Doctor Rong

Jiang Ziya: The Late Bloomer Who Overthrew a Wicked Tyrant

Jiang Ziya was a nobody for most of his life. But he never gave up. This is the story of how he fulfilled his aspirations after many years of hardship.

Let’s talk about the story of a late bloomer, a Chinese man from more than 3,000 years ago. In the first half of his life, he was a nobody and went through many hardships. 

Only at the incredibly ripe age of 72 did he start seeing some success. He then went on to become a powerful military strategist. 

He was instrumental in overthrowing the corrupted king of the Shang dynasty and helped to establish the longest dynasty in Chinese history, the Zhou Dynasty. This man is called Lü Shang, better known as Jiang Ziya, or Jiang Taigong. 

Extraordinary people usually descend from extraordinary ancestors, right? And Jiang Ziya was no exception. He was a descendant of Emperor Shennong. However, by the time Jiang Ziya was born in 11th century B.C., his family was already very poor. 

In ancient China, it was every educated man’s dream to work for the government and realize their talents. And for a smart man like Jiang Ziya, he had the same aspiration as well. For a while, he worked as a minor official in the court of the King of the Shang Dynasty, Shang Zhou Wang Di Xin. 

This king was very tall and handsome, and he was so strong that he could defeat beasts with his bare hands. And he wasn’t just all brawn and no brain. He was also very clever. Unfortunately, he didn’t put his gifts to good use. He used his eloquence to brag about himself and cover up his mistakes. And he didn’t heed anyone’s advice. He thought, “Oh, nobody in the world is as amazing as me. I’m chosen by heaven!” 

The King completely ignored state affairs and simply drank and partied all day long. And he was not busy having a jolly time, he was abusing and punishing, torturing his people, including his ministers. He and his concubine, Daji, invented many extremely cruel punishments, and they derived pleasure from watching people suffer. He also heavily taxed the people to support his own decadent lifestyle. For simplicity, let’s refer to this king as the “Wicked King”. 

Jiang Ziya was disgusted by the wicked king. He was also fed up because he cannot put his talents to good use and benefit the people. The wicked king only favoured officials who encouraged his evil acts, and Jiang Ziya could never do that. Disappointed by all of this, he wanted to leave his position. The last straw might have been when the wicked king invented a devilishly cruel punishment. He installed a large, hollow bronze cylinder and stuffed the inside with burning charcoal. The prisoner was then tied to the scorching cylinder, which resulted in an excruciating death. 

Jiang Ziya realized that the wicked King’s dynasty is destined to fall, so he quit his job and went home. From then on, in order to make ends meet, he did odd jobs here and there. He became a butcher and sold meat. But the weather became so hot that all his meat quickly went bad. He also tried selling other things like alcohol or wheat flour. But all of these business ventures failed miserably. He was already middle-aged, yet he hadn’t accomplished anything in life.

One day, his wife just could not take it anymore, “You are such a loser. An utter failure. Look how poor we are. You are such a useless man. I’m leaving you.” So she kicked him out. Jiang Ziya just seemed to be having a long streak of bad luck. You know, as the Chinese people say, “Dǎoméi de shíhòu, hē liángshuǐ dū sāi yá” (“When you’re unlucky, even water gets stuck in your teeth”). 

Despite all of these misfortunes, there was one thing that Jiang Ziya persisted with, which was learning. Regardless of his circumstances, Jiang Ziya never stopped learning. He read voraciously and accumulated knowledge in astronomy, geography, government and politics, military strategy, and much more. He was just waiting for an opportunity to serve a leader who could appreciate his knowledge and intelligence. 

So you can see here one quality that distinguishes him from many others. He had grand ambitions and high aspirations. An old Chinese saying goes “Without roots, a tree cannot grow tall. And without aspirations, a man cannot achieve great things.” It’s like in modern times too, all the successful people talk about the importance of setting goals. 

Another prominent quality of Jiang Ziya is patience. Patience is a virtue. There’s a reason why people say that. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, things just do not go your way and life can really suck. At those times, the best thing you can do is to wait patiently and keep on improving yourself—”Chance favours only the prepared mind.” (Louis Pasteur)

Finally, when Jiang Ziya was 70 years old, this chance, this golden opportunity came. He heard that one of the small states had a very good ruler. Xībó Hóu Jī Chāng, the Duke of Zhou. This duke ruled over his people through kindness and virtue. He respected the old and was kind to the young. He was also diligent and appreciated talent. As a result, he attracted many capable people to his state. 

So upon hearing about him, Jiang Ziya thought, “I want to work for him!” But as you can imagine, not just anyone can approach someone in such a high position. For example, just because I feel I have great knowledge of how to govern a country doesn’t mean the British Prime Minister would be willing to meet me. 

How do you attract someone’s attention without approaching them? You have to pique their curiosity. You have to do something unusual to catch their attention. Jiang Ziya, with all his smarts and the knowledge accumulated throughout the years, came up with an eccentric plan. He found a lovely spot near the river and settled himself there and started fishing. But not just any kind of fishing. He didn’t use any bait, and he used a straight fishhook instead of the usual curved one. And he had a fish hook three feet above the water. On top of all of these, he also muttered to himself, “Fish, fish. If you don’t want to live anymore, just get on the hook yourself.”

He did this all day and every day. People thought he was crazy. One man laughed at him and said, “I’ve seen many idiots, but I haven’t seen anyone as silly as you. You are never going to catch a fish even if you sit here for another 100 years.” Jiang Ziya simply stroked his beard, shook his head and replied. “No, no, no, no. You don’t understand. The fish is not what I’m trying to catch.” 

What did Jiang Ziya mean? Well, his approach was very Chinese. In fact, his thinking aligned with the Daoist philosophy of letting fate unravel itself and following the course of nature. Just like the willing fish being caught by itself. A virtuous leader who is deserving of Jiang’s service will come and seek him out. All Jiang Ziya had to do was just to wait patiently. 

One day the virtuous duke decided to go hunting, and he arrived near the river. He saw that among the tall grass sat an old man, which was still there. The Duke quietly observed for a few minutes and found his fishing method very strange indeed. So the Duke approached Jiang Ziya and asked, “Sir, how are you? What are you doing here? Do you enjoy fishing?” 

Now, finally, for the first time, Jiang Ziya had the opportunity to pitch himself to the virtuous duke. Jiang Ziya calmly said “An average man is satisfied when he completes a task, while a great man is satisfied only when he fulfils his aspiration. I’m not sitting here because I enjoyed the act of fishing itself.” 

Basically, he’s implying, not very subtly, that he’s not an average man. He is someone special. He continued his speech “Just like when a man tries to catch a fish, the same principles apply to when a leader tries to recruit talented people. There are three power moves. First, you need a bait, which is the reward. And second, the bait needs to be yummy. So the salary needs to be generous. And third, you need to offer prominent positions to capable people. When you can do all of these. Then you’ll be able to recruit brave and loyal people who might even be willing to risk their lives for you.” 

This was exactly what the virtuous Duke needed to hear. If he wanted to strengthen his own state and eventually overthrow the powerful, Wicked King, he can’t just do that by himself. He needed to build a strong team of key talents. 

The virtuous Duke said, “Please tell me more. How can I win people over?” Jiang Ziya continued to share his infinite wisdom, “A country could become powerful only when the people prosper. If the officials enrich themselves while the people remain poor, the rule cannot last long. The major principle in ruling a country should be to love the people and to love the people means to reduce taxes and unnecessary labour and share your wealth with them. Improve people’s comfort and reduce their pain. That is the Dao or the Way of the King. If you follow the Dao, people will follow you.” 

The Duke was very impressed with this astute old man and courteously invited Jiang Ziya onto his carriage and appointed him as the advisor. After arriving at the state of Zhou, Jiang Ziya advocated for virtuous governing. As a result, the people of Zhou developed very high moral values. The virtuous Duke and Jiang Ziya also promoted agriculture and boosted the economy, as well as expanded the area of influence. 

Eventually, about two-thirds of China either directly belonged to or were allies of the virtuous Duke. Sadly, shortly afterwards, the virtuous Duke passed away. His second son, Jifa, inherited the throne and followed in his father’s footsteps. Like father, like son, he was also a virtuous leader and cared deeply about his people. Let’s call him “Virtuous Duke 2.0”. 

In 1046 B.C., the Wicked King became even more hedonistic and ruthless. Two of his uncles were also ministers at the court, and they advised the king to abandon his playboy ways. But instead of listening, the Wicked King savagely killed one of his uncles and threw the other one in prison. Soon, the people of the Shang were so oppressed that no one dared to speak. People had completely lost their faith in the wicked king.

Around the same time, the wicked king dispatched his main army force to fight far away in the east of China, which meant that the Shang Dynasty’s capital city was left poorly defended. Jiang Ziya and virtuous Duke 2.0 believed that this was the perfect time to attack. 

But before making the decision as it was customary, Virtuous Duke 2.0 turned to divination. Divination was a common practice back in ancient China. It’s a way to gain insight into a situation or prophesise an event. Basically, it’s fortune-telling. The Royal Diviner burned a piece of the tortoiseshell, interpreted the cracks on it, and announced that the omen was unfavourable. In fact, it was terrible. 

At the same time, suddenly dark clouds gathered overhead and then there was lightning, thunder and downpour. The atmosphere instantly intensified. Everyone at the court was terrified and they all thought that the expedition should be cancelled. Well, everyone, except for Jiang Ziya.

He snapped a tortoiseshell, slammed it onto the floor and stomped it into many pieces. He was furious and said, “What can bones from dead animals tell us about the future? We must go ahead and attack.” Now, you might find this really strange. It seems as if Jiang Ziya was defying the will of heaven, but clearly, he respected heaven and he was not an atheist. 

So why did he dismiss the prediction? Well, one critical element in warfare is timing. You have to move fast. Jiang Ziya once said that if you want to be successful, if you want to follow the Dao or the Way of the Saints, then you must avoid hesitating and doubting yourself when the timing is right. 

On top of that, divination requires interpretation. Different people may interpret the same tortoiseshell pattern differently. What lies in the future is ultimately unknown and something we cannot control. What we can control are our actions. So I think that’s why he insisted on the attack. Sure, he was patient, but he was also quick to act when it’s the right time to do so. And that is the yin and yang of life. 

Virtuous Duke 2.0 took Jiang Ziya’s advice and went forward with the expedition. He led an army of 300 chariots, 3,000 elite warriors and 45,000 footmen. Together, they crossed the Yellow River and stopped at Muye, which was only 70 miles away from the Wicked King’s capital. Here they met the Wicked King’s defending Army, which was ten times bigger and consisted of over 700,000 men. 

Jiang Ziya led a small group of 100 men, beat the drums and charged forward. Imagine a silver-haired man in his eighties fighting on the battlefield. What a sight to behold! A poem from Shijing described him “as mighty, as an eagle spreading its wings.” On the other hand, many of the Wicked King’s soldiers did not want to fight for their corrupted leader and defected to the virtuous Duke 2.0 army.

This greatly lowered the morale of the Wicked King’s troops, and they were defeated within one day. When the Wicked King saw that his capital had been taken over, he dashed back to the palace and climbed onto the tallest building in the capital, where he used to party all day long. He donned his best clothes, put on luxurious jewellery, set fire to everything, and committed suicide. 

The Virtuous Duke released the ministers that were put into prison, distributed the Wicked King’s remaining treasures and money, and open the granaries so the poor people could get food. Thus, the Zhou dynasty began and Virtuous Duke 2.0 became King of Zhou. 

As for Jiang Ziya, as a reward for his contributions, he was appointed to the State of Qi and became the Duke of Qi. Through his wise governing, Qi became a big, powerful and prosperous state. Jiang Ziya passed away when he was over 100 years old. 

So that’s the story of how a man finally fulfils his aspirations after many years of hardship. If you are experiencing a midlife crisis or even a quarter-life crisis, just remember that every flower blooms at a different rate. 

Some people achieve success at a young age, while others have to persevere for decades before accomplishing extraordinary things. No matter what’s going on in your life, be like Jiang Ziya, never give up and always work on yourself!

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