The emphasis of discipline and showing respect to one’s teacher are traditional values found in ancient Chinese culture. Sayings such as “A teacher to a student is like a father to a son,” and “A teacher even for one day should be respected as a father forever” were common. A student looks to his teacher as a profound person akin to his father, thus calling him “gracious teacher” or “master.” Teachers impart ethics, knowledge and values to their students. They teach people proper manners for interacting with each other, and for handling things in society at large. While learning from the teacher, a student must not only clearly understand the principle of respectfully serving the teacher from his heart, but also faithfully performing what the teacher imparts to him.
Zeng Shen (505 – 435 BC) became a student of Confucius at the age of 16. He was studious and sincerely compliant with his master’s teachings, and became the main successor and disseminator of Confucianism, playing an important connecting role between generations in Confucian culture. His motto, “multiple self-reflections daily,” meant that he repeatedly examined himself every day to determine whether he had done his best for others, been honest to his friends, or reviewed his teacher’s teachings diligently.
There is a classical story called “Zeng Shen leaves his seat to show his respect,” in which Confucius asked Zeng one time when Zeng was sitting next to him: “Former virtuous kings had sublime virtues and profound theories that they used to teach their people. Do you know why people could live in harmony and there was no dissatisfaction between the kings and their subordinates?” Knowing that Confucius was about to teach him profound principles, Zeng immediately got up and stood beyond the edge of the mat. He then respectfully answered: “I am not wise enough to know the reason. Please teach me.” This was a demonstration of great respect for the teacher. People have later learned this etiquette from Zeng Shen.
After returning to the State of Lu from the State of Chu with Confucius, Zeng farmed during the day and studied in the evening until midnight every day. It was a difficult lift. He was poor because he did not hold any official position. The king of Lu heard the good virtues of Zeng, and decided to bestow him with a piece of fertile land. Zeng declined the offer, citing that he could not accept the land without doing any work to earn it. The king’s envoy advised him: “Why don’t you accept, since you did not ask for it?” Zeng sincerely replied: “I often hear that a giver has pride, while a receiver is humble. Even though the giver is not prideful, how can I not be humble?” Zeng declined the king’s gift. Knowing that, Confucius praised him: “Zeng’s words have proved his moral integrity.”
After Confucius passed away, Zeng and other students such as Zi Xia, Zi Zhang, Zi You and You Ruo went into a period of mourning for three years. At the end of the mourning period, they bowed in unison to Confucius’ grave and then left in tears. Zi Xia, Zi Zhang and Zi You then proposed: “Since You Ruo looks like teacher, we can make believe that he is Confucius and serve him as sincerely and courteously as we did Confucius. Doing so would show our respect for teacher.” Zeng became very angry and was opposed to the idea. He said assertively: “We cannot do this. Teacher’s virtue was so clean, like being washed by the clear river water, and so bright, like being bathed by the autumn sunshine. His virtue was also as glorious as the boundless sky. How can he be compared to someone who just looks like him?” The others were astonished at what Zeng said, and were deeply moved by his sincerity to his teacher and his meticulous etiquette.
Zeng Shen succeeded Confucius and bravely took on the responsibility of promoting ethics, benevolence and virtue. He said: “A person with lofty ideals cannot be weak in resolve and perseverance because of the heavy responsibility and long journey ahead. Is it not a heavy responsibility to strive to achieve benevolence and virtue? Is it not a long journey to uphold justice forever?” Zeng Shen later authored the classic books Great Learning, and Classic of Filial Piety. He was later regarded as one of the Four Sages of Confucianism.