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Articles

Prodigy, Poet, and Pliable Sage

William A. Reeves

The talented Zhang Jiuling suffered setbacks while creating lasting works of governance, civil engineering and poetry but he never suffered fools.

Even after being demoted, the great statesman and poet Zhang Jiuling’s plea to the heavens was not for himself: “Let the emperor govern well and the people enjoy happiness.” 

One day, about 1300 years ago, an imperial official known to be a literary master was travelling through the lush Chinese countryside when someone handed him an essay written by a little-known scholar. The elder statesman was struck by the composition’s eloquence, accurate grasp of and unique insights into politics. He stopped his trip and asked to meet with its author, 25-year-old Zhang Jiuling. The only thing that impressed him more than the essay was this young man’s intellect, startling maturity and composure. After decades of experience evaluating courtly people, the official believed Juiling would alter the course of history.

Zhang Jiuling was a descendent of those who founded the Han and Jin dynasties centuries earlier and went on to be a just and intelligent governor. But history views him like a multifaceted sapphire, valuable from many angles. He built a mountain pass for his countrymen out of the kindness of his heart and composed poetry about the fullness of the moon, the workings of plants, and the quiet mystery of existence. His words still pepper Chinese conversations today. 

He was considered a child prodigy at age seven when he wrote his first essay and won over local leaders in a poetic, point-counterpoint verbal spar. From then on, he bounded toward his heart’s’ desire with enormous ambition but always kept a clear conscience, even if that meant risking his neck or walking away from a life in governance, something he wanted so badly. 

Even as a low-ranking clerk, Juiling never compromised his principles. He sparred frequently with Prime Minister Yao Chong; when his advice went unheeded, Juiling resigned and returned home to the countryside. 

On his way, he struggled like all travellers did through the steep and treacherous Lingnan Pass in the Daiyu Mountains. In his mind, a wide road appeared, a practical solution, and he rushed back to the imperial court to plead for the funds to execute his idea. 

The funds were granted and the talented literati became a road builder. He gathered farmers while the fields were fallow to do the work, and scaled cliffs to survey the route. He camped for months in the wild and shivered in the cold winds. The Mei Pass that he built — 17 meters wide in parts and a dozen kilometers long — made the Daiyu people dance and cry with gratitude when it opened. One of the first significant north-south arteries, it became a boon to Chinese traders, farmers, peasants, and merchants forever after. 

Word of Zhang’s quiet accomplishment reached the capital. He was called to serve his country again but, like before, his post did not last long. His accurate insights and convictions were never silent ones and though some in the court recognized his genius, others conspired to have him thrown out. New leaders rose and fell and Juiling became like sea kelp, pushed out or pulled back in but fixed at the root and nourishing to China’s development. 
During stretches when he was homebound, Zhang’s unstoppable heart and mind found outlet in poetry.

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Years passed and the tides ultimately brought Jiuling into the mighty Tang emperor’s personal council. By this time, Emperor Xuanzong had grown complacent and began to neglect his duties. Zhang tried to intervene but Emperor Xuanzong was deaf to reason. Instead, he whiled away the evenings playing chess.

During a chess match, Jiuling had an idea. He stopped playing. He allowed the emperor first to capture his horse, then ravage his other pieces. The emperor’s chariot was soon threatening Juling’s general — and yet he didn’t move, or seek to protect it. Emperor Xuanzong asked: “Why don’t you move? You’re about to lose the game!” Jiuling smiled and said: “Your Majesty, this game of chess is like managing state affairs. If the general is motionless, and the other pieces fail to protect it, of course the game will be lost.” The emperor immediately realized his fault.

Illustration by Mu Chuan

The ancient Mei Pass, one of China’s vital thoroughfares, was constructed by Zhang Jiuling circa 700 AD.