I have a sort of crush on Sima Guang, a prime minister from the Song
dynasty,about 1000 years ago, and I find this crush rather queer, hard to
explain, as he was a diehard conservative, while I embrace libertarian ideas. On
most issues, I agree more with his political opponent Wang Anshi.
Sima Guang was held as a model Confucian politician and scholar by his
contemporaries and later generations for his honesty, self discipline and sense
of morality. He was strict with others and stricter with himself, too tough to
be charismatic. In politics, he was irrationally uncompromising, which to a
certain extent damaged the prospects of the nation and his own career. Su Shi,
one of his proteges, irritated at his obstinacy, nicknamed him ‘Sima Bull’.
I’m sure he isn’t the social, easy-going type, definitely unromantic. We
wouldn’t get along well even if we met. But ever since the first time i heard of
him in a primary history class, about a story that him cleverly saved a play pal
from drowning in a water tank when he was just a little boy,I do find him cute
in many aspects.
He was a faithful husband. ancient China was a polygamous society. Men were
allowed to marry a wife and take concubines. Although rigorous prerequisites
were imposed, only men upholding high moral standards followed the laws to the
word. And Sima Guang was one of the few. He refused to take a concubine even
when his wife was found infertile and his conditions fulfilled the
prerequisites. He got ruffled up whenever his wife pressed the issue.
It might sound a little hypocritical. Only those who know him truly are sure
of his sincerity. In ancient China, people believed children (especially male
ones) to be a testment of one’s integrity and God would punish those who commit
moral or other despicable crimes with a childless curse. And a man has the
obligation to continue his family line. Sima Guang must have been exceptionally
courageous to face the possible moral pressure.
Sima Guang wasn’t a born saint. He used to hang out with courtesans and wrote
some amorous poetry in his youth. On a few occasions, his opponents playfully
confronted him with those poems. Imagine his embarrassment!
He was a neat freak. He was the editor-in-chief in compiling China’s first
chronological history book, ‘Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government’ (资治通鉴),
which covers the entire Chinese history from the Warring States period to the
foundation of the Song dynasty. The project took 19 years, and the piles of
drafts filled two rooms. People were awed by his team’s serious attitude when
reading those drafts. Every page was neatly written, with only a minimum of
He was indifferent to wealth. When his wife died, he had to sell his only
three acres of farmland to cover up the funeral cost.
Sometimes self-denying could be sexy.