The Wisdom of Shi Kuang
Shi Kuang, courtesy name Ziye (approximately 572 – 532 BC), was a famous musician and the Master of Music in the kingdom of Jin (1033 – 376 BC). When King Dao (573 – 558 BC) and King Ping (ruling from 557 – 532 BC) were in power, he also served as a minister. He is remembered for the "Wisdom of Shi Kuang." He was a political activist and a scholar. His contemporaries referred to him as a "widely experienced" man. Shi Kuang accomplished this even though he was born blind. Hence, he called himself the Blind Courtier.
According to legend, his skill with the drum and the guqin (an ancient stringed instrument) was incomparable. Kuang's contemporaries said that his skill had reached the highest possible level known to man, one that could spawn various auspicious events. Shi Kuang’s knowledge of music was extremely vast. Not only was he adept at playing the guqin, he was also knowledgeable in folk songs and melodies from all over the country. He could also use the guqin to express natural sounds, such as the flying and singing of a bird.
Shi Kuang believed that one purpose of music was to disseminate moral concepts via folk songs. These songs reached every part of the country. He thought that by singing the songs with poems and combining them with rituals, it would be possible to improve morality in more people. His understanding of music also inspired methods of governing the country he proposed to the kings of Jin. One day, King Ping was feeling sorry for Shi Kuang because he was born blind. Shi Kuang replied, "There are five types of blindness in the world":
A king cannot see that one of his officials uses bribery to achieve their position while the people suffer from injustice with no means of a fair trial.
A king appoints the wrong people to jobs.
A king fails to differentiate between the capable and the incapable officials.
A king only wants to use force.
A king is not aware of the livelihood of the citizens.
When the tyrannical King Xian (576 – 559 BC) of the Wei Kingdom was deposed by his people, King Dao thought that the people of the Wei Kingdom had gone too far. Shi Kuang believed that the foundation of a country was its people, who were the people of the Heavens just like the emperors and kings. The king's responsibility was to take care of the people on behalf of the Heavens. He was not above the public and should live with morals. Failure to do so was to go against nature. Shi Kuang said that a king that brought despair upon the citizens should be replaced. King Dao admired Shi Kuang's views and asked him what the best way to govern was. Shi Kuang replied, "Uphold benevolence and righteousness."
In politics, Shi Kuang advocated a transparent government where morality and law were equally important. The king should let events unfold naturally, promote universal benevolence, and use a set of laws to safeguard the governing system. Without laws, both the officials and the public would be without guidance. In personnel selection, Shi Kuang said that only a moral and talented individual should be given national responsibility. Shi Kuang also said, "When a loyal minister is let go, and an untrustworthy individual is given responsibility, chaos will follow. A similar situation will occur if a high-level government position is given to an unworthy person." Regarding the economy, he believed that the public needed to be prosperous for society to be peaceful. Government officials should be familiar with the reality of life for the citizens to insure no one is mistreated.
For the leader of a nation, he recommended, "Do not get stuck in mediocrity. Do not let people stop you from moving forward." "As a leader," he thought, "one must have foresight and independent views." He believed that these characteristics were needed to lead a nation to prosperity. During the reigns of King Dao and Ping, the Jin nation prospered because of Shi Kuang's advice. Shi Kuang followed King Ping to battle several times and served as an ambassador to the Zhou Empire.
In those days, the kingdom of Qi was a major power, yet King Jing of Qi also consulted Kuang on how to govern his country. To that question he replied, "A king must favor and benefit the people."
Shi Kuang had a staunch and righteous disposition. He was elegant in his presentation, but he would not curry favor with powerful people. When King Ping became arrogant and extravagant in his old age, Shi Kuang advised him many times to return to his earlier ways.
One time, in front of all his ministers, King Ping claimed, "A king is the happiest man, because no one dares to disobey his words." Shi Kuang thought a king should not make such a statement and threw his guqin at the king. If Shi Kuang had feared death, he would not have done so.
Because the elderly King Ping had become so extravagant in expanding the palaces, the Jin Kingdom was in decline. When the king issued orders, the public reacted as if robbers were coming. During three hunting trips, King Ping acted as if he were the overlord of all kings. Shi Kuang thought it was self-delusion. King Ping became outraged. Back in the palace, he ordered his servants to place thorny vines on the stairs. Then he summoned Shi Kuang to ascend the stairs without shoes. After stepping on the thorns, Shi Kuang turned to the heavens and sighed in pain, "When a person lowers himself to the level of a slave, he is searching for misfortune. A king's court is not a place where thorny plants grow. I predict the king is about to die."
Because of his noble character and care for the people, Shi Kuang was highly regarded by noblemen as well as common people. The ancient Chinese believed, "The moral concepts in life are the same as those in man." Shi Kuang's achievements in music and politics are directly related to how he cultivated himself.