most fundamental element of all in ruling the country, managing the family or presiding over the world with peace, lies in self-cultivation of individuals.
Fan Zhongyan (989 – 1052 AD) was a famous high official in the Northern Song Dynasty. In The Yueyang Tower, he wrote, “Be concerned before the world starts worrying, be satisfied only after the world is content.” He lived his whole life according to these words. With the emperor, he made straightforward suggestions. In the communities, he built water conservation projects, helped guide talented people, preserved the lands and settled people down in a peaceful life. His achievements have been praised in the centuries since.
Fan Zhongyan attached great importance to self-cultivation at a young age. He was born into a very poor family. During the period when he was studying, he made a pot of porridge every night. The next day, the porridge would solidify. Fan would cut it into four pieces with a knife and ate two pieces for breakfast and the other two for dinner. A son of an official in Nanjing saw Fan eat porridge every day and was very touched. That official told his son to send food to Fan. However, Fan declined the food after sincerely expressing his thanks. He said, “I really appreciate your father’s help. I am accustomed to eating porridge every day, so I do not feel miserable at all. If I am greedy with this delicious food, how will I endure any type of hardship in the future?” Fan was very diligent even under difficult conditions. He was poor and frugal, but cultivated well. He eventually became a learned scholar and a famous top official at the court.
Fan taught his children by using his personal experiences and verbal instructions. All of his children became successful. His later generations inherited his good quality. His eldest son Fan Chunyou, at the age of 16, followed him to defend against the Western Xia and achieved many military successes. His second son, Fan Chunren, became a prime minister and was very responsible during his 50 years in government. His third son, Fan Chunli, became a chief minister. His fourth son, Fan Chuncui, became a financial minister. They were all righteous and were not afraid to speak up. They loved their people and were famous for being fair and honest while holding office at court. They donated most of their salaries to a charity village that Fan Zhongyan established for poor people.
In ancient China, there were many people like Fan Zhongyan. No matter how poor they were or how wealthy they became, they never changed their goal of self-cultivation. They attached great importance to virtue. They embraced the whole world, were concerned about their country and people, and pursued the great Way all their life.