In Traditional Chinese Culture, people used to promote virtue in their everyday conduct and held themselves to strict standards. Throughout the dynasties, virtue was used as the main criterion to determine how good a person was, while their skills were considered secondary.
In ancient times, the cultivation of virtue not only involved the development of noble traits such as truthfulness and selflessness, but also the ability to exercise self-restraint when one’s judgment was clouded by emotion.
The story of the great military strategist Zhuge Liang has served a guiding role throughout generations. This tale still reminds us today of the importance of strengthening one’s will in the face of lust and emotion, in order to cultivate our moral character and become the best version of ourselves.
Who was Zhuge Liang?
Zhuge Liang was the most accomplished military strategist during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 A.D.). He is commonly depicted wearing a Taoist robe and holding a hand fan made of feathers. These seemingly simple objects are connected to a fascinating legend with a rich moral lesson.
This honorable statesman had humble beginnings. Zhuge Liang was mute for much of his childhood. He often helped with herding the family’s sheep on the mountains. One day, he encountered an elderly Taoist master who found the clever child to have great potential. After some communication through hand signs, the elderly Taoist taught the boy to talk and took him as a disciple.
Every day, without fail, Zhuge Liang would take the long trek up the mountain to receive his lessons. The boy, who was particularly smart and receptive, learned about geography, astronomy and military strategies in light of the Yin and Yang philosophy.
One day when Zhuge was on his way back from the temple, he had to stop at a desolate nunnery to take shelter from a fierce storm. There, a young woman with alluring eyes came out to greet him. Wondering why he had assumed all those years that the nunnery was uninhabited, he immediately felt attracted to the young woman, who at first glance seemed to be a goddess.
Since that day, Zhuge made it a habit to visit the nunnery, indulging in the hospitality of the beautiful woman. However, the more he thought about her, the less he could concentrate on his studies. Because he was often absent-minded, he lost interest in his master’s lectures.
Waking up from the illusion
Seeing the poor disposition of his disciple, the elderly Taoist called for Zhuge Liang’s attention. “It is easier to ruin a tree than to grow one!” said the wise man, thinking all his years of educating Zhuge had gone to waste. As the young man expressed his shame and repentance, the elderly Taoist, who knew about the woman from the outset, proceeded to explain the reason for his concern.
The wise man described how the ‘softest’ of the vines can entrap the sturdiest tree. “You have fallen into a trap, and if you continue down this path you will risk incurring a far greater loss. Once you lose your will, you lose everything! She can even hurt you if you refuse to satisfy her wishes.”
The Taoist revealed that the beautiful woman was not a human being, but a divine crane who was kicked out of the heavenly palace for stealing. “She is an unscrupulous crane that came to the human realm only to pursue pleasure.”
Zhuge Liang takes his master’s advice
After hearing the truth, Zhuge begged his Teacher for a solution. The elderly Taoist said, “The divine crane depends on her robe to assume human form; without it, she will not be able to deceive anyone else. Go to the nunnery at midnight, when she is up in the heavenly river taking a bath, and burn her robe.”
Following his Master’s advice with diligence, Zhuge entered the nunnery and set the crane’s robe on fire. When she flew down to attack the young man, he knocked her down with a cane and grabbed her by the tail. The divine crane was able to escape, but lost her tail feathers to Zhuge Liang. Since having a bad tail was quite humiliating for the crane, she refrained from flying to Heaven ever again, lest her bad looks cause her further embarrassment.
Zhuge Liang kept the tail feathers of the crane to remind himself of this experience, and became even more diligent in his moral cultivation.
A lifelong lesson
A year later, having taught Zhuge everything he knew, the elderly Taoist announced his departure. And while his disciple’s eyes filled with tears, the wise man made his precious last remarks: “Real learning takes place in everyday settings. You must go and apply what you know to life. Remember to analyze everything with great caution and do not be afraid to design your own solutions for each situation. Just as learned not to be tempted by lust or emotion from your experiences with the crane, you will gain further valuable insights along the way.”
The master reminded his student of the value of self-restraint, and warned him of the illusory surface of the world, telling him, “always strive to see everything for what it is.” As token of their bond, the elderly Taoist left Zhuge a robe, which he wore frequently to feel his master’s presence.
A meaningful message for modern people
Zhuge’s story has great inspirational significance for today’s society. Since the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party has undermined traditional Chinese values, resulting in severe deviations from traditional standards of morality.
In his book The Naked Communist, Willard Cleon Skousen, a former FBI member, mentions one of the communist goals: “Infiltrate the churches and replace revealed religion with ‘social’ religion…Discredit the family as an institution. Encourage promiscuity and easy divorce…Break down cultural standards of morality by promoting pornography and obscenity in books, magazines, motion pictures, radio and TV.”
Unfortunately, this new mentality has not spared the West. According to the National Centre for Health Statistics, the divorce rate in the U.S. was 2.7 per 1000 people in 2019. Similarly, the General Social Survey (GSS) found an infidelity rate of 20% in men and 13% in women in the U.S. in 2010-2016. This seems to suggest that the moral decline encouraged by the Cultural Revolution has spread beyond China, progressively replacing the noble human aspiration to cultivate virtue.
While the moral decay cannot be generalized and there is still hope in those who earnestly maintain moral standards, it is of utmost importance to revive traditional values. Only by giving due importance to the cultivation of one’s own virtue, will humanity be able to recover the noble character it once had.