One Benefits from Modesty and Is Ruined by Complacence
There is an ancient Chinese saying, "One benefits from modesty and is ruined by complacence." Lao Zi said, "A man is able to tell right from wrong when he does not think of himself as a know-it-all. A man will be recognized for his achievements when he does not brag. A man is capable of great accomplishments if he is not arrogant."
A tolerant person is bound to have good fortune. An intolerant person is bound to have bad fortune. Being humble or being arrogant determines one's fortune. A humble man of lofty character will become increasingly moral. Hence, modesty is a virtue a moral person must maintain.
During the Spring and Autumn Period in ancient China (770 – 476 BC), Zilu, a disciple of Confucius, once asked Confucius, "Why does a degenerated person tend to be conceited?" Confucius replied, "At its origin in Wen Mountain, the Yangtze River is unable to even float a cup. But when the Yangtze River goes down to the next port, multiple boats can line up in a row on the river." Zilu asked again, "What do you mean, teacher?" Confucius explained, "The Yangtze River is a very long river (the longest river in China), but it is no more than a small brook at its origin. It becomes bigger and wider as it keeps receiving water from many different brooks and rivers. A man who thinks twice before he speaks does not boast or make empty promises. A man who thinks twice before he acts does not hug all the credit. A true gentleman is wise and kind. A true gentleman respects, tolerates and forgives others and is a man of his word. A degenerated man thinks little of virtue and that is the reason why he is not the man he appears to be on the outside and is conceited."
Yu the Great (2200 – 2101 BC), a virtuous king who founded the Xia Dynasty (2070 – 1600 BC), never boasted or acted proud. He used to say, "Everyone's merit is worth learning!" When offered advice, Yu often bowed to express his gratitude. In fact, Yu was very open to feedback. He was best remembered for successfully controlling the flooding of the Yellow River.
The Duke of Zhou was a man of extraordinary talents, charisma and accomplishments, but he was far from arrogant or narrow-minded. On the contrary, the Duke of Zhou treated talented people with courtesy and humbleness. He was worried that the government might miss out on talented men during the recruiting process. He followed the Mandate of Heaven, established the rites of Zhou and created Yayue (“elegant music”) of Chinese classical music.
Emperor Taizong (599 – 649 AD) of the Tang Dynasty was the most welcome of criticism out of all emperors. He achieved greatness by accepting criticism that others would find difficult to accept. He tried hard not to abuse his absolute power. He used to say, "A rational ruler becomes increasingly wise by reflecting upon his flaws, while an irrational ruler is forever foolish in hiding his flaws." Emperor Taizong not only humbly accepted feedback, but he encouraged criticism. He truly delighted in criticism. This was why capable chancellors speaking their minds abounded during his reign in the Zhenguan Era (627 – 649 AD) and his administration became one of the few honest and uncorrupted ones in history.
Virtuous rulers in Chinese history respected Heaven, complied with morality, acted humbly, respected others, restrained their conduct, and advocated kindness. They were role models of morality. Consequently, they were blessings to their subjects. But have they ever boasted of their morality? If virtuous kings were so modest, why shouldn't we learn from them?
Shi Chong (249 – 300 AD) and Wang Kai were two of the richest men of the Jin Dynasty (265 – 420 AD). They competed with each other in showing off their wealth in one of the most absurd acts in history. To show off his wealth, Wang Kai made a purple silk screen 12 miles long flanking the entryway to his house. Shi Chong topped him with a 16-mile long colorful satin screen. Next, Wang Kai showed off a coral fan one foot tall, an expensive gift from the emperor, at a banquet. While all the other guests were impressed by the size of the coral fan, Shi Chong smashed the coral fan with an iron back scratcher. He then presented many coral fans two to three feet tall and gave one to Wang Kai as compensation. Later on, Shi Chong's home was besieged by an usurper's army during unrest. Before he died, Shi Chong sighed and said, "You are killing me for my wealth!" Shi Chong didn't come to his senses until he was about to die. If only he had come to that realization sooner, he would not have been so arrogant. Showing off can lead one to a very cruel fate. With this lesson in mind, how can we not be prudent in our words and actions? Besides, wealth and talents are nothing to brag about. If a man brags or shows off his wealth or talent, he has lost his morality and shame even before disaster arrives.
Once a man becomes conceited, he will stop cultivating his morality. Complacency is an obstacle to improvement. Once a man starts showing off, he will stop improving his morality. Nothing is more meaningful than making humble and constant efforts to improve one's morality. A man will be able to shoulder important and grand responsibilities only if he perseveres in pursuing truth and a higher realm of morality. A man is able to teach others with kindness and disintegrate all degenerated elements only if he tolerates everyone and everything. There is another ancient Chinese saying, "Do not hug all the credit. He who does not hug credit will get all the credit. He who does not fight does not have any enemies."