In the Spring and Autumn Period, Gou Jian, the King of Yue, had a diligent servant named Fan Li, who was from Chu. Unfortunately, during a battle at Guijishan, the King of Yue was defeated by Fu Chai, the King of Wu, and captured.
Both Gou Jian and his servant Fan Li were taken to Wu where the King of Wu sent Gou Jian to live in a shabby stone house and ordered him to raise horses for the royal stables. Gou Jian pretended to be loyal to Fu Chai but secretly plotted his revenge.
A few years later, Gou Jian was set free and went back to his own state. To remind himself to not forget his humiliation, Gou Jian relived his experiences by sleeping on firewood and ate a gallbladder before going to bed every night to keep his hatred alive.
Twenty years later, Gou Jian overthrew the Wu state and became the overlord. His former servant Fan Li was appointed as a senior general. Fan Li realized that Gou Jian could only be trusted in times of trouble and could not share his success with others.
Fan Li decided not to serve under Gou Jian. He took his family members and servants to Qi. He changed his name publicly to Chiyizipi. Fan Li and his sons took on farming and business and became so successful that they earned a fortune.
The King of Qi learned of the talents of Fan Li and sent a messenger to invite him to be prime minister. Fan Li said: “I manage my family to create so much fortune and I used to be a prime minister, so I think I reached the ultimate peak of my life. If I promise to be prime minister, such an honorable action will probably bring me bad luck.” So he declined. After sharing his belongings with his relatives and friends, he quietly left Qi and settled in Tao.
Fan Li and his sons cooperated to run a business again, and again they made a lot of money. People called him Tao Zhugong (hereafter referred to as Zhugong). Fan Li had three sons. His second son committed murder and was imprisoned in Chu.
Initially, Fan Li wanted to send his youngest son with 2,000 taels of gold (one tael equals approximately 1. 2 troy ounces) to deal with his second son’s trouble. When it was time to leave, the eldest son asked Fan Li to swap him with the youngest son.
The son said: “I am the eldest son in the family. If I am not sent by my father to save my middle brother and my youngest brother goes, everyone will think that I am incompetent. If so, I would rather die.” Fan Li had no choice but to agree with him.
Fan Li wrote a letter to his best friend in Chu, Mr. Zhuang, asking for his help, and told his eldest son: “When you get there, give Mr. Zhuang the 2,000 taels of gold and let him arrange everything from there on his own. Remember, never interfere with him.”
After the eldest son left for Chu, he secretly stole some of the gold for his own use. Once he reached Chu, he did as his father asked and gave Mr. Zhuang the letter and the remaining gold.
Mr. Zhuang told the eldest son to leave immediately and never asked if his brother was released. The eldest son stayed on and bribed the officials quietly. Mr. Zhuang, who was honest and upright, had a substantial reputation in Chu and was respected by everyone. Fan Li had sent the gold, which Mr. Zhuang did not intend to accept. He only wanted to return it to Fan Li after the matter was solved and asked his wife to keep it safe.
Mr. Zhuang went to the royal palace and told the King of Chu that a disaster would descend from Heaven to Chu and it could only be alleviated by the King’s goodwill toward the second son. The King of Chu promised him it would be taken care of. The Chu aristocracy received the news and told the eldest son.
The eldest son thought that his brother would be released because of the amnesty and so did not need Mr. Zhuang’s assistance anymore. He went to Mr. Zhuang’s home, pretending to say goodbye but intending to get back the gold. After the eldest son left, Mr. Zhuang was enraged because he could see that the eldest son was dishonest. So he went to tell the king of Chu that Fan Li had spent a lot of money to bribe the officials and that the amnesty he had asked was actually for Fan Li’s second son. The King of Chu was furious and ordered the execution of the second son.
The eldest son had no choice but to return home with his younger brother’s dead body and the gold. His mother and his neighbors were very sad. Fan Li said very seriously: “In fact, what has happened was what I was expecting. The eldest son loves his brothers, but he has a strong attachment to money.
When the eldest son was growing up, he understood the livelihood of our family was not easy, which led him to treasure money too much. When the third son was born, the financial situation of the family had improved. So, he only knew driving good carriages, riding fine horses, traveling, and spending money generously.
With his open-handed character, I initially wanted him to deal with his second brother’s troubles. In the end, the eldest son failed to solve the matter and my second son was executed.
That’s the reasoning behind what transpired and there’s nothing to be sad about. I think it’s all predestined.”
Translated by Joseph Wu and edited by Helen