How to Handle Conflict Like an Ancient Chinese Boss
It seems like every week there’s another news story about a small dispute erupting into extreme violence, or even murder.
We’ve all seen the shocking headlines, such as “Man charged with trying to kill co-worker with wrench” and “Neighbor feud escalates to weed whacker attack.”
“How could anyone be so insane and irrational?” we may think smugly to ourselves. Of course, these are extreme examples. Yet we can all relate to losing control at some point, whether it’s a harsh word to a spouse or a verbal tirade against a driver who cut us off.
It’s easy to blame the other person or vent your anger, but the ancient Chinese had a different way to resolve inevitable social tension: tolerance.
Letting other people mess with your inner peace is giving them too much power, the thinking went. Better to forgive others’ mistakes and be understanding of their human flaws. By showing mercy, it could also have the effect of changing the other person by touching their heart, or even uplifting society. Meanwhile, if you can manage to keep calm in the face of injustice, you remain the master of your own domain and keep your inner peace intact.
Here are some legendary stories of great tolerance from traditional Chinese culture. They may just give you inspiration the next time your coworker steals your lunch from the office fridge.
What to Do If Your Neighbor Destroys Your Garden … the Ancient Chinese Way
Song Jiu was a governor in the state of Liang during the Warring States Period (722 B.C. to 481 B.C.) in ancient China. Adjacent to Liang was the state of Chu, and the border between the two states was marked by a post. Melon farmers from each state worked the land on their own side of the post.
The Liang people were industrious and frequently irrigated their land, so their melons grew big and flourished. But the Chu people were lazy. They hardly ever watered their land, so their melons were small and shriveled.
Out of jealousy, one night the Chu people crossed over to the other side and stomped on the Liang people’s melon vines, breaking many of them. The next day, when the Liang people discovered the damage, they were enraged and reported it to Governor Song, seeking revenge.
Song shook his head and said, “We should not do that. Making an enemy is a path to calamity. It is narrow-minded to give tit for tat.”
Instead, Song devised a plan: A team of the Liang people would be sent to secretly water the Chu’s melon patch every night. But it had to be a secret, he insisted; no one must tell the Chus.
The next morning, when the Chu people went out to check their crop, they saw that it had already been watered. With the covert help from the Liang people, the Chu state’s melon vines grew better and better every day. The Chu people thought it strange and started to investigate. When they discovered that the Liang people had been helping them, they were very moved and reported it to their government.
The Chu king subsequently apologized to the Liang people with generous gifts, vowing friendship between the two states. The Liang and Chu then developed a great and long-lasting alliance.
For centuries, Song Jiu’s wisdom and broadmindedness have been remembered, and the story of how he repaid an act of harm with an act of kindness has been passed down through the ages.
Resolving a Property Dispute Like an Ancient Chinese Prime Minister
In Tongcheng County, Aihui Province, in China, there is a famous lane about 100 meters long and two meters wide. It is called “Six Feet Lane” and has a beautiful story behind it.
Zhang Ying, a well-known officer who lived during the Qing Dynasty, was born in Tongcheng County. Beside his house was a piece of vacant land, and his neighbor built a wall on it to claim ownership. Zhang’s family argued with the neighbor about the wall, but without resolution.
At the time, Zhang was the prime minister of the state and living in the capital city. His family members sent him a letter asking him to intervene on the land dispute. When Zhang read the letter, he wrote a short poem in reply:
Over thousands of miles the letter travelled, only for a wall;
What of letting him have three feet more?
The Great Wall is still firm and strong,
But where are the whereabouts of Emperor Qin?
The Great Wall was built under the order of the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty some 2,000 years before the Qing Dynasty. By mentioning this history, Zhang meant to explain to his family that life is too valuable and short to fight for insignificant material things.
Upon seeing this poem, his relatives felt ashamed. They immediately followed Zhang’s instruction and yielded three feet of land to the neighbor, who in turn was so moved by Zhang’s humility and demeanor that he gave up three feet of his own property, thus creating a six-foot lane. This story of tolerance has been passed down from generation to generation in China.
How to Handle Threats and Gossip Like an Ancient Chinese Diplomat
Lin Xiangru was a diplomat of the Zhao state during the Warring States Period who eventually worked his way up to prime minister. His fast success drew the ire of General Lian Po, who was forced to take orders from Lin.
Lian Po was resentful and said publicly: “I am a general and I earned my status by conquering many cities. Lin Xiangru got a higher position just by talking. I shall embarrass him when I see him.”
Hearing of Lian’s threats, Lin remained unmoved and made it a point to avoid a confrontation, including steering clear of Lian’s entourage when he saw it coming.
Lin’s squires mistakenly thought that Lin was afraid of the general. They told him, “Although your position is higher than that of General Lian Po, you are afraid of him and try to avoid him. Even an ordinary person would be ashamed to do that. Please grant us our leave.”
Lin firmly invited them to stay and laid out the reason for his reaction to Lian’s threats.
He first asked, “Who do you think is more powerful: General Lian Po or the king of Qin?”
The squires agreed that it was the king of Qin, of course, as the Qin state was very powerful at the time.
Lin then said, “I dared to argue with the king of Qin and scold him. Why would I be afraid of General Lian?”
Lin further explained: “General Lian and I are the reason the state of Qin has not dared to invade our state. Two tigers cannot coexist if they fight. I tolerate his behavior because I place the welfare of the nation over my own personal pride.”
After he learned of Lin’s words, Lian Po was ashamed and quickly came to apologize. “I am humbled by your generosity. I did not expect you to be so tolerant of me!” he told Lin.
All resentment between the two dissolved and they became close friends.
Being able to correct one’s mistakes has been considered a virtue since ancient times. People praised General Lian Po for having the strength of character to sincerely repent and mend his ways. Lin Xiangru was also admired for taking a tolerant attitude during conflict, placing the nation’s interests above personal pride.
The Ocean of Tolerance
Tolerance is one of the most important virtues in traditional Chinese culture. Reflecting selflessness, wisdom, and a broad mind, it comes from self-discipline and is the natural manifestation of kindness, compassion, and benevolence. It brings people closer together by improving their relationships.
Back in ancient times, sages and men of virtue held others’ perspectives in high regard. They thought of others first when they encountered difficulty, and were respected role models who set lofty examples for others.
Laozi, a venerable sage from ancient China, taught that a person with great virtue is able to behave in an all-encompassing manner in harmony with the “Tao,” or the “Great Way.” He said: “The reason great rivers and oceans are broad and deep is that they seek the lowest level so as to take in all the water from the streams and creeks.”
This has the meaning that in order to fully embrace and be inclusive of all things, one must have a compassionate heart. The more broadminded one is, the greater the world one encompasses.
People with great virtue are totally unselfish and hold themselves to a high moral standard. They are more kind, tolerant, and willing to help and care for others, and would never be influenced by self-interest and self-profit.
So the next time conflicts occur, picture that ocean with unlimited capacity that takes in all water from the rivers and creeks. We can be that ocean.