INSTRUCTIONS ON FRUGALITY
FOR MY SON K’ANG
TRANSLATED BY A. W. SARITI
SSU-MA KUANG was one of the outstanding scholar-officials of his time. His most valuable contribution was in the field of history. The monumental Tzu Chih T’ung Chien (Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government), which he compiled on imperial order between 1067 and 1084, is a general history of China from 403 B.C. to 959 A.D. Because this work is a compilation of source materials rather than an interpretive narration, it is of special value to the modern-day historian. For Ssu-ma, the facts of history were plain and provided a mirror of men’s actions that could aid those who sought to govern. There was no need, then, to “interpret”—the facts spoke for themselves. Such scholarly objectivity, albeit unwittingly come by, was unfortunately not applied to a later abridgment of this work, the T’ung Chien Kang Mu (General Outline of the Comprehensive Mirror) by the famous Sung Neo-Confucian philosopher, Chu Hsi. It was this book, translated by Father de Mailla under the title Histoire Générale de la Chine and published in the 1780’s, that became the general fund for information on China available to the West.
In the field of political science and moral philosophy (difficult to separate in traditional China) Ssu-ma made no lasting achievement. Considering himself a model Confucian, he sought to meet the new political and economic challenges, which threatened to topple the Sung dynasty, with an old prescription—an emphasis on orthodox Confucian values. The intervening years from the time of Confucius (551-479 B.C.) to the Sung had brought many changes, and Ssu-ma Kuang’s narrow interpretation of the traditional value system proved useless in the face of the new problems that confronted eleventh-century China. The leading force for reform in Sung China was Wang An-shih (who also considered himself a model Confucian). His broader interpretation of the Confucian tradition allowed him to propose bolder solutions to these problems. His proposals, however, owing both to the strong opposition headed by Ssu-ma Kuang and the questionable quality of the reform administrators, never received a full and fair opportunity. They also ended in failure.
One of the more pressing problems of the Sung was the dwindling state finances. This situation could be met in several ways. The government could attempt to stimulate the economy, it could raise new revenue by taxation, or it could cut its own expenses. Ssu-ma Kuang favored “fiscal responsibility”—government frugality. The Confucian concept of frugality was applicable to the state as well as to the individual. There were, of course, other perhaps baser motives for Ssu-ma’s position (e.g., he was a representative of the landed gentry). Nevertheless, within the context of traditional Confucian philosophy, he was able to construct a tenable position. The world had from the beginning, Ssu-ma had once noted, a limited, finite number of goods; only man himself was continually increasing. Rather than equally distributing what was available, the government should seek to make men satisfied with their station in life (an fen). Rather than “seek profit,” men and government should conserve what they have. Ssu- ma, in the following advice to his son, outlines this position on frugality.
The source for my translation is “Hsün Chien Shih K’ang,” Wenkuo Wen-cheng Ssu-ma Kuang Wen-chi (Ssu Pu Ts’ung K’an ed.), 69: 505-506.
SSU - МAKUANG/ INSTRUCTIONS ON
FRUGALITY FOR MY SON K’ANG
I AM descended from a poor family which from generation to generation has inherited an unsullied reputation.1 By nature I find no pleasure in showy extravagance. When I was a small child, my elders put costly and elegant clothes on me and I, embarrassed by this uncalled-for extravagance, threw them off. At the age of twenty I won honors at the examinations,2 but at the celebration fete given for all the successful candidates I was the only one who did not wear flowers on his head. My fellow graduates said to me: “Gifts of the sovereign cannot be refused.” And so I stuck a bloom in my hair. All my life I have taken just enough food to satisfy my hunger, just enough clothes to shelter myself from the cold. Yet I did not venture to wear tattered and filthy clothes thereby seeking fame through breaching custom. But this was all merely following my nature, nothing more.
The multitude glorifies wasteful extravagance while I alone, led on by my moral nature, consider temperate simplicity a thing of beauty. People laugh at me and say that I am mean and crude, but I don’t let this distress me. I answer them saying, “Confucius has said: ‘It is better to be mean than to be insubordinate’ and ‘The cautious seldom err’ and also ‘A knight whose heart is set upon the Way, but who is ashamed of wearing shabby clothes and eating coarse food, is not worth calling into counsel’.”3 The ancients considered frugality a superior virtue, but people today look upon it as something of which one should be ashamed. Alas! how strange this is!
In recent years customs have been especially extravagant, with messengers dressing like scholars and farmers wearing silken shoes. I remember when the late duke, my father, was Prefect’s Administrator during the T’ien-sheng era. When guests arrived the wine was always set out, and three or five—never more than seven—toasts were made. The wine they drank had been bought in the marketplace, and the fruits were no more than might ordinarily be expected: pears, chestnuts, dates, persimmons. Minced meat and vegetable broth were the only delicacies, and the table utensils were porcelain and lacquer ware. At that time such was the custom in all the gentry families— people did not criticize each other on this account. Although material things might not have been in abundant supply, yet there was a sincere spirit of friendliness that pervaded all. These gatherings were frequent and the etiquette demanded of such occasions was diligently followed. But today, well, if the wine is not “palace made,” the fruit and delicacies not rare imports from some distant clime, if there are not numerous varieties of food or if the table is not brimming with dinnerware, why then these gentry families do not dare receive guests. They often spend months in preparation before they dare to send out the invitations. Indeed, if such is not the case people are quick to criticize and suppose the guilty party quite niggardly. Thus, those who do not fall in with the customary extravagance are few indeed! Alas! customs have degenerated to this point. Although it is true that those in office have no power to prohibit these customs, can they bear to help them along?
I have heard that formerly, when Duke Li Wen-ching was prime minister, he built a home inside the city gate, and that the reception room was barely large enough for a horse to turn around in. Someone said that it was too small, and the duke, laughing, answered, “A private home is to be handed down to one’s posterity. If this were to be a prime minister’s reception room then certainly it would be too small. If, however, it is to serve as a room in which one may offer sacrifices to his ancestors, then it is quite large enough indeed.”
Once, when Duke Lu was censor, Emperor Chen tsung sent out a messenger with an urgent summons for him. The messenger found Lu in a wineshop, and when the duke arrived at court the emperor asked him whence he came. Duke Lu answered truthfully, whereupon the emperor asked, “My dear minister, you hold a noble and much-respected office. How is it that you were drinking at a wineshop?” Lu answered, “Your minister’s home is a poor one. There is no tableware, nor are there fine delicacies or fruits, thus when guests arrive I take them to a wineshop for entertainment.” The emperor, impressed by this frankness, gained a new respect for the duke.
Chang Wen-chieh, as prime minister, supported himself in the same manner as he had when he served as secretary in Ho Yang. One of his close relatives reproved him, saying, “The duke now receives a large salary, yet he continues to support himself in this manner. Although the duke may believe he is being frugal and is of pure character, some people who don’t know him better feel that he is merely pretending humility, like the famous Kung-sun with his cotton garments. The duke should not let himself seem so much like the masses.”
Chang sighed and replied, “Although my present salary could certainly permit my whole family to live quite luxuriously, how could I be sure that some calamity would not occur? You see, it is a fact of man’s natural disposition that to proceed from frugality to luxury is easy, while to regress from luxury to frugality is difficult. How can one suppose that my salary will always remain at the present level? If my salary suddenly became different from what it is today my family, had it been long accustomed to a life of luxury, would not be able to make the abrupt change from luxury to frugality. This would certainly lead to the ruin of the family. How does this compare with a situation in which, regardless of my official position or even whether I am alive or dead, they live always together as they do today.” Ah! such a thoughtful and farseeing worthy! How can any ordinary man hope to arrive at such heights?
Yü-sun has said, “Frugality is the universal virtue, extravagance the great evil.” This means that all those who possess virtue have come by way of frugality. Now, if one is frugal he has few desires. If the Superior Man has few desires, then he is not a slave to material things and can follow the way of orthodox principles. If the Mean Man has few desires, then he can be cautious about his person and sparing in his use of resources, thus keeping criminal offense at a distance and making his family prosper. Thus it is said, “Frugality is the universal virtue.” On the other hand, if one is extravagant he has many desires. If the Superior Man has many desires, then he covets wealth, longs for honor and by his perverted principles invites calamity. If the Mean Man has many desires, then he seeks after many things, uses his resources recklessly, ruins his family and destroys himself. For this reason, if the Mean Man holds a position in the government he is certain to be corrupt, if he has no position in government he is certain to be criminal. Thus it is said, “Extravagance is the great evil.”
Formerly Cheng K’au-fu [an ancestor of Confucius] subsisted only on thick gruel. Meng Hsi-tzu knew from this that Cheng’s posterity would certainly include a great man.
Chi Wen-tzu was Prime Minister to three sovereigns, yet when he died his concubines wore no silk at the funeral nor did his horses eat grain. The sovereign considered this a mark of Chi’s loyalty.4
Kuan Chung used engraved kuei [a kind of vessel used either to contain delicacies or for the purpose of holding sacrificial offerings] and wore crimson chin straps to hold his official hat in place. He “carved hills on the pillars and duckweed on the joists”—he was very extravagant, and Confucius despised him for his smallness.
When Kung-shu Wen-tzu entertained Duke Ling of Wei, Shih Ch’iu knew that calamity would follow, for Kung-shu was rich and the duke covetous. But Kung-shu was an exception; he was rich without being proud. This was not the case with his son, Shu. When Shu became head of the household, a charge was consequently trumped up against him because of his wealth, and he was forced to flee.5
Ho Tseng daily consumed ten thousand cash worth of food, and his grandson, when he became head of the family, led the family to ruin through his unbounded pride.
Shih Ch’ung made a great show of his wasteful extravagance to impress people, and it was because of this that he finally died at the executioner’s hand.
In more recent times the extravagance and gaiety of Duke K’ou-lai was unsurpassed for a time. Nevertheless, because of his great achievements there was no one who criticized him. Today, however, his family, once accustomed to a life of luxury, is without resources and in poverty.
There are indeed many examples of those who through frugality have established themselves and through extravagance destroyed themselves. I cannot relate them all here in detail but have rather chosen to select several men by whose example you may be instructed. You should not only apply this lesson to yourself but should use it to instruct your descendants so that they may know the mores of their predecessors.
1. i.e., has not engaged in an occupation reckoned dishonorable.
2. Kuang won first honors at the Chin Shih examinations.
3. The translation of the final saying is from Arthur Waley, Analects of Confucius (New York: Random House, Inc., 1938), pp. 103-104.
4. See Τso Chuan, Duke Hsiang, 5th Year: “He acted as chief minister to three dukes, and yet had accumulated nothing for himself—is he not to be pronounced loyal?”
5. See Τ so Chuan, Duke Ting, 13th Year.