Respecting teachers and cherishing virtues are part of the traditional ethics practiced by the Chinese people. Teachers, who impart morality, knowledge, and values, teach people the proper ways to interact with each other and with society at large. They exemplify virtue.

The Classic of Rites was one of the Chinese Five Classics of the Confucian canon. It was stated in Record on Education, one of the 49 chapters in The Classic of Rites:

“Upon securing the proper reverence for the master, the virtue he embodies is regarded as honored. When that is done, the people know how to respect learning.”

To maintain respect for the teacher and revere virtue, students must not only show respect and courtesy but also hold respect in their hearts and faithfully follow the teachings imparted to them. Let’s take a look at a few examples of how ancient people showed respect for their teachers and for virtues.

Yin Xi Honors Lao Zi

Yin Xi was said to be a scholar in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100 B.C–711 B.C.). He became fond of ancient books at an early age and had expertise in astronomy and many other areas of interest.

One day, he observed the heavenly climate and saw a purple mist on the eastern horizon that didn’t dissipate. To him it meant that a sage was to come from that direction and go through the Hangu Pass. Because he was in charge of allowing people to go through the pass on their way to the west, he ordered the guards to inform him immediately if they saw anyone with an uncommon appearance in the next few days.

He also sent people to clean the roads and burn incense in preparation for greeting the sage. A few days later, he received reports that an elderly man with white hair and a divine physique was riding in an ox-drawn cart toward the pass heading west. He immediately went to greet the elderly sage.

He knelt down a dozen yards from the cart and said, “Yin Xi, the chief officer at Hangu Pass, greets the sage!” The elderly man replied, “I’m simply a private citizen. Can you tell me why you are performing this extraordinary ritual?” Yin Xi explained, “I have been waiting for days for your arrival, after I saw indications that a divine being would soon arrive. It is my sincere hope that your holiness will enlighten me.”

The elderly man asked, “What were the indicators you saw?” Yin Xi answered, “In the tenth month of last year, the Sage star moved across the western sky in wintertime. Early this month, a tender breeze passed by while a bloom of purple mist arose on the eastern horizon. Thus I knew that a sage would pass here heading west.

“The purple mist was so vast that it spanned 10,000 miles—an indication that this would be no ordinary sage. The purple mist was led by the Ox star, which told me that the sage would arrive in an ox-drawn cart. Today, upon seeing your holiness with this extraordinary, transcending countenance, I would be unable to express my gratitude if you would advise me on my cultivation practice.”

The elderly man was pleased to see Yin’s sincerity as well as his kind heart and courteous demeanor. He smiled, “You recognized me, the old man. I, too, was aware of you. I am to offer you salvation.” Yin was glad and kowtowed to the sage.

When he asked the elderly sage’s name, the sage said, “My name is vast. At the moment, my surname is Li, my given name Bo Yang. People call me Lao Dan.” Yin burned incense, kowtowed, and completed the ritual of honoring Lao Zi as his teacher. Zi is a courteous title used in place of one’s name.

Lao Zi stayed briefly at Hangu Pass, only long enough to record something that is hard to define or describe, which he termed the “Tao.” In it, he imparted his views about the universe, man, and society. He gave Yin Xi a 5,000-word manuscript called Tao Te Ching. Yin Xi followed Lao Zi’s instructions to cultivate his mind and body, promoted the teachings of the Tao School in managing the country and benefiting the world, and succeeded in his cultivation. He was honored by later generations as Yin, the True Man.

Confucius and His Disciples

Confucius, circa 551 B.C.–479 B.C., was a renowned thinker, philosopher, and educator. Legend has it that he had over 3,000 students, 72 of whom were disciples who followed him closely. Confucius practiced his own teachings. His pursuit of truth, ideals, and personal integrity, as well as his propriety, kindness, humility and courtesy, and his loyalty and care for ordinary people have inspired his students and future generations.

Confucius’s students respected him deeply, treated him as their father, carried out his resolves as their own, and regarded committing themselves to honorable causes as the highest purpose. His student Yan Hui was “content to stay poor while focusing on his pursuit of the Tao,” cultivated himself, and strictly followed Confucius’s teachings.

Another student, Mi Zijian, maintained law and order by playing a stringed instrument, imbuing virtue with harmonic music, and encouraging people to settle down and work hard. Yet another student, Zi Xia, compiled analects, promoted education, and guided the public with kindness.

Confucius’s students followed him on a long, arduous journey to spread his teachings in different countries. When others slandered their teacher, they defended him and upheld his noble character. Zi Gong solemnly pointed out one offender’s lack of awareness of his own deficiencies. Zeng Can praised Confucius as a person with great virtue “as pure as if washed by tidal waves from a great river, on which the autumn sun shines, and as sacred as the boundless universe.” He carried on and implemented the benign policies Confucius preached. He was quoted as saying:

“A scholar has to have strength and determination because he shoulders grave responsibilities and has a long journey ahead of him. Won’t his responsibilities be grave if he aims at carrying out benign policies across the land? Won’t his journey be long if he is to uphold justice till eternity?”

Emperor Taizong of Tang

Emperor Taizong of Tang, 599–649, was widely recognized as a wise ruler in Chinese history. He paid special attention to education and carefully selected teachers for the princes, such as Li Gang, Zhang Xuansu, Wei Zheng, and Wang Gui—all men of great virtue who were highly esteemed.

On one occasion, Li Gang suffered a problem with his feet that made it impossible to walk. The imperial court had strict rules against officials riding in a carriage carried on men’s shoulders. The officials were expected to walk with great care.

When Emperor Taizong learned about Li Gang’s foot problems, he decreed that Li Gang be given the privilege of riding in a carriage in the imperial court. He further ordered his prince to greet the teacher when he arrived at the court.

On another occasion, he learned that his fourth son, Li Tai, was not being respectful to his teacher, Wang Gui. He criticized his son in front of Wang Gui: “Next time you see your teacher, you must be as respectful to him as you are to me. Even the slightest digression is not allowed.” From then on, Li Tai was courteous and respectful toward his teacher. His schoolwork improved, too. Emperor Taizong’s strict family rules called for all of the princes to respect their teachers and to value the teachings they were given.

Emperor Taizong issued a decree that read, “I have conducted a careful comparative study of wise emperors and kings. Without exception, they all had great teachers. The Yellow Emperor learned from Tai Dian, Zhuanxu learned from Lu Tu, Yao learned from Yin Shou, Shun learned from Wu Chengzhao, Tang learned from Wei Zibo, King Wen of Zhou learned from Ziqi, and King Wu of Zhou learned from Guo Shu. … If one does not learn, he has no way to understand the principles passed down from the ancient times. There is no man who lacks such understanding yet can rule the country and maintain peace.”

He decreed that his sons had to respect their teachers as much as they respected him. In addition, he encouraged the teachers to be straightforward when pointing out the deficiencies of the princes. The ability of the teachers to fulfill their great responsibilities was, to a great extent, due to Emperor Taizong’s understanding, support, and encouragement.

When the ninth son, Li Zhi, was appointed as the crown prince, Emperor Taizong set even stricter rules for him. He had to stand up whenever his teacher or his father was speaking, and he had to commit their words to memory and express his gratitude afterward.

*Image of Confucius and his students via Shutterstock

There is an ancient saying that “one who is your teacher for a day is your father for the rest of your life.” Stories about ancient people respecting their teachers and valuing the virtues embodied by their teachers have been passed down as inspiring tales. Such stories are admired by people of today with a sense of morality and those who adhere to lofty ideals. It all started with respecting teachers and cherishing virtues.

Ancient sages respected the teachers who taught them the Tao.