(Minghui.org) Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073), a renowned scholar in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), enjoyed reading ever since he was a child. He prized dignity above all things, while fame and wealth were like dust to him. He once wrote, “For a man of discernment, a mind aligned with the Tao is his nobility, and a body free from ailment is his wealth. Achieving both, he lives well without worry.”
Throughout his career as an official, Zhou was famous for his integrity in judicial matters and how he would correct wrongfully-decided cases. He was also known for his kindness and empathy for the people, rooted in his own spirituality. In fact, he was highly enthusiastic about promoting Taoist thought among the Song literati, and many scholars indeed resonated with his teachings.
Historians referred to Zhou as someone who “had lofty goals, was very knowledgeable, with the demeanor of ancient sages.” He exemplified these noble characteristics throughout his life.
At age 24, Zhou was assigned to be an official in Fenning County (in today’s Jiangxi Province). Quite a few people were being held in the prison at that time, with many of their cases still unresolved. Upon arrival, Zhou made quick work of these cases, punishing the criminals and releasing the innocent, which earned him great praise from the local residents. There was one case that was complicated, and had dragged on for years without a conclusion. However, Zhou was able to clear it out after just one interrogation. People were very impressed by his abilities.
Because of his achievements, Zhou was promoted to the position of military officer in Nan’an (in today’s Fujian Province). In one of the cases he processed, Wang Kui, the magistrate of Nan’an, had decided to execute a prisoner. Many people disagreed but they dared not speak out since Wang was well known for being strict and stubborn. Zhou argued with Wang on legal grounds, but Wang still refused to listen.
Seeing this situation, Zhou decided to resign. He said, “I will not please higher officials at the price of someone’s life.” This awakened Wang, and the prisoner was spared. After this, Wang often praised Zhou and even recommended him to the imperial court.
Soon afterward, Zhou was reassigned to the head of Nanchang County (in today’s Jiangxi Province). The people of Nanchang were very pleased and said, “This is an official who cleared a case with one interrogation at Fenning. Finally, there is hope for us!” There had been many cunning officials and local gangsters in the area who had been taking advantage of the people, but with Zhou’s arrival, they were afraid of meeting the consequences of their actions and stopped behaving badly.
After that, Zhou became an official in Hezhou (in today’s Chongqing). Because he was so capable, the lower officials always relied on Zhou to process cases, and local residents would not automatically follow an order unless it was from him.
Later, Zhou was promoted to an official rank in Guangdong Province. He continued to work diligently on clearing wrongful cases. He also visited all the different regions of his jurisdiction one by one, even including remote areas or places with infectious diseases. When he traveled to Duanzhou, a place famous for its inkstones, local residents told him how the official Du Zi monopolized inkstone excavation for his own profit.
Zhou submitted a request to the emperor to ban local officials’ involvement in the inkstone excavation. In addition, he requested a regulation stating that an official could not take more than two inkstones for personal use. This request was approved by the emperor and the local residents were pleased.
Zhou also emphasized education and promoted the establishment of public schools wherever he went. He also taught classes in his spare time. His personality and knowledge attracted many willing students. Cheng Xiang, an official from the imperial court of judicial review, was one of Zhou’s admirers. He sent his two sons (Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi) to learn from Zhou. Both sons later became renowned scholars.
When working as an official in Ganzhou (in today’s Jiangxi Province), Zhou became a good friend of Zhao Bian, head of Ganzhou at the time. Zhao admired Zhou for his noble demeanor, while Zhou respected Zhao’s upright and selfless character. Both of them knew the importance of education and agreed to promote teaching in the area. Together, they launched Qingxi Academy in Qianzhou where Zhao lectured on how to behave with propriety in private life while Zhou explained how to avoid making the same mistake twice. Their lectures were very popular and many scholars came from across the land to listen, so much so that the academy was overwhelmed. As the teachings of these classes spread, Qianzhou was blessed with high moral values, prosperity, and respect towards intellectuals.
Despite his fame, Zhou led a simple and plain life. In one poem, he wrote, “As an officer I have many things to do but do not feel tired / since I only want to be upright with a calm mind.” In another poem, he wrote,
“I often eat yams and vegetables all year around,and wear plain linen clothes; Eating enough and keeping warm is all I need,as health and peace are priceless.”
Although Zhou worked as an official at various places, his salary was low and he also gave money to the needy. But he was not worried about living this simple and thrifty life.
Once, his friend Pan Xingsi came to visit him and wrote, “I looked at the residence [of Zhou] and found the only thing he had other than clothing was an old box with less than one hundred pieces of money in it. People were all impressed by this; I saw it with my own eyes.”
Because of his upright character, Zhou benefited people wherever he went. After Zhou became the head of Chenzhou (in today’s Hu’nan Province), Zhao Bian wrote a poem to praise him, “No lawsuits are pending anymore and all local residents were happy.”
Renowned poet Su Shi also wrote a poem about Zhou: “You have all the noble qualities / and have now retired here with a clean record.” Poet Huang Tingjian once described Zhou, saying, “His character is very noble with a clear and open mind. It is so refreshing to interact with him—it’s as if one is seeing a clear sky after the rain stops.”
When working in Nankang, Zhou built a study room next to Mount Lu (also known as Lushan). After retirement, he stayed there and established Lianxi Academy where he taught students and conversed with Taoists. His dignified character was reflected an article he wrote called “Why I Prefer the Lotus,” excerpted below:
“In water and on land, there are many lovely plants and flowers. Tao Yuanming of the Jin Dynasty particularly liked the chrysanthemum. Since the Tang Dynasty, the peony has been prized by many. As for me, however, I prefer the lotus.
It rises from the mud, yet retains its purity. It blooms from the ripples, yet its blossom bewitches not. Its arteries run straight while its stalks stand tall, without extraneous vines or branches. Its fragrance is light and clean, and travels far on the wind. It isolates itself in amidst the water, pure and graceful, a beautiful sight for the eyes, but out of reach for those seeking a casual toy.
The chrysanthemum is a hermit among flowers, while the peony stands for the rich and wealthy. However, the lotus is a flower of nobility and dignity. Ah! There are few people after the Tao who like chrysanthemum, and perhaps there are more who prefer the lotus like me. As for the peony, there are already so many people fond of it.”
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