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The Essence of the Book ‘Zi Zhi Tong Jian’

(Image: Wikipedia)
(Image: Wikipedia)

Zi Zhi Tong Jian, also called Tong Jian for short, is an important history book compiled by the Northern Song Dynasty historian Sima Guang. It took him and his assistants nearly 20 years to complete. Tong Jian covers 16 dynasties and 1,362 years of Chinese history. It claims a lofty historical position and is a must read for all scholars.

Out of three million words in the Tong Jian, these 10 paragraphs can summarize the essence of the book.

1. Credibility is the most important quality for a monarch. A kingdom depends on its people to defend the country, and the people depend on the kingdom for protection. With no credibility, people will not obey willingly, and the security of the country cannot be maintained. Therefore, rulers of ancient times would not deceive others. A good statesman would not deceive his loved ones — only a fool would do so.

2. Everyone in the country should abide by the law. The enforcers should apply the law fairly, take it seriously, and make no exceptions. Thus, no one can take advantage of their status to get away with breaking the law.

3. Nations that are militant in their approach will eventually perish no matter how strong they are. But forgetting about war during peace time will also invite danger. Anger is the opposite of virtue; weapons are ominous and battles are only a small part of the picture. Those who engage in war games will come to regret it.

4. A true gentleman will follow a righteous path and lead others in the right direction. If no one follows, he will continue on the right path alone. His true colors will show when he is not corrupted by wealth, tempted in poverty, and does not give in under pressure.

5. A man with compassion will not do one bad thing or take one life in order to gain a kingdom.

6. For talented people, too much wealth will erode their ambition; for stupid people, too much wealth will increase their mistakes. Moreover, rich people often become the target of resentment. I do not have the ability to educate future generations so I don’t want to increase their mistakes and give them reasons for resentment.

7. Knowing one’s faults is easy, but correcting them is hard; saying kind words is easy, but doing kind deeds is hard.

8. The basic principle in successfully governing a country is to employ talented people. However, it’s not always easy to implement this rule because people think too much about other factors when trying to pick the right person.

9. If you do not resolve your immediate concerns, you may encounter an unexpected turn of events. People are the most fundamental element of a nation and its core asset. When the core is damaged, the whole system will collapse.

10. A decent woman will not marry two men, and a loyal courtier will not serve two monarchs. No matter how beautiful or skilled she is, she cannot be called virtuous. No matter how outstanding a disloyal courtier may be in other ways, he is not worth much.

These are the ethics of a feudal system, and this makes them hard to apply in modern society.

Research by Mona Song and edited by Kathy McWilliams 

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