“When you talk with famous scholars, the best thing is to pretend that occasionally you do not quite understand them. If you understand too little, you will be despised; if you understand too much, you will be disliked; if you just fail occasionally to understand them, you will suit each other very well.”
In ancient and medieval China, bureaucrats were selected through Imperial Civil Services. Scholars all over China used to appear for this exam in hope of getting coveted government job (situation not very different from what happens in India today- thousands appear for Civil Services exam for few hundred jobs).
Manual labour was considered beneath dignity for scholars in China, so they preferred desk jobs.
One such scholar was Zhong Kui, he was brilliant but ugly looking. He topped the exam, but officials refused to offer him job because of his looks. In anger and frustration, he committed suicide in palace. After his death he went kingdom of Yama (yes, domain of our god of death is beyond India and Hindu religion), Yama saw lot of potential in him and made him incharge of ghosts. Usually after death, the dead is given a tea of forgetfulness, so that soul does not remember his past life or his tenure in hell after rebirth. This job is given to Yama’s assistant, a lady called Meng Po. In case of Zhong Kui, no such tea was given, he came back to living world and got his sister married to his friend.
Another interesting story on scholar is by Chinese author Lu Xun. Lu Xun was critical of society prior to communist rule. In his story he tells about scholar who keeps failing in exam but does not think of doing any manual work. The story is narrated by a 14 years old waiter in an inn. Scholar Kong Yiji comes to inn to drink warm wine. Kong keeps failing in civil services exam.
After drinking half a howl of wine, Kung would regain his composure. But then someone would ask: “Kung I-chi, do you really know how to read?”
When Kung looked as if such a question were beneath contempt, they would continue: “How is it you never passed even the lowest official examination?”
-Lu Xun, Kong Yiji
For earning living he does job of calligrapher. He has habit of stealing pens, ink, brushes etc. of his clients. When caught he gets beaten up by his clients. He never admits that he stole anything, he just borrowed it.
And someone would call out: “Kung I-chi! There are some fresh scars on your face!”
Ignoring this remark, Kung would come to the counter to order two bowls of heated wine and a dish of peas flavoured with aniseed. For this he produced nine coppers. Someone else would call out, in deliberately loud tones: “You must have been stealing again!”
“Why ruin a man’s good name groundlessly?” he would ask, opening his eyes wide.
-Lu Xun, Kong Yiji
Kong Yiji is subject of ridicule at the inn. One day he gets badly beaten up and drags himself to inn for a drink. After that he is not seen for a long time, people assume that he is dead.
One brilliant student who cleared civil services exam was Lin Zexu. Lin was known for his honesty. During the reign of Qing dynasty, the British tried to export opium in China in exchange for silk, tea, porcelain and spices. Opium addiction was ruining health of Chinese. Lin Zexu was sent to stop opium trade, he first wrote a letter to Queen Victoria for stopping the trade. Next, he got rid of British traders and destroyed opium. This lead to Opium War and huge losses to China.
“We find that your country is sixty or seventy thousand li from China. Yet there are barbarian ships that strive to come here for trade for the purpose of making a great profit. The wealth of China is used to profit the barbarians. That is to say, the great profit made by barbarians is all taken from the rightful share of China. By what right do they then in return use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people? Even though the barbarians may not necessarily intend to do us harm, yet in coveting profit to an extreme, they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscience?”
— Lin Zexu, Open letter addressed to the sovereign of England