Zhu Xi, a 12th-century scholar whose teachings and interpretations of the Confucian texts influenced many generations of Chinese, once wrote: “The essence of the day lies in the morning, that of the year in spring, and that of one’s life in diligence.”
These words were not forgotten. Centuries after Zhu’s time, the virtues of getting up early and seizing the morning continued to be echoed by the famed and successful.
Never Sleep In
Gen. Zeng Guofan is known as the man who, in the 19th century, led imperial Chinese armies to victory during the Taiping Rebellion, a cataclysmic insurrection that claimed the lives of tens of millions. This distinguished officer got up at 4 a.m. daily. In a letter to his family, Zeng wrote:
“For the past two centuries, our virtuous predecessors have made it a habit to get up early. Even in cold winter, my great-grandfather was said to rise an hour before the sun, and my father at sunrise.”
“Rise early, rise at daybreak. Once you rise, do not again fall back to bed,” Zeng told his children.
Gen. Zeng believed not only in getting up early for the sake of personal diligence—indeed, he considered it the cornerstone of continued success through the ages. Sloppy habits in one generation were a slippery slope that would build up and threaten the whole family in the next.
“When one generation lapses into lazed slumber, the second will indulge in immoral whims,” he warned.
Effective Early Risers
The Qing Dynasty, which Zeng Guofan served, saw its three greatest emperors, who in combination reigned for about 140 years in the 17th and 18th centuries, get up at 5 a.m. and hold court meetings at 9. These diligent rulers made cultural and territorial contributions to the Chinese empire that last to this day.
Li Hongzhang, a famous statesman who served in Zeng Guofan’s army as a young man, seems to have inherited the teachings of his superior well. He did not manage the 4 a.m. mark, but nonetheless got up at 6 a.m. to write hundreds of calligraphy characters as part of his daily routine.
“Morning air is the most refreshing,” the soldier and later minister wrote. “Air becomes foul with the bedroom shut tightly at night. Inhaling fresh air, one feels refreshed and vigorous enough to resist any disease.”
By the time of Li and Zeng, Qing emperors rose late and conducted their state affairs halfheartedly. They were notorious for their decadent lifestyles and letting real political power fall into the hands of those behind the scenes. Qing China suffered disaster after disaster in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite the best efforts of enlightened reformers and steadfast generals, it collapsed in 1911 under the weight of corruption and socio-political rot.
Amid the corruption and decay of the late Qing times, Li Hongzhang stood out as a rare example of a competent official. Even though he did not belong to the Manchurian ethnic group (to which Qing emperors belonged) and was a Han Chinese, the imperial court allowed Li a great deal of control.
With his authority, Li introduced to China modern industrial, entrepreneurial, and military methods. He also brought up a generation of ambitious and gifted officers from his home province, Anhui.
Getting Up Early Means Getting Ahead
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher, said, “The life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.”
Kim Woo-choong, founder and chairman of the Daewoo Group, said, “We all have 24 hours a day. Everyone is born equal in this respect. It is how we use that time that sets us apart.”
The early 20th century novelist Lu Xun, who wrote prolifically about the plight of the fledgling Chinese republic, was said to have the character for “early” etched into his desk as a personal reminder.
A collection of Chinese folk proverbs and maxims has the excerpt: “He who comes first leads, he who comes late is led. You cannot claim to have come first, as the witnesses are those before you.”
Another proverb, similar to “a stitch in time save nine,” goes: “Get up early and be in no hurry; get up late and struggle with fate.”