The Orchid and the Perfect Confucian Scholar
Zheng Jian, Contributor, Dora Li, Contributing Translator
In ancient times, the great sage Confucius had profound effects on traditional Chinese culture, laying the foundation for what we think of today as a good and civilized person. A key part of this cultural creation was, perhaps surprisingly, the orchid.
Confucius had many students who he taught to refine themselves into gentlemen with a high moral standard. One such student was Zilu. When he was young, Zilu was never taught good manners, but he learned some martial arts. Every time he went out, he always wore a long sword that hung from his waist, rooster feathers inserted into his hair, and a string of wild boar’s teeth around his neck. He thought that all of these were symbols of manly courage.
When he heard that Confucius was very wise and knew about etiquette, Zilu decided to visit him. As soon as he saw Confucius, Zilu started swinging around his long sword in order to show that he was highly skilled in martial arts. He was very proud of his skills and told Confucius, “Master, didn’t those people of the past act like me and protect themselves with swords?”
However, Confucius answered, “In the old days, gentlemen valued loyalty and justice. They were always kind so they didn’t have to protect themselves. Although they lived in simple homes, they were knowledgeable. If they met bad people, they would use their wisdom and benevolence to deal with them. If they met people who acted irrationally, they kindly reasoned with them. Why would they need to carry swords?”
Zilu was surprised and happy after he heard what Confucius said. He sighed, “Ah! I was never taught how a true gentleman should behave. I would like to learn from you starting today!” Zilu changed his attire to the clothing that Confucius’s students wore and became his disciple.
On one of their journeys, Confucius and his disciples smelled something very fragrant. Confucius led them to a valley where the orchids were in full bloom.
Pointing to the orchids, Confucius told his disciples, “The orchids grow in the deep valleys, even though no one is there to admire them. They release their fragrant smell even though no one may be there to appreciate it. No matter what happens, they act like righteous men, strong and noble. They are truly gentlemen.”
In the ages that followed, the concept of what a civilized and good person looks like was elevated along with the teachings of Confucius. Such a person was not intimidating like Zilu was with a sword, wild feathers, and boar’s teeth. A good person was like the orchid, with inner strength and beauty. Throughout history, for those seeking to refine themselves to their highest potential, the orchid became a symbol of refined character and pure beauty.
Today, the tradition of the orchid continues at the Shen Yun Shop, which offers a Poets of the Orchid Pavilion Collection. Each piece celebrates the orchid and those who follow in the footsteps of the traditional Confucian scholar. The Collection’s scarf, for instance, is adorned with a border of orchids and ancient calligraphy ranked among the finest in Chinese civilization.
A refined inner character and appreciation for pure beauty are truly worth cherishing—just ask Zilu.