Looking for life advice? Look to the Ancient Chinese

Calligraphy version of 左宗棠’s quote. For full resolution: http://bit.ly/2tjvR5l

I completed my undergraduate degree this past June. Like many new grads preparing to work in industry, I feel nervous about making a smooth transition from being a student to being a working-class young adult. Where do I go from here? How do I live a good life?

Last night, I found some reassurance in a quote by a Chinese official in the 清 (Qīng) Dynasty.

The story starts with a typical post-dinner discussion with my dad. We enjoy sipping some tea and talking, usually about parallels between Chinese history with the modern society. On the topic of life advice, he told me an incredible quote by 左宗棠 (pinyin: Zuǒ Zōngtáng):

“发上等愿,结中等缘,享下等福
择高处立,寻平处住,向宽处行。”
Portrait of 左宗棠, late 19th century

左宗棠 was a Chinese statesman and military leader in the Qing Dynasty, known also as the advisor of 曾国藩 (pinyin: Zēng Guófān). While some commonly associate 左宗棠 with General Tso’s Chicken (haha), he is also very famous for this quote, which accurately captures his philosophy on life. In fact, many successful Chinese people adore this quote. Alibaba Chairman 马云 (pinyin: Mǎ Yún) used it multiple times in his speeches, and Chinese business magnet 李嘉诚 (pinyin: Lǐ Jiāchéng) even has a calligraphy version of this in his office.

李嘉诚’s office, with the calligraphy in the background. I think I found my first apartment decoration!

Loosely translated, 左宗棠’s quote is the following:

“Make grand wishes, find balance with friends, enjoy pleasure modestly
Stand on high grounds, live on peaceful grounds, walk towards wider grounds.”

I will go over each phrase in detail, then conclude with some observations on the parallelism of 左宗棠’s quote.

Note: these are merely me interpretations. The beauty of 左宗棠’s quote is that it offers different interpretations based on our life experiences. I hope to look back at this a couple years from now, and see if my understanding has changed.

发上等愿

While “Make grand wishes” is the literal translation, there is a lot more going on in this four-character phrase. 愿 means wishes, but it also means goals and missions. Similar to how Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan is a grand goal of “Change”, we too must strive to set out great expectations for ourselves.

结中等缘

This phrase is all about friendship. We are often surrounded by people who we think are our friends, but in reality, they are trying to use us to advance themselves. We should be friends with people whom we respect, look up to, and ultimately learn from. 中等 means in the middle; friendship is about finding a middle/achieving a balance, and not taking advantages of each other.

享下等福

Sit down, be humble.

享 means to enjoy, and in this case, the phrase calls for everyone to be humble when enjoying the 福 (luxury, blessings) they are given.

择高处立

高 means high; 立 means stand; This phrase calls for all of us to stand on higher grounds. When we reach the peak of a mountain, we can see not only farther, but also where we came from, and where we need to go. Furthermore, we are also elevated mentally. Seeing the world from the top of a mountain is vastly different from viewing the world from the bottom. We have a clearer vision of our abilities and our potential for accomplishments when we stand taller.

寻平处住

平 means flat in a literal sense, but it also means peace. In this case, 左宗棠 argues that while we are encouraged to go out there and explore this unpredictable and chaotic world, we should always return to a peaceful environment we call our home. Home is where we can rest, reflect, and recover, so it should be peaceful.

向宽处行

宽 means wide, but on a higher level, it means to have an open mind. A mind that is constantly expanding is like a road that grows wider and wider. Even in English, we have idioms such as “Don’t go down a narrow road”, implying that we should not limit ourselves to a corner. The quote ends with this phrase, indicating that we should knowingly expand our path of opportunities while moving forward in life.

Additional Observations

In addition to the fantastic ideas presented, 左宗棠’s quote contains details that my English translations simply do not do justice. Observe the parallelism in the original quote:

[line 1] 发上等愿,结中等缘,享下等福
[line 2] 择高处立,寻平处住,向宽处行

In the first line, “上, 中, 下” are all the second characters; however, they are also all prepositions, meaning top, middle, and bottom. In the second line, “高, 平, 宽” are all adjectives, meaning high, flat, wide.

In addition, the first character of each phrase, “发, 结, 享, 择, 寻, 向”, are ALL Chinese verb characters, continuing the parallelism. More examples include “上等, 中等, 下等” in line 1, which are all phrases that describe rank, and “高处, 平处, 宽处” in line 2, which are all phrases that describe location. The last character of each phrase in line 1,“愿,缘,福”, are all nouns, while the last character of each phrase in line 2, “立,住,行”, are all verbs.

All of these observations just goes to show the beautiful patterns and intricacies present in these two lines.

Conclusion

In 24 characters, 左宗棠 summarized his philosophy on how to live life; he did it with such expressiveness, elegance, and eloquence. This quote really exemplifies the beauty of the Chinese language, but I am sure there is much more to discover.

Thank you, 左宗棠, for your life advice.