In 407 B.C., the ancient Chinese state of Wei defeated the state of Zhongsan during the Warring States Period. Wenhou, the King of the state of Wei, conferred the title of Prince of Zhongsan on his son, Wei Ji. Wei Ji went on to govern the state of Zhongsan, assisted by Zhao Cangtang and other court officials.
Wei Ji was positioned over a thousand miles away from his homeland, while his father was busy with government affairs in the state of Wei since the division of the states of Han, Zhao, and Wei. For more than three years, neither father nor son met or greeted each other.
One day, Zhao Cangtang said to Wei Ji: “As a son, you have not inquired about your father for the past three years; you are indeed unfilial. As for your father, he has not visited you during these past three years, which is unkindness. Why don’t you send someone to visit your father?”
Wei Ji said: “I actually have had this intention for quite some time, but I have not found a suitable person.”
Zhao volunteered to go to the state of Wei to visit Wenhao on behalf of his son, Wei Ji.
Before Zhao set off for Wei, he first found out what Wenhao liked. Zhao discovered that Wenhao loved to dine on wild duck and liked to use dogs when hunting. Zhao brought these along as gifts for Wenhao.
Wenhou was delighted that his son has sent someone to visit him and brought along his favorite things. He said: “This child of mine loves me so much; he still remember my favorite food and hobby!”
Wenhou asked Zhao: “How is the Prince of Zhongsan these days?”
Zhao replied: “The Prince is fine and healthy”
Wenhou then asked: “Is the Prince taller than me now?”
Zhao replied: “Your Highness, your clothes will fit him well”.
Wenhou asked: “What book does the Prince like to read?”
Zhao replied: “He reads the Book of Songs“.
Wenhou then inquired about the kind of poetry that Wei Ji preferred to read in the Book of Songs. In ancient China, the Book of Songs, which was comprised of poetry, was read by nobility. When envoys were sent to other countries, they used the poems in the Book of Songs to compliment or to persuade the other country’s court officials. Through the poems, they were able to express their intentions and maintain their diplomatic style. In later generations during the Warring States Period, the Book of Songs was used as reading material for diplomats.
Wenhou recited the poetry lines to An Untimely Summons in the Book of Songs where the father personally packed his clothing, deliberately placing the garments upside down to convey his inner feelings. He then brought out a set of his own clothes that he personally packed and handed over to Zhao with the instructions for them to be handed to Wei Ji before the rooster crowed in the morning.
Zhao returned to Zhongshan and followed Wenhou’s order to hand over the clothes to Wei Ji before the rooster crowed. When Wei Ji opened the package, he found that the garments were packed topsy-turvy — the lower part of the attire was placed at the top and the upper part was placed at the bottom.
On seeing this, Wei Ji immediately said: “Quick, prepare the carriage. My father is waiting to see me!” Zhao could not understand and said: “When I left, the King did not say he wanted to see you!”
Wei Ji explained: “My father gave me this garment and deliberately placed it upside down. He ordered you to hand it over to me before the rooster crows. This means that the clothes are not meant to keep me warm, but to summon me. My father used the following verse in the Book of Songs:”
An Untimely Summons
Or e’er In the East the daylight grows;
All topsy-turvy I don my clothes;
A summons is here from my lord for me!
Or e’er in the East a ray has shone;
All upside down are my garments on;
And upside down they will have to be;
An order is here from my lord for me!
A garden hedge, though of willows slight, e’en reckless fellows will fear to climb;
But they who cannot tell dark from light;
Will, if not before, be behind the time.
Wei Ji returned to the capital and personally visited his father. Wenhou was very happy. He threw a grand feast and conferred the title of heir apparent on Wei Ji.
The short poem from the Book of Songs brought the father and son back together again.
Translated by: Chua BC