“The Three Character Classic” – Unit 9

Zheng Jian Editing Group for Chinese Culture Teaching Materials

PureInsight | May 16, 2011


Unit 9


曰(yuē) 水(shuǐ) 火(huǒ) ,木(mù) 金(jīn) 土(tǔ),
此(cǐ) 五(wǔ) 行(xíng) ,本(běn) 乎(hū) 數(shù)。
曰(yuē) 仁(rén) 義(yì) ,禮(lǐ) 智(zhì) 信(xìn),
此(cǐ) 五(wǔ) 常(cháng) ,不(bù) 容(róng) 紊(wèn)。


(2)行(xíng):essentials used to constitute and classify all things in the universe
(3)本(běn):foundation, root
(4)乎(hū):used as a function word to indicate the source, cause, agent, or basis
(5)數(shù):referring to the laws of nature
(6)仁(rén):mind of compassion and benevolence
(7)義(yì):deed of righteousness and decency
(8)禮(lǐ):courtesy of modesty and propriety
(9)智(zhì):capability of cautious thinking and discernment
(10)信(xìn):honesty, integrity
(11)常(cháng):eternal principle or law
(13)紊(wèn):mess, disorder

Text Translation

The Five Elements refer to water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. They constitute the foundation of all things in the universe. In relationship, they are promote and constrain each other, and altogether, they are decided by the law of nature. The Five Principles are guidelines for people to get along with others and handle matters. They are Ren, a mind of compassion and benevolence, Yi, deeds of righteousness and decency, Li, courtesy of modesty and propriety, Zhi, the capability of cautious thinking and discernment, Xin, honesty and integrity. All people should follow these principles and are not allowed to bring disorder to society.

Discussion Questions

1. In what way do the Five Elements correspond to nature and the human body?

(1) Corresponding relationships between nature and the Five Elements are as follows:

Five Elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, water

Seasons: spring, summer, late summer, fall, winter

Directions: east, south, west, north, center

Climate: wind, heat, wetness, dryness, cold

Development process: birth, growth, transformation, collection/harvesting, storage/amassing

Five flavors: sour, bitter, sweet, spicy, salty

Five colors: blue, red, yellow, white, black

(2) Corresponding relationships between the human body and the Five Elements are as follows:

Five Elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, water

Vital organs: liver, heart, spleen, lung, kidneys

Bowels: gallbladder, small intestine, stomach, large intestine, bladder

Five senses/facial features: eyes, tongue, mouth, nose, ears

Form/physique: tendons, blood vessels, muscle, skin, bone

Feelings: anger, happiness, thought, sadness, fear

2. How do you practice the Five Principles in daily life?


The Theory of the Five Elements

The Theory of the Five Elements explains the origin and diversity of all things in the world. They promote as well as mutually constrain each other. The mutual promotion of the Five Elements is to help, nurture, and foster each other; the mutual constraint is to restrain, constrain, and repel one another. To promote each other, metal nurtures water, water helps wood grow, wood fuels fire, fire nurtures earth, and earth helps metal. To repel mutually, metal restrains wood, wood restrains earth, earth restrains water, water restrains fire, and fire restrains metal. Because of these relationships of mutual promotion and restraint, the Five Elements can govern and maintain the growth and development of the universe.

It is said that the theory of the Five Elements was advocated by Zou Yan. He thought that an emperor had to possess at least one essential virtue grounded in the Five Elements. Once the emperor lost his virtue, he would be replaced by someone else who had another virtue from the Five Elements.

Legend has it that the Yellow Emperor had “earth virtue,” which allowed him to become the ruler. But later, this “earth virtue” turned feeble, and so wood, repelling earth, thus flourished. Yu, who possessed the “wood virtue,” became the emperor. After the decline of the “wood,” it was Tang of the “metal” element that set up the Shang Dynasty. Then, when the “metal” weakened, Emperor Wen of the “fire” element ascended the throne and started the Zhou Dynasty. This theory of Five Elements caused the throne to cycle continuously.

Note 1: The Five Elements repel/restrain/overcome one another. Water puts out fire, fire restrains metal by smelting it, metal overcomes wood (an ax chopping wood), wood restrains earth (plants absorb soil nutrition and reduce soil fertility), earth restrains water (damming/directing water flow).
Note 2: The Five Elements promote each other. Wood fuels fire (fire burning down a forest), fire nurtures soil (fire produces ashes), earth grows metal (there are mineral resources in the soil), metal fosters water (mining often produces water), water helps wood grow (plants need water to grow).

Yu Fu Selling Paint Perfidiously

During the Spring and Autumn Period, there was a businessman named Yu Fu who sold paint. Seeing his friends make big money, he was also eager to get rich. First, he consulted his friend, Ji Ran, who suggested Yu Fu grow lacquer trees. He said, “Now the paint business is very good. Why don't you plant lacquer trees, and later you can harvest the trees and sell the paint?” Excitedly, he further consulted Ji Ran about ways to grow a lacquer tree. His friend kindly and patiently taught him everything he wanted to know. Yu Fu went back home and worked diligently from morning till night until eventually he had cultivated a very large garden of lacquer trees.

After three years, the lacquer trees grew big enough to harvest. While Yu Fu was preparing the collected paint for sale in the Wu Country, his brother-in-law visited. He said to Yu Fu, “I often go to Wu to do business. I know how to sell the paint in Wu. If we get it right, we’ll make much more!”

Eager to get lots of quick and easy money, Yu Fu asked his brother-in-law repeatedly about how to make the most money from the people in Wu. His brother-in-law said, “In Wu, paint is a high-selling item. I saw that many people sold paint mixed with boiled paint leaves and thus doubled their profit, but the Wu people did not discover it.” Taking his advice, Yu Fu boiled paint leaves that night and brought the paint leaf paste to Wu together with the paint.

At that time, paint was indeed very rare in Wu. When Wu's paint dealers heard that Yu Fu had paint for sale, they came to greet him with great joy and even arranged his board and lodging. After they found Yu Fu’s paint was truly of good quality, they immediately made a satisfactory bargain with Yu Fu and sealed the containers. They agreed to make payment the next day in exchange for the goods.

As soon as the paint peddlers left, Yu Fu opened the seals and mixed the good quality paint with the paint leaf paste. Carelessly, he left some traces outside the containers. The next day, the paint dealers discovered that the seals had been broken and became suspicion about the paint in the containers. They made excuses and suggested closing the deal some days later.

Yu Fu waited several days in the hotel but never saw the dealers again. As time went by, the mixed paint deteriorated. Finally, Yu Fu did not sell any paint at all. He even lost all the good quality paint. When Wu’s paint dealers heard about Yu Fu’s loss, they criticized him saying, “A merchant should do business with sincerity and honesty. He should not lie about the product quality. No one will be sorry for him.”

Yu Fu lost all his paint and did not have any money to go back to his native land. He stayed in Wu begging and being humiliated. Eventually, he died poor and far away from his home.

Writing Reflection

1. Why did Yu Fu die far away from his home?
2. What are business ethics? Give some examples of businesses that did or did not follow proper ethics.

Traditional Chinese: http://big5.zhengjian.org/articles/2007/2/12/42222.html
Simplified Chinese: http://www.zhengjian.org/zj/articles/2007/2/12/42222.html


Add new comment