Updated: Mar 4
Wang Dan (王旦) was a well-respected prime minister in the Song Dynasty (around 1000 years ago) of ancient China. He was famous for his great virtues, including good temper, humility, righteousness, and frugality. Even today, the Wang family is still very prosperous and successful around the globe.
Wang’s Good Temper
Being a prime minister in ancient China, his large household naturally had lots of servants. One time, his family members found out that their servant chef secretly stole and ate meat. They immediately went to Wang, complained, and demanded for the servant to be punished.
Wang did not give the order to punish the servant. Instead, he asked them how much meat the servant ate. His family remembers said 0.25kg. Wang then asked how much meat they wanted to eat each day. They replied 0.5kg. Wang said, “In the future, give the servant enough money to buy 0.75kg of meat. Then there is enough meat for everybody.” When the servant heard this, he felt very ashamed of his bad behavior and grateful for Wang’s magnanimity.
Since Wang was known for having such a good temper, his family members decided to test him. One time, they put some ink into his bowl of soup. During the meal, Wang ate as normal, but he ignored the soup. His family asked him why he didn’t drink the soup. Wang said, “I don’t feel like drinking soup today.”
Another time, they put some ash into his bowl of rice. When the servant brought the rice to him, he said, “I don’t feel like eating rice today. Please bring me a bowl of porridge.” Wang didn’t show the slightest trace of anger towards their mischief.
Wang had a colleague named Kou Zhun (寇准) who took the imperial examinations and got hired as an imperial official the same year as Wang. They both served as ministers to Emperor Zhen Zong (真宗).
Kou was an honest man who cared about the good of the people, but he was jealous of Wang’s greater success. Hence, he always spoke of Wang’s faults and mistakes to the Emperor. Despite this, Wang always spoke of Kou’s good points to the Emperor.
After a while, even the Emperor felt Kou was being too rude and unfair towards Wang. One time, the Emperor couldn’t take it anymore and said to Wang, “You always tell me about how good Kou is, but he always tells me how bad you are!”
Wang replied, “Having been prime minister for all these years, I surely made many mistakes, so it’s no wonder Kou has so much to criticize about me. He has the good of the people in his heart, and he speaks honestly to your majesty. He is a good adviser to keep around.”
In reality, everyone knew that Kou was just being small-minded and envious, but Wang always assumed good intentions. Hearing Wang’s humble response, the Emperor admired Wang even more.
When Wang was old and ill, the Emperor asked Wang who could replace him. Wang recommended Kou. When Kou got the promotion to prime minister, he was extremely happy and thanked the Emperor. The Emperor told him, “Don’t thank me. Thank Wang. It’s thanks to his repeated recommendation of you that you got this promotion.”
When Kou realized this, he felt extremely ashamed of how he treated Wang in the past and also extremely grateful to him at the same time.
One time, a fire broke out in the imperial palace, and Emperor Zhen Zong was very upset that all the treasures in the palace were destroyed. Wang then advised the Emperor saying, “Your majesty has the wealth of a country. Material possessions do not deserve your worry. What deserves your worry is justice, to not wrongfully punish people.”
Wang implied that if the leader did not act righteously, then people below might plot to burn the palace. Wang also apologized for not being a good enough Prime Minister that others might want to burn the palace. This let the Emperor reflect on his own shortcomings rather than getting angry and blaming others.
Whenever he was promoted (which meant more money and power), his family wanted to celebrate. But Wang replied, “Being promoted only increases my worries and responsibilities. What is there to celebrate?” Wang took his job very seriously and only focused on serving the people. He never let wealth, fame, or power get to his head
Although Wang was very wealthy, he always managed his family frugally and forbid extravagance. The Emperor, seeing Wang’s house to be very plain and simple, offered to rebuild the house for him. Wang refused but thanked the Emperor, saying, “This house has been passed down for generations from my ancestors. Aside from the door being a little broken, there are no problems, so there’s no need to rebuild it.”
When his children got married, he kept the marriage ceremony plain and simple, without any extravagance. When other people asked him why he didn’t buy property and houses for his descendants, he told them that he wants his descendants to learn independence. Besides, if he buys lots of property, then his descendants might fight over the property, which would cause them to morally degrade.
In his will, Wang told his children, “Our family’s prosperity is from virtues. We must continue to be diligent and frugal. Do not indulgence in extravagance. After I die, do not burry me with money or treasures.”
He also left a message to the Emperor saying, “Hiding wealth and treasures is useless. Giving wealth to help the people is the way to prevent disaster.”
Anger is one of the most harmful and hardest to control emotions. Anger burns bridges in relationships and hurts our cardiac health. One day, I heard a teacher say, "How would you like to live a life in which no one could ever make you angry?" He caught my full attention because one of my problems is that I get annoyed very easily, and annoyance is just a weaker form of anger. When I heard Wang Dan's story, I really admired him. I think Wang's legendary good temper comes from two virtues: reciprocity and humility.
On reciprocity, Confucius once said,
"There is one word which may serve as a guide of practice for all of one's life: reciprocity. What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."
Most people are demanding about how others ought to treat them, but reciprocity is about us treating others well regardless of how they treat us. No one likes to be publicly shamed or scolded, so Wang never did that to others, even when they were mischievous. Even though Kou said bad things about him, he didn't say bad things about Kou because no one likes being slandered. Wang focused on his behavior, not on how others should treat him.
Humility is about being appreciative of criticism and always trying to improve oneself. Even though Kou always unfairly criticized Wang, Wang never got angry, and he never tried to defend himself or argue back. There's a Chinese proverb that says,
"It takes two angry people to make a quarrel."
Although Kou always tried to start a quarrel with Wang, Wang always returned his hostility with friendliness, his criticism with praise, and so Kou always failed at provoking Wang. On the contrary, Kou's efforts only made Wang's humility even more evident in the eyes of others, which earned Wang even more respect.
Upon reflection, I have a lot of room for improvement in both reciprocity and humility. If others treat me poorly, my first thought is "You shouldn't treat me like that." But reciprocity would be "No matter how others behave, I must behave virtuously." As for humility, I've gotten a lot better with accepting criticisms, but I'm nowhere near as humble as Wang Dan or Emperor Tang, so I still need more practice.
Would you like to live a life where no one could make you angry?
If so, how can you emulate Wang Dan's example?