Taking Delight in Having One's Mistakes Pointed Out
Being "delighted to have one's mistakes pointed out by others," is an ancient Chinese saying that embodies the very essence of Chinese traditional culture. It bespeaks of people of the past who accepted others' criticism and opinions and used them to correct and improve themselves.
Emperor Shun, a 23rd-22nd century BC leader of ancient China, made a practice of being delighted to have his mistakes pointed out. Under his leadership, he ushered in a new era of effective governance and harmonious societal reforms.
He ordered various grain seeds to be sown based on calculated seasonal conditions. He introduced irrigation by constructing ditches and drainage systems. He dredged rivers and controlled floods. He introduced the five penalties and eliminated four ferocious tribes. He appointed capable officials to oversee landscaping, agriculture, education, justice, and other important aspects of the society.
Emperor Shun became the lord of the largest league of tribes in central China. Historically, these tribes were thought to be one of the first ancestors of Chinese civilization to emphasize virtue and the adherence to the laws of nature.
Mencius (372 – 289 BC), a Chinese philosopher who was arguably the most famous Confucian after Confucius himself, taught his students about having the courage to accept criticisms. Mencius used three ancient figures as examples: Zilu, a disciple of Confucius, Emperor Yu and Emperor Shun. Mencius said, “When others pointed out mistakes made by Zilu, he was very happy. When Emperor Yu heard of something beneficial from someone, he would salute the person. Emperor Shun was even more outstanding. He had a remarkable ability to involve others while performing good deeds. He never stopped learning from others, eliminating his own shortcomings and improving himself. In this way, Emperor Shun was able to benefit numerous tribes through his virtuous actions. From his humble beginnings as a farmer, pottery craftsman, then fisherman, Shun worked his way up to become emperor. For his whole life he remained open to learning from others."
Li Shimin, known as Emperor Taizong of Tang (599 – 649 AD), was also a benevolent sage-like emperor. During his reign (627 – 649 AD), China reached its peak in power and prestige, known as the Golden Years of Zhenguan Era. One cannot dismiss his character of being open to accepting criticisms.
One day in the eighteenth year of the Zhenguan era, Emperor Taizong convened with various ministers in the imperial court. He said, "I would like to listen to your comments regarding my mistakes. Please just focus on my mistakes and speak freely."
Zhangsun Wuji and several other ministers chimed in, "Your Majesty carries out education and change with mercy and virtue. The world lives in peace and enjoys prosperity. What mistakes can there possibly be?"
Liu Ji, a chancellor, disagreed, "Your Majesty's sage-like virtue is indeed as immense as Zhangsun Wuji explained. However, recently someone submitted a written suggestion that did not please Your Majesty. Your Majesty scolded and interrogated the official in front of everyone. The official stepped back in line overcome with shame. This approach does not encourage officials to offer constructive criticism." Taizong was pleased and said, "What you said is correct. Mark my word that I will correct it!"
History serves as a mirror. Upon hearing others point out our mistakes, we need to face these mistakes head-on and have the fortitude and courage to learn from others. Only by becoming a good listener can we become wise. Only by correcting our mistakes, practicing good deeds, and constantly focusing inward, can we have a mature understanding of ourselves and of the world around us.