Ancient Ways of Conduct: Hold Character Firm in the Chaotic World, Virtue is Priceless

At the time between the Song Dynasty and the Yuan Dynasty, there was an erudite scholar. His birth name was Heng Xu (1209 - 1281AD), his stylised name was Zhong Ping, and his nickname was Lu Zhai. During his lifetime, he took upholding Confucian principles and passing on the Chinese traditions as his responsibility. He published the book Lu Zhai Yi Shu. Here are some of the stories about him:

1. Study hard and become talented, excel in virtue

Heng Xu lived in Henei (today's Qinyang County, Henan province). His family were farmers for generations and were very poor. Heng Xu ate plain food but still pursued his studies. When he was 7 years old, he asked his teacher, "What do people study books for?" The teacher said, "To pass the imperial competitive examination." Heng thought for a while and said, "There should be more to it than that." The teacher was surprised by his response.

Heng grew to be man, but he couldn't afford books. Heng went to visit many scholars to learn from them. He gained lots of knowledge by borrowing books, transcribing them and then reading them. One day he went to the market and saw a book, Shu Jing Ji Jie, on the table of a fortune-teller. Then he sat down on the ground and read the book. The fortune-teller was moved and allowed Heng to take the book home to transcribe it. Heng Xu gained knowledge just in this way: he worked during the day, and at night he transcribed books and read them. When Emperor Yuan Shizu was prince, he appointed Heng Xu as the Minister of Education in charge of the Guan Zhong region. Later, Heng Xu was promoted to the title of Great Scholar as well as the official responsible for memorial ceremonies. Heng Xu suggested to Emperor Yuan Shizu the following: "Administrating the government must follow the path of previous successful emperors; it must follow the principles because principles are 'the inevitable' of things. Don't go against the traditional virtue."

2. Hold character firm, especially in a chaotic world

When Heng Xu was young, he could compare his own behaviour against what books taught. He believed that the words of sages should be applied to discipline oneself first, and after that those words could be taught to others, and that this order could not be reversed.

Heng used the words of sages to guide his own words and actions. Before saying anything or doing anything, he considered whether it was aligned with the principles that he understood. One summer, he and some others escaped from a battle area. As they fled, they didn't eat or drink anything for a whole day and night, and by that time they were very thirsty. Then they came upon a dragon pearl fruit tree with many dragon pearl fruits hanging from its branches. The others rushed to the tree and ate the pearls. Only Heng Xu stayed back and sat reading a book as if he didn't know the dragon pearl fruits were in the tree.

One friend said to him, "Those pearls are just ripe, very juicy, very delicious. Why you didn't go take some?" Heng Xu replied, "This is not my dragon pearl tree. How could I eat from it? I don't want to go." Then his friend said, "Due to the war, it is a time of chaos, people die, people flee. This tree doesn't have an owner now. Don't worry, go eat some." Heng said, "Even if the pearl tree doesn't have an owner, my heart cannot be without an owner. Virtue is my heart's owner." Heng held fast to his moral principle: "Don't take what doesn't belong to you, don't take it if it is not right to do so." He did not go to eat the dragon pearls.

3. Money is worth nothing, virtue is priceless

Heng Xu's knowledge and morality were increasing more and more. Many people respected him sincerely. A Xiucai* who lived in Qinyang County prepared many gifts and visited him. Heng Xu saw those gifts and became unhappy. Heng saluted the Xiucai and said, "What talent and virtue do I possess to trouble you to come for a visit? You didn't snub my ignorance and you came to my shabby house. I appreciate it greatly. But I don't want to accept belongings when it is not in accordance with principle, and I don't want to change myself. Please forgive me." The Xiucai was very moved and said, "Brother Xu, you indeed excel in virtue and conduct yourself righteously. I have learned a lot from you although we have just met."

Later, more and more people called on Heng Xu. In Heng's middle ages, he engaged himself in education. He hoped the society could benefit from his endeavours. His teaching scope was broad: Jing, Zhuan, Zi, history, ceremony, astrology, crime, food, water management, etc. Due to his broad knowledge and his teaching virtue as well as teaching academics, he was a favourite among his students. Heng also treated all his students the same, no matter if the student was rich or poor.

One day when it was snowing, one of his students came to visit him. Heng Xu saw he was shivering with cold. Heng took off his cotton jacket and gave it to the student. Heng comforted him saying, "Why do you wear only an unlined jacket?" The student replied, "My mother was ill, so I sold my cotton jacket to buy medicine." Heng gave some money to the student right away so that he could buy back his cotton jacket. The student knew that Heng was not rich, so he declined the offer. Heng Xu said, "I wish to help you to overcome this difficulty. It doesn't impact me financially. As an old saying goes, 'money is worth nothing, virtue is priceless.' I always believe that my income is enough as long as it can cover my basic living expenses. The extra money should be used to offer financial aid to the poor. It is more significant than using the money for self-enjoyment." In the end, Heng gave the money to the student.

At the time of Yuan Shizu, all government officials knew of Heng Xu's broad knowledge and noble character. This was very helpful in passing on and promoting the traditional Chinese culture and virtue. So after Heng Xu died, he was honoured with the posthumous title: "Wen Zheng."

This is:
Strict about himself,
Noble conduct;
Promote virtue,
People respect!

*Note: Xiucai, one who passed the imperial examination at the county level.

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