Taking a Step Back Turned an Antagonist into a Friend

March 1, 2017 Updated: March 1, 2017

There is an old saying in China: In a conflict, when you hold your temper, you will avoid a tempest; when you take a step back, you will find the sea and the sky boundless.

This saying was illustrated by Zhai Fangjin, who lived during the end of the Western Han Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago.

Zhai’s hometown was in Shangcai County, Henan Province. The county still carries the same name today, but this ancient place is unfortunately now known for its AIDS villages.

Shangcai, a China county name dating from the ancient past. (Internet photo)
Shangcai, a China county name dating from the ancient past. (Internet photo)

Zhai was fatherless since he was young. He was very diligent and went to study at the capital city, Chang’an (the modern city of Xi’an), when he was in his teens. Pitying him for being too young, his stepmother accompanied him in Chang’an. She crafted hand-made shoes to support his study.

Zhai was keen in studying the Spring and Autumn Annals, an ancient Chinese chronicle that was counted as one of the Five Classics in Chinese literature.

With over ten years’ hard study, Zhai advanced greatly in knowledge, acquired a top grade in archery, and was appointed as an advisor in his 20s.

Zhai was thorough in his study of the classics. Gradually he gained fame among the scholars in the capital, and he had more and more students.

An old scholar, Hu Chang, also studied the classics and held a higher position than Zhai’s. Although he had started earlier than Zhai, his fame was inferior to Zhai’s, so Hu was jealous of Zhai’s talents and showed disrespect when referring to him.

Zhai did not retaliate when he learned about this. Instead, he behaved humbly. Whenever Hu assembled students to give lectures, Zhai would send his students to Hu’s place to ask about queries in a most sincere manner, making notes seriously. This persisted for quite some time.

Later, when Hu knew that Zhai’s modesty was to show him respect, he felt very ashamed. After that, he stopped humiliating Zhai and began to show appreciation for him instead.

Zhai’s wisdom in his intentional modesty turned an antagonist into a friend.

Edited by Sally Appert