Zhang Yue was the prime minister during the Kaiyuan era under the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang. He was known for having some unique wisdom regarding money, which he laconically expressed in “Qian Ben Cao,” an article just over 200 characters long.
The centerpiece of the article was an analogy where Zhang compares money to medicine, as both are “sweet, hot, and poisonous.” He argues that money “tastes sweet” because it’s what gives us an enjoyable life. It becomes delicious food, comfortable clothes, and a house that shelters us from wind and rain. Because of this “sweet taste,” everyone likes it and pursues it.
However, its nature is “too hot” and can easily make people obsessed. If a person becomes crazy about money and focuses on making money, he or she will become “poisoned.” In severe cases, it can take a person straight to the grave.
So how should people use this medicine—money—properly? Zhang Yue offered people seven approaches, exemplified in seven stories below.
Story 1 – The Dao: Following the Natural Law of Money’s Circulation
There was an extraordinary man over two thousand years ago named Fan Li. He spent over twenty years helping Goujian, the King of Yue, to avenge the humiliation the people of Yue suffered as hostages in the state of Wu.
After a decisive victory over the Wu, Fan Li declined all the rewards and rank offered to him by Goujian for his outstanding service and contribution to the revival of Yue. He left with his wife and went to live in the state of Qi.
Later, he started a business from scratch, which turned out to be very successful. Fan Li soon became a legend for his fabulous success in business. His wisdom soon got him appointed as prime minister by the King of Qi. Yet, he refused the official seal, scattered all his wealth, and moved his family to Taodi, where he started another business.
In the next 19 years, he accumulated abundant wealth from his business, and yet he gave away his money again and again, showing no interest in accruing wealth or power.
Fan Li was revered as “Sage of Merchants” by later generations. For him, status and wealth are things that one can throw away at any time. He viewed loss and gain as reciprocal to each other: only when one is willing to give away money, will one be able to acquire it.
To give another example, Im Sang-ok, the richest merchant in nineteenth-century Korea, did not leave any wealth behind as he donated all his assets and money to the country at his death.
Money itself is used for circulating within society to serve society. It is taken from the people to be used for the people. By allowing it to return back to society, it flows like water, providing sustenance and vitality in its endless cycle.
Story 2 – Virtue: Don’t Treat Money as Treasure
There was a grain merchant in ancient China named Li Jue. He always let his customers weigh the grain they were buying by themselves and pay according to that weight. Eventually, he became immortal, thanks to his accumulated virtue.
He came from Jiangyang in Guangling—a city where his family had lived for generations, operating a family business selling grain.
Li Jue was quite different from his peers and had a dignified and cautious temperament. When he was fifteen years old, his father went elsewhere and entrusted the family business to him.
When customers came to buy grain, Li Jue would hand the weighing tools to the customer and let him measure the weights by himself.
Instead of changing the price according to the market value of the grain, Li Jue always marked the price low, and only made two cents of profit on each dou (wooden bucket for measuring grain; one dou could contain around 7 kilos of grain) to take care of his parents. Surprisingly, years later, his family became well-to-do, with no worries for food and clothing.
His father found it rather strange and asked him how he managed his success. He told his father what he had been doing. His father became even more surprised.
“All my peers in the business use a big dou when purchasing grain and a smaller one when selling, and they have made much profit this way,” said his father. “Although government officials check the size of dou twice a year, in spring and autumn, many people still cheat the system like this.”
“I’ve always used the same-sized dou for both purchasing and selling, and thought I was doing the right thing. You’re doing even better by letting customers weigh their own purchase, and yet you still manage to make a good living. Maybe gods are taking care of you?”
Li Jue lived for over 100 years and remained very healthy. He passed away in peace one evening. Three days later, his family heard a cracking sound from his coffin; they saw Li Jue’s body ascending to heaven to join the immortals.
Story 3 – Righteousness: Making Appropriate Choices
In the middle of the Ming Dynasty there was a man surnamed Zhou, who was honest and upright. He was from a poor family and lived in a rented house.
One day, his wife found two silver ingots under the bricks of the stove and felt very happy. But Zhou said, “This is ill-gotten wealth, how can we take it for ourselves?”
He then picked up a writing brush and wrote on the silver ingots: “If you belong to me, then come to me in an aboveboard manner.”
He took the silver ingots and went out. He boarded a boat, and when it sailed to the middle of the river, he threw the ingots into the river and went back home.
When the boatman saw what Zhou did with the ingots, he had a greedy thought and asked a fisherman to find them for him. After the fisherman got them out of the water, he hid the ingots and lied to the boatman about not being able to find them. The boatman didn’t believe him, and the two argued with each other. In the end the case was taken to the local magistrate’s office.
They both still lied at the beginning but later confessed when the prefect tried to get to the bottom of things. The fisherman fetched the ingots from where he hid them under the escort of the magistrate guards. Seeing the words on the ingots, the prefect ordered for the ingots to be kept in the treasury.
That autumn, Zhou passed the provincial civil examination. As usual, the prefect hosted a banquet for the successful candidates, and silver ingots were placed in front of each one of them. To Zhou’s surprise, the two silver ingots placed in front of him were the ones he had thrown into the river earlier, as the words he wrote were still clearly visible. Later, Zhou was also successful in the imperial examination.
There is a saying that “while a gentleman loves money, he only obtains it in proper ways.”
What Zhou did was a gentleman’s inevitable choice. His continuous success in official examinations might be a blessing from Heaven for his honesty and upright behavior.
In the book Lüshi-Chunqiu, there was such a story about Zigong (a student of Confucius) freeing a slave taken from the Lu state.
A law in the state of Lu stated that anyone who pays for the freedom of an enslaved citizen of Lu can be reimbursed by the treasury.
Once, Zigong redeemed a Lu citizen from another state. Upon his return, he refused to have the ransom he paid reimbursed, believing that if one seeks reward for a good deed he has done, it would give rise to good acts done for personal gain and establish a negative social norm.
(To be continued.)