During the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history, sages would often rely on a recommendation in order to gain the attention of the Duke, or Gong. Ning Qi (甯戚) was one of them. He had no fame or connection and was a low-class worker who pulled a wagon and fed cattle. In order to meet Gong Huan of the State of Qi, he went and stayed by the gate of the capital and waited patiently.
One day, Gong Huan was on the way out of the capital. Ning Qi hit the bull’s horn and sang upon the arrival of the Gong. He sounded very sad. Seeing this, Gong Huan was puzzled. He told his official Guan Zhong to find out what happened. Ning Qi just sang to Guan Zhong: “The mighty white water…”
Guan Zhong could not understand what Ning Qi meant to express. He was very worried and stayed at home for five days pondering on the answer. His concubine Jing wanted to share his concern. She asked: “What was the reason you did not go to the imperial court for five days? Is it something serious? What is it that you are pondering about?” Guan Zhong replied: “This is not something you should know.”
Jing said: “I have heard not to take an old man as an old man, a worker as a worker, a child as a child, a minor as a minor. It means not to judge people from the surface.” Guan Zhong asked: “What do you mean?”
Jing explained: “Jiang Ziya (姜子牙) was a butcher when he was 70 years old. He was the teacher of the Emperor of the Zhou Dynasty at the age of 80 years old. He was given the territory of Qi at the age of 90 years old. So should we ignore one’s talent because of his old age? Yi Yin (伊尹) was only a dowry servant of the Youshen family. Later, he was used by the founding father of the Shang Dynasty and became a prime minister. The country was in good order due to this. From this point of view, can we treat a person with less respect because of his low social status? When the son of Gaoyao (皋陶) was 5 years old, he knew to respect Yu the Great (大禹). Should we see a child only as a child? Just seven days after the birth of Jueti (駃騠) (a famous horse in the ancient time), he was much stronger than his mother. Can we think lightly of his strength because he looked weak?”
Immediately, Guan Zhong stood up from his seat and asked her: “A few days ago, the Gong asked me to talk to Ning Qi. He simply said: ‘The mighty white water…’ but I could not understand what he wanted to say. That’s why I have been worried.”
Jing smiled and said: “My respectful husband. There is an ancient poem, White Water, which goes: In the mighty water, the fish are swimming freely. If the Gong asks me to assist him, I would not return to the water like a fish being taken away from the water. And yet, how can I just stand by and watch when the country is not really stabilized and strong? It implied that Ning Qi would like to assist and serve the country!” Guang Zhong was enlightened and passed the message onto Gong Huan.
When inviting Ning Qi to assist him, Gong Huan was very cautious. He first had an office compound fixed for him and before his first meeting, he bathed and fasted for five days. Gong Huan eventually appointed Ning Qi to be in charge of agriculture. Ning Qi’s effort in exploring farmlands, constructing water systems, and promoting fishing and salt industries helped the State of Qi become wealthy and strong in its time.
Written by Du Ruo