Neither Arrogant nor Boastful – the Great General Xu Da
Xu Da, courtesy name Xu Tiande (1332 – 1385 AD), was a man from Haozhou in the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD). He was a determined and courageous man right from his youth. Xu Da was one of the founders of the Ming Dynasty and the general-in-command with a splendid military record. He was knighted as a duke and became the prime minister.
Xu Da led his troops all over China to end rebellions and invasions. He departed for battle every spring and did not return until late winter. Each time Xu Da returned to the royal court, he handed the seal that represented the power over the army back to Emperor Hongwu, Zhu Yuanzhang (1328 – 1398 AD), the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Emperor Hongwu then welcomed him with a banquet and then sent him on vacation. The emperor even addressed Xu Da as his "royal brother from a civilian household." As a highly decorated general well trusted by the emperor, Xu Da was extremely modest. He never once showed off. Instead, he became all the more modest. In fact, Xu Da was highly praised for his virtue and modesty.
Emperor Hongwu once said, "Brother Xu has made a lot of contributions, but he has never had a decent home. I will give him my house from when I was still a duke." But Xu Da firmly declined the emperor's offer. Emperor Hongwu was very pleased to see that Xu Da was so modest. The emperor had a new house built across from Xu Da's old home and wrote the characters "Great Accomplishments" on the board above the front gate of the new house.
In Xu Da's army, his military orders were never disobeyed. He thought about details. He would share good times and adversity with his army and won his generals' and soldiers' respect. When Xu Da won a great battle, he would not slay the men who surrendered. He was not greedy or violent. He strictly forbade his army to assault captured court ladies, princesses, or concubines. He also forbade his army from harming or harassing civilians. Hence, Xu Da was highly respected by the people. When Xu Da returned to the royal court, he would never show off or parade his status. Instead of having a driver, he often drove his horse and carriage by himself to get around. He had a very simple and humble lifestyle and was very amiable. Xu Da was especially polite and encouraging to Confucian scholars and got along well with them.
Emperor Hongwu once praised him, "After Xu Da returns from triumphant battles, he does not show off or act proudly. He does not covet wealth and beautiful women. He is a righteous and virtuous man, as bright and clear as the sun and the moon. There is no one else like Xu Da, the Great General."
It is sad that many people in Chinese history became arrogant and boastful after accomplishing great things. As a result, the emperor either banished or killed them. It is precious to find such an accomplished yet modest general like Xu Da. That must have been the reason why the emperor and the people had such a high regard for Xu Da. After Xu Da passed away, Emperor Hongwu stopped the royal court briefings and deserted the royal court in order to go to his funeral. The Emperor was overcome with grief and gave Xu Da the postmortem title of Duke of Zhongshan, a title he allowed to be passed down to three generations. Emperor Hongwu even personally wrote the epitaph on Xu Da's tombstone. In addition, the emperor had Xu Da's portrait painted on a temple honoring the generals that had participated in the founding of the Ming Dynasty, and Xu Da’s portrait was placed in the first position.