Two Ancient Stories of Honouring Teachers

The emphasis of discipline and showing respect to one's teacher are traditional values found in ancient Chinese culture, and such sayings as “A teacher to a student is like a father to a son,” and “A teacher even for one day should be respected as a father forever” were common. A student looks to his teacher as a profound person akin to his father, thus calling him “gracious teacher” or “master”. Teachers impart ethics, knowledge and values to their students. They teach people proper manners for interacting with each other, and for handling things in society at large. While learning from the teacher, a student must not only clearly understand the principle of respectfully serving the teacher from his heart, but also faithfully performing what the teacher imparts to him. Below are a few examples of how the ancients respected their teachers.

Emperors Yao and Shun Honoured Xu You

Xu You was a noble scholar in ancient China with high moral standards. He considered moral principles more important than personal gain, and according to the book “Zhuangzi” he was Emperor Yao's teacher. The “Lu's Spring and Autumn Annals” states that he was also the teacher of Emperor Shun. All three were considered to be sages.

The land of China was peaceful and prosperous during the reign of Emperor Yao. Although Emperor Yao appointed many wise persons to assist with the governance of the country, he was still worried about possibly overlooking many qualified people. To uncover those people, Emperor Yao often searched everywhere, including outlying villages and remote mountains. When Emperor Yao heard of a man called Xu You who was virtuous and had high morals, he travelled a long way to visit him. After a conversation, Xu realized that Emperor Yao was indeed the Emperor. Emperor Yao admired Xu for his profound knowledge in the universe's principles, and asked him to be his teacher.

After returning to the palace, Emperor Yao thought of handing over his reign to Xu. He thus asked the Secretary of Agriculture to take care of the nation's business and set out to invite Xu to the palace. When he met Xu in a low-lying area, Emperor Yao was very respectful to him and treated him as his teacher. Emperor Yao said: “I, your student, am poor in virtue and weak in ability. When I took over the country, I made a vow that I would rule it temporarily. I said that I would visit all sages and invite one of them to lead the country. I thoroughly believe that your ability and virtues are as bright as the sun and moon, and no sage can eclipse you. I am willing to give you the country. It will be good for the people if you accept this offer without hesitation.” Xu responded: “You have led the country to peace and prosperity and made people rich and happy. This credit is yours. If I were to take over credit and your job, wouldn't it mean that I am doing it to gain fame?” Emperor Yao persistently tried to persuade Xu to take the position, but Xu firmly declined. When Emperor Yao when to visit Xu the next day, he was gone, and no one knew where he went.

Emperor Yao continuously searched for Xu and finally located him one year later, farming on the foothills of Songshan mountain. While working on the land one day, Xu heard someone approaching and yelling “Teacher.” Xu looked up and saw Emperor Yao. He was surprised and asked: “What does the Emperor come here for? Is there anything I can do?” Emperor Yao said: “I planned to let you be in charge of the country last time because I was afraid that my poor ability and virtue might mislead the people. It was unexpected that Teacher declined the position and left. I have now been sincerely asking anyone with sublime virtues to assist me in ruling the country. After carefully thinking, no one is better to do this than Teacher. I thus come again to sincerely ask you to become the head of the Nine States (these were the territorial divisions of the nation at that time). It will be fortunate not only for me but for everyone in the country if you accept the position.” Hearing this, Xu said: “I do not understand what you said. I have never heard of anyone being head of the Nine States, only the Emperor, and that is you.” Emperor Yao explained: “Originally, there was no such title. I created it for you to show my sincerity. Please accept it.” Xu declined again and moved away to live as a hermit in a solitary place, and could no longer be found. The people knew of this story and praised Emperor Yao for his generosity and humility, and Xu You for his virtue.

When Emperor Shun was farming at Lishan, he often gave away fertile lands to others because of his righteous virtues. Within six months, farmers were politely taking barren lands and also left the fertile lands for others. Emperor Shun was well respected in Lishan, so much so that he, instead of the government, was sometimes asked to judge and settle arguments. Because of him, many people moved to live in Lishan, causing this outlying area to gradually grow into a prosperous region. Everyone there called Emperor Shun the sage, adding: “Everyone the sage meets will indeed be assimilated. The sage teaches us justice and giving, instead of taking and corruption.”

When touring Chishan one time after farming, Emperor Shun saw an elderly man walking towards him. The man then suddenly tripped over a rock and fell to the ground. Emperor Shun rushed to help him and let him sit down to rest. Emperor Shun asked the man his name and where he lived. The man answered: “Why do you ask? I have not told people my name for many years.” Then the elderly man asked about his name. When Emperor Shen told him his name, the man smiled and said: “Oh! You are the one. I have heard so much about you. Alright, I will tell you my name, but just keep it between us.” After Emperor Shun promised repeatedly, the elderly man said: “My name is Xu You.” Emperor Shun immediately knelt on the ground and bowed his head to show his respect. He said to Xu: “Where do you live? I will walk you home.” Xu smiled: “That is very good of you. Thank you. I live on the other side of Chishan.” Emperor Shun replied: “It is my honour.” After talking to Emperor Shun at his home, Xu accepted the request to be his teacher. The next day, Emperor Shun presented a lot of gifts to Xu for accepting him as his student. Emperor Shun learned many principles from Xu You, which helped guide him to become a heavenly-inspired, benevolent emperor.

Zeng Shen Sincerely Complied with the Teachings

Zeng Shen became a student of Confucius at the age of 16. He was studious and sincerely compliant with his master's teachings, and became the main successor and disseminator of Confucianism, playing an important connecting role between generations in Confucius culture. His motto, “multiple self-reflections daily,” meant that he repeatedly examined himself every day to determine whether he had done his best for others, been honest to his friends, or reviewed his teacher's homework diligently.

There is a classical story called “Zeng Shen showing his respect,” in which Confucius asked Zeng one time when Zeng was sitting next to him: “Former kings had sublime virtues and profound theories that they used to teach their people. Do you know why people could live in harmony and there was no dissatisfaction between the kings and their subordinates?” Knowing that Confucius was going to teach him profound principles, Zeng immediately got up and stood beyond the edge of the mat. He then respectfully answered: “I am not wise enough to know the reason. Please teach me.” This was a demonstration of great respect for the teacher. People have later learned this etiquette from Zeng Shen.

After returning to the State of Lu from Chu with Confucius, Zeng farmed during the day and studied in the evening until midnight every day. He was poor because he did not hold any official position. The king of Lu heard the good virtues of Zeng, and decided to bestow him with a piece of land. Zeng declined the offer, citing that he could not accept the land without doing any work to earn it. The king's envoy advised him: “Why don't you accept, since you did not ask for it?” Zeng sincerely replied: “I often hear that a giver has pride, while a receiver is humble. Even though the giver is not prideful, how can I not be humble?” Knowing that, Confucius praised him: “Zeng's words have proved his moral integrity.”

After Confucius died, Zeng and other students such as Zi Xia, Zi Zhang, Zi You and You Ruo went into a period of mourning for three years. At the end of the mourning period, they bowed in unison to Confucius' grave and then left in tears. Zi Xia, Zi Zhang and Zi You then proposed: “Since You Ruo looks like teacher, we can make believe that he is Confucius and serve him as sincerely and courteously as we did Confucius. Doing so would show our respect for teacher.” Zeng became very angry and was opposed to the idea. He said assertively: “We should not do this. Teacher's virtue was so clean, like being washed by the clear river water, and so bright, like being bathed by the autumn sunshine. His virtue was also as glorious as the vast universe. How can he be compared to someone who just looks like him?” They we astonished at what Zeng said, and were deeply moved by his sincerity to his teacher and his meticulous etiquette.

* * *

You are welcome to print and circulate all articles published on Clearharmony and their content, but please quote the source.