Timeliness

Mr Shih of Lu had two sons, one of whom was a scholar and the other a soldier. The former found in his accomplishments the means of ingratiating himself with the Marquis of Ch’i, who engaged him as tutor to the young princes. The other brother proceeded to Ch’u, and won favour with the King of that State by his military talents. The King was so well pleased that he installed him at the head of his troops. Thus both of them succeeded in enriching their family and shedding lustre on their kinsfolk.

Now, a certain Mr Mêng, the neighbour of Mr Shih, also had two sons who followed the selfsame professions but were straitened by poverty. Envying the affluence of the Shih family, Mr Mêng called at his neighbour’s house, and wanted to know the secret of their rapid rise in the world. The two brothers readily gave him the desired information, whereupon the eldest son immediately set off for Ch’in, hoping that his cultural attainments would recommend him to the King of that State. But the King said: ‘At the present moment all the feudal princes are struggling to outbid one another in power, and the great essential is to keep up a large army. If I tried to govern my State on the lines of benevolence and righteousness, ruin and annihilation would be the outcome! So saying, he had the unfortunate man castrated, and turned him away.

The second son, meanwhile, had gone to Wei, hoping that his military knowledge would stand him in good stead. But the Marquis of Wei said to himself–‘Mine is a weak State hedged in by powerful ones.

My method of preserving tranquillity is to show subservience to the larger States and to conciliate the lesser ones. If I were to rely on armed force, I could only expect utter destruction. I must not allow this man to depart unscathed, or he may find his way to some other State and be a terrible thorn in my side.’ So, without more ado, he cut off his feet and sent him back to Lu.

On their return, the whole family fell to beating their breasts in despair, and uttered imprecations on Mr Shih. Mr Shih, however, said: ‘Success consists in hitting off the right moment, while missing it means failure. Your method was identical with ours, only the result was different. That is not due to any flaw in the action itself, but simply because it was not well timed. Nothing, in the ordering of this world, is either at all times right or at all times wrong. What formerly passed current may nowadays be rejected; what is now rejected may by and by come into use again. The fact that a thing is in use or in disuse forms no criterion whatever of right or wrong. There is no fixed rule for seizing opportunities, hitting off the right moment, or adapting oneself to circumstances; it is all a matter of native wit. If you are deficient in that, you may possess the learning of a Confucius or the strategical gifts of a Lü Shang, and yet you will remain poor wherever you go.

The Mêng family were now in a more resigned frame of mind, and their indignation had subsided. ‘Yes, you are right,’ they said; ‘please say no more about it.’

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