There have been many stories about forbearance in both Eastern and Western civilizations.
According to ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus, the Titan god of fire, took pity on humans when he saw how hard their lives were and stole fire from Apollo, the god of the Sun, and gave it to them. Zeus, the king of the gods on Olympus, punished Prometheus by tying him to a cliff in the Caucasus Mountains, exposing him to the elements. And, every day, an eagle was sent to rip out his liver and eat it. Overnight, his liver grew back, only to be eaten again the next day in an ongoing cycle. He endured extreme suffering for a long time until he was finally freed by Heracles, who shot the eagle dead with an arrow.
Sima Qian was a historian in the early Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) in China. Even though he was punished with castration for speaking out in defense of a general who was blamed for the failure of a campaign against Xiongnu (an aggressive and powerful tribal league in the northern frontier of China), he endured the pain and humiliation and completed his epic work of Chinese historiography, Records of the Grand Historian, in prison to fulfill his father’s dying wish. He once said, “Though death befalls all men alike, it may be weightier than Mount Tai or lighter than a feather.”
In fact, the meaning of forbearance as a form of self-cultivation is very broad. Most people think that “forbearance” means endurance. This is only one aspect of the concept. “Forbearance” also includes: patience, the ability to endure hardships and losses, awareness, acceptance, perseverance, a sense of responsibility, achievements, nobility but not arrogance, victoriousness but not rebelliousness, virtuousness and humility, strength and tolerance, the ability to let go of attachments, consideration for others, and so on and so forth.
The Chinese character for “forbearance” consists of a “knife” on top and a “heart” at the bottom. It does not mean—in the narrow sense held by many—that one must endure and do nothing even when a knife is stabbing into one’s heart. Instead, people should use the heart under the knife to resolve conflicts. Be brave and calm in a crisis, be confident and resolute, avoid confrontation with wisdom, minimize unnecessary consumption and losses, and adopt altruistic approaches to resolve conflicts.
Forbearance is not about holding back resentment or grievance in one’s heart. Because if one holds such sentiments inside, the chest will feel heavy and one’s liver and kidneys will be damaged. When the liver is affected, a person tends to lose their temper easily; when the kidneys are affected, the person feels muddle-headed, which can lead to speaking and acting abnormally. Therefore, practicing forbearance can help a person proactively endure hardships while resolving problems with wisdom.
Renowned scholar Su Shi in the Northern Song era (960-1127) once said, “When an average man is humiliated, he will draw his sword to fight.” This is not a sign of true bravery. A truly brave person does not start a fight as soon as he is confronted by an aggressor. Instead, he maintains a tolerant attitude to try to resolve the conflict, giving his opponent an out to settle down. Even in the face of unprovoked insults, he handles the situation calmly.
Han Xin, a founding hero of the Western Han Dynasty, was deeply admired by later generations for his “big heart of forbearance,” in addition to his brilliant military strategies and wisdom.
When he was young, he liked martial arts and always carried a sword.
One day when he was out walking, a young man insulted him, saying, “You are tall and like to carry a sword, but you are actually a coward. If you are truly not afraid of death, stab me with your sword; if you are, then you’ll have to crawl between my legs to get away.”
Han Xin looked at the young man, then bent down and crawled between his legs. The bystanders all laughed at Han Xin, thinking he was a coward.
Later, Han Xin became Liu Bang’s general. One day, he summoned the man who had insulted himself in the past and said to those in attendance, “This is a strong man. When he insulted me years ago, I could have killed him then and there. But I had no justifiable reason to do that, so I let myself be humiliated. I wouldn’t have achieved what I have had I not forborne the humiliation then.”
The man begged for forgiveness. Han Xin not only pardoned his wrongdoing but also appointed him to be a petty official.
Forbearance is not about being weak and bowing down to others. It is about avoiding unnecessary trouble and being able to get along with others in harmony. It shows the broadmindedness of a strong person.
“Sleep on Brushwood Sticks and Taste Gall”
Everyone is China is familiar with the proverb “Sleep on brushwood sticks and taste gall.” It is about how Goujian, the King of Yue, endured self-imposed hardships after a defeat in order to strengthen his resolve to take revenge.
For decades, he insisted on sleeping on rough brushwood sticks at night and tasting bitter gall before each meal to remind himself of the humiliation he had suffered at the hands of his enemy, the State of Wu. “Forbearance” in this context refers to a sense of perseverance and responsibility.
What had he suffered? In 498 BC, Helü, the King of Wu, attacked the State of Yue, but he was defeated, and Helü died from his injuries. Two years later, his son Fuchai led his troops to attack Yue again and defeated Yue. Goujian, the king of Yue, was taken to Wu to serve as a slave to Fuchai, the king of Wu.
One day, Fuchai fell ill. Goujian offered to taste his feces and congratulated him with joy, “Judging from the color and taste of the feces, Your Majesty is healthy and can rest assured.”
Three years later, King Wu sent Goujian back to Yue. After returning to his own state, Goujian continued to live just as he did when he was a captive in Wu and became even more diligent and thriftier. He loved his people, comforted his officials, and trained his soldiers.
Goujian hung a gall bladder next to where he sat and often stared at it. He always tasted the gall first before each meal.
After 22 years of planning and preparations, Goujian launched an offensive and defeated the Wu. He was hailed as an overlord and returned the land occupied by the Wu to the states of Chu, Song, and Lu.
Throughout history, those capable of accomplishing great things have all demonstrated extraordinary willpower and conviction.
The Story of Su Wu Tending the Sheep
In 100 BC, the Xiongnu, an aggressive and powerful tribal league on the northern frontier of China, sought to establish friendly relations with the Han Dynasty. So Emperor Wu of the Han sent a delegation of over 100 led by Su Wu to pay a visit to the Xiongnu. However, as they were about to return home, internal turbulence broke out among the Xiongnu. They detained Su Wu and his men, ordering them to submit to the Xiongnu. They first tried to bribe Su Wu with money and official positions, but he turned down all their offers.
The ruler of the Xiongnu then gave orders to lock him up in an open cell in the ground with no food or water. Su Wu still refused to give in. He survived by eating his sheepskin coat and snow. The ruler admired Su Wu’s strong willpower and integrity. He didn’t want to kill Su Wu but was unwilling to let him return to the Han, either.
The seasons changed with no hope of Su Wu returning home to the Han. He couldn’t help feeling sad. As he wiped his tears with his sleeve, one of the sheep looked at him and bleated, as if it was comforting him.
The Xiongnu ruler then exiled Su Wu to Lake Baikal to tend a flock of sheep. He said that Su Wu would be able to return to the Han when the lambs were born. But when Su Wu got to Lake Baikal, he saw that all the sheep were rams. He tended the sheep day after day, using the imperial staff of the Han as a shepherd’s crook.
Season after season, year after year, his hair turned gray, but Su Wu remained firm and never bent principles for personal gain.
Nineteen years later, ambassadors from the Han Dynasty learned of Su Wu’s situation from one of his former assistants. The Xiongnu ruler admitted that he was still alive and allowed the Han mission to take him back to Chang’an, the capital of the Han Dynasty.
Su Wu’s unyielding forbearance demonstrated his sincere loyalty to the Han Dynasty. He endured great pain and suffering to uphold justice and never compromised integrity for personal gain.
The story of Su Wu tending the sheep has been admirably passed down from generation to generation among the Chinese people.