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A War Won Through Trustworthiness

During the Spring and Autumn period (7th-5th cent. BCE) of Chinese history, Duke Wen of Jin (697–628 BCE) was the ruler of the Jin state. Once, he led his army to takeover the state of Yuan. He told everybody that this would only take 10 days, so they only brought 10 days’ worth of supplies. But after 10 days, they still didn’t win. However, the takeover was eminent, and his subordinates reported that only three more days are needed, and they asked the Duke for his decision.


 

(Let’s pause the story the here. If you were the Duke of Jin, what would you do? Would you persist for three more days and call for backup supplies, hoping that they arrive in time to support your army? Or would you abandon the takeover? After you’ve made your decision, keep reading.)

 

 

The Duke said, “If we stay and persist, then even if we are successful in taking over the state of Yuan, I would have breached my promise. Who would trust me and believe in my words in the future?” Thus, he called off the takeover and retreated.

 

Amazingly, the state of Yuan decided to voluntarily surrender and join the state of Jin. Moreover, when the state of Wei heard about this incident, they decided to join the state of Jin too. By prioritizing trustworthiness, the Duke of Jin not only won a war against one state, but gained the allegiance of two states!

 

(Source: “Outer Congeries of Sayings, Upper Left Series” in Master Hanfei)

 

Commentary

Dr. Alan Zimmerman said,

“Trust is a must, or your relationship will bust.”

 

Confucius also said,

“If a person doesn’t have trustworthiness, I don’t know what he can do.”

(Original text: 人而無信,不知其可也。)

 

Thus, trustworthiness is something we should all take seriously. If we have a reputation for trustworthiness, then it’s much easier and smoother for us to gain the help of others. If we have a reputation of being untrustworthy, then no one would want to cooperate with us or help us.

 

But it’s important to make the distinction between trustworthiness and merely keeping one’s word. Keep one's word is important, and it's the basic level of trustworthiness. But there's a higher level, or rather a deeper level: A person who is trustworthy is someone who has good judgment and a loving heart. On the other hand, untrustworthy people have poor judgment and are selfish.

 

For example, if we scheduled a dinner with a friend on a particular day, but on that day, there was a snow storm, such that it’s rather dangerous to drive to the restaurant, should we still go?



It’s probably better to not go, and we should advise our friend to reschedule. After all, we don’t want to risk ourselves or our friend getting hurt in the snowstorm. If we instead persist in going to the restaurant, and even criticize our friend for not keeping his/her word, then that would hurt our trustworthiness because we clearly lack good judgment and consideration for others.

 

In this story, the Duke of Jin chose to keep his word and retreat after 10 days. The moral of the story is not to always keep your word. It’s to take your trustworthiness seriously. We can presume that retreating was the most appropriate decision. Perhaps because the food supplies might not arrive in time, and his soldiers might have to starve for a day. Or perhaps his army’s morale wasn’t very high, and they’d much rather return home. Or perhaps he could retreat, prepare for a short while, then prepare another besiege and still win.

 

The point is that he must have thought about the decision from a variety of angles and determined that retreating is the wisest thing to do. That’s what we need to learn when it comes to trustworthiness. When others feel that we are very thoughtful, careful, caring, and wise in our speech and decisions, they will naturally trust and support us.



As for why the state of Yuan and the state Wei would voluntarily pledge allegiance to the state of Jin, that's probably because the Spring and Autumn period was a period of chaos, with different countries frequently at war. Nobody wants to live in a chaotic and scary world, so naturally, when they saw such a virtuous leader as the Duke of Jin, they felt a sense of hope, that maybe under this caring and trustworthy leader, they would be safe. So cultivating our trustworthiness not only benefits ourselves, it also comforts the people around us.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Do you have a good reputation of trustworthiness? How might you improve it?


 

Weekly Wisdom #290

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