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Ancient Chinese Art of Reading People

Certain individuals seem to be born with social intelligence. (Image:  Guadalupe Cervilla   via   flicker  /  CC BY 2.0 )
Certain individuals seem to be born with social intelligence. (Image: Guadalupe Cervilla via flicker / CC BY 2.0 )

Empathy, people skills, catching vibes, social intelligence, or the ability to read other people’s emotions and inner character — and to use this intel to navigate relationships — has been given many names.  Certain individuals seem to be born with social intelligence. But for most of us, it’s something that’s developed — or stunted — over time.

The emperor and high court officials of ancient China understood the art of reading people. It was considered enormously useful to not only discern a person’s character and personality, but to also glimpse his or her fate. Unlike today, they were not concerned with a person’s physical appearance; rather, they were more attuned to a person’s aura.

Cao Cao, one of the central figures of the Three Kingdoms period, he laid the foundations for what was to become the state of Cao Wei. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Cao Cao, one of the central figures of the Three Kingdoms period, laid the foundations for what was to become the state of Cao Wei. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

People with an impressive aura

Cao Cao was a Chinese warlord, and as one of the central figures of the Three Kingdoms period, he laid the foundations for what was to become the state of  Wei. Cao Cao was planning to receive a Hun messenger who represented a nomadic people who lived in Central Asia. Because Cao Cao was of a short stature with no outstanding or impressive features, he ordered the tall and handsome court official Cui Jigui to stand in his place. While receiving the Hun messenger, Cao Cao stood next to Cui Jigui holding a sword. When the messenger returned to his people, they asked what his impression was of the King of Wei. The messenger replied: “The King was dignified and elegant; but the one standing next to him with a sword, he was a brave warrior.”

People who can see and admire talent

The legendary Chinese poet Li Bai left his hometown for the first time and traveled to the capital, Chang’an. He Zhizang, who was another famous Chinese poet at the time, paid Li Bai a visit and requested that he bring out one of his poems to read. Li Bai brought out the poem The Difficulty of the Shu Road and gave it to He Zhizang.  Zhizang did not even finish reading the poem before he started to praise Li Bai for his writing. He Zhizang took out a gold tortoise pendant he was wearing and pledged it to Li Bai in exchange for some wine, which he drank happily with him.

The legendary Chinese poet Li Bai left his hometown for the first time and travelled to the capital Chang’an. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

The legendary Chinese poet Li Bai left his hometown for the first time and traveled to the capital, Chang’an. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

People who exhibit kindness

The attribute of kindness brings happiness to others and joy to one’s own life. Li Shutong was a Buddhist monk, artist, and music teacher in the late 19th century. During a class, he noticed that a student was reading the book of another student, while a second student was spitting on the floor. After class, Li Shutong asked the two students to stay behind. He said to them: “Next time, do not read other people’s books or spit in class.” The two students wanted to argue back, but Li Shutong simply bowed to them and the two suddenly felt embarrassed. Kindness has a lasting effect.

People with a good heart and character

In general, to appreciate people is to appreciate their character. The determination of a person’s morality is to witness their character in action.  People with a good character always express consideration and sympathy for others. Their compassionate heart and kindness has a charming effect. They do things rationally and without drawing attention to themselves, and their actions renew our confidence in humankind.

Translated by Chua, B.C.

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