From Ruffian to Esteemed Statesman: A Life Turned Around in Ancient China

Jin Dynasty lessons for today's leaders
February 5, 2014 Updated: April 28, 2015

Bully. Fierce. Combative. Unscrupulous. These were the kinds of words that his neighbors used to describe famed ancient Chinese statesman and general Zhou Chu in his younger days.

Although he lived over 1,700 years ago, a popular folk tale about how Zhou turned his life around has timeless insights for today’s leaders and aspiring leaders alike.

Zhou, who lived during the Jin Dynasty (A.D. 265–420), had a nasty temperament and was rough and unrestrained in his behavior. Indeed, he was widely regarded as the “village terror.”

Coarse as he was, Zhou soon realized that his fellow villagers were avoiding him like the plague, so he made up his mind to change his ways.

He decided that one way to win back the friendship of the people in his hometown might be by helping them resolve their troubles, as he had noticed that many of the villagers seemed apprehensive and had worry lines written all over their faces.

The ‘Three Terrors’

Not knowing why the villagers were anxious, Zhou asked the village elders: “We are enjoying peace throughout the country, favorable weather, and an abundant harvest. All seems well, but why is everyone so gloomy?”

The elders replied, “How can we feel carefree when we are constantly being threatened by three terrors?”

“What are the three terrors?” Zhou asked.

The elders said: “There is a ferocious white tiger in the Southern Mountains that often comes out to attack people. That is the first terror.

“The dragon that controls rain and flood, which lives in the river under the Long Bridge, often harms people and livestock. That is our second terror.

“As for the third…”

The elders paused for a moment. Then, with some hesitation, they continued, “We are afraid it is you.”

Shocked, Zhou Chu seriously pondered the elders’ words and finally announced, “I will get rid of all three terrors!”

Triumph, Shame, and Resolve

With sharpened weapons in hand, Zhou went alone to the mountains to hunt the ferocious white tiger. He fought hard and succeeded in slaying the beast.

He then proceeded to the river, and after a vigorous battle with the flood dragon for three days and three nights, he succeeded in slaying the dragon as well.

Back in the village, everyone noticed that Zhou had not returned for three days and believed that he must have been killed. The villagers were overjoyed that the three terrors had been vanquished and they happily congratulated each other.

It was at that moment that Zhou returned. Seeing the celebrations taking place, he finally understood how deeply he was hated, and he felt a profound sense of regret, shame, and sadness.

However, Zhou Chu did not let this experience defeat him. On the contrary, it strengthened his resolve to make amends for his past and to change his conduct for the better. He decided to renew himself and become an upright person and a gentleman.

A Teacher’s Wise Advice

Zhou began to search for eminent teachers. He learned that Lu Ji and Lu Yun, the grandsons of the great general Lu Xun, were talented scholars, so he set off to pay them a visit to ask if they would instruct him.

Zhou managed to find Lu Yun. He explained his situation and raised the most pressing question on his mind.

“I truly wish to make amends and start over, but I have wasted a great deal of time all these years and do not know if there is still time,” said Zhou.

Lu Yun responded with encouraging words: “The ancients held in high regard those who erred but are willing to correct their ways.

“Your future, sir, remains bright. As long as you are determined, there is nothing you cannot achieve. One should be more concerned about one’s resolve than one’s reputation.”

Hearing this, Zhou realized a profound truth: “Where there is a will, there is a way.”

Road to Redemption

Zhou Chu studied diligently while paying great attention to improving his character. Within a year, his reputation changed so dramatically for the better that all the local officials recommended him as a capable candidate for holding a government position to serve the people.

For more than 30 years, Zhou held various positions and became an accomplished official highly respected for his integrity and upright character. During his terms in office, he demonstrated great competence, dedication, and loyalty in carrying out his duties and responsibilities.

Zhou had many noteworthy achievements. As the prefect of one prefecture, he established very good relations with the minority tribes in the area. In another prefecture, he proved to be an honest and incorruptible magistrate who effectively resolved many backlogged cases that were decades old.

While serving as an imperial officer, he administered the law fairly and impartially and did not pander to the rich and powerful. Nor did he hesitate to expose the wrongdoing of other government officials.

Zhou Chu dedicated his life to his country and later as a general sacrificed his life while fighting rebels on the battlefield.

Zhou’s many outward accomplishments are indeed commendable, but his true greatness can be seen even more so in his inner strength and courage to make fundamental changes in his character.

His story reminds later generations that everyone makes mistakes, but the most important thing is to recognize those faults and wrongdoings and not repeat them but to do better and to do the right thing next time.

In this way, the future will be bright. The key is determination.

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