At home with 陶朱公/TaoZhuGong (范蠡/Fan Li)

A little background on Fan Li:-

Towards the end of the Spring and Autumn Period (circa 496 BC); a time of internecine warfare between several autonomous states/kingdoms vying for hegemonic overlord-ship under the fast-fading veil of the Zhou dynastic court.

After a string of victories, the over-confident King of Yue suffered a crushing defeat by Wu and faced seeming death and the elimination of his kingdom. His loyalist adviser, Fan Li, implored the Yue king to humble himself to the point of humiliation in front of the king of Wu, to preserve his life and the hope of reviving the Yue kingdom.

The brazen Wu king spared the Yue king’s life and took him back to Wu as a slave; Fan Li followed his king to Wu as a conquered slave. For the next twenty years, Fan Li, together with the loyalist former minister of Yue, Wen Zhong, worked to restore their deposed king and the kingdom of Yue — devising the famous stratagems:

Nine Tactics to Restore Yue and Destroy Wu

Ten years to grow Yue’s population and strength, ten years more to heed past lessons and to train; in twenty years, Wu can only perish/be reduced to a swamp

[One of the stratagems used by Fan Li to entice and weaken the Wu king, was the beguiling charms of a Yue woman, Xishi — one of the Four Beauties of ancient China, whose name has been synonymous with beauty in chinese consciousness.]

Finally, after helping the Yue king destroy Wu, restore the kingdom of Yue and being conferred as Grand General, Fan Li promptly resigned his duties and left Yue for the state of Qi.
From Qi, he wrote to Wen Zhong the following letter:

When all the flying birds have been shot down, even the best bow and arrows will be put away. When all the sly rabbits have been caught, even the best hunting dogs will be cooked for their meat.
The king of Yue is a cautious but suspicious man; one may share woe and suffering with him, but not weal. Why do you still stay ?

In Qi, Fan Li used the moniker 鸱夷子皮, a very crude name; meaning leather-wine-pouch or the double-entendre 鸱夷皮子 — the leathery-wine-pouch-fellow.
But a closer examination may suggest Fan Li did not choose this name carelessly. The “鸱夷” was a leather pouch which could expand or contract accordingly to its contents and when empty, may be folded up and tucked away and carried anywhere on one’s self.

Some have suggested that Fan Li has attained true emptiness, and is able to truly 能屈能伸 — to bend/contract or stretch/expand oneself according to the environment, and to be at ease anywhere in the world.
And of course, this coarse but disarming name also proved to be very useful in Fan Li’s new chosen profession, as a trader.

Eventually, Fan Li-as-鸱夷子皮 trader and producer of ceramics amassed a huge fortune and became one of the wealthiest and most influential man in Qi, known for his wisdom, virtue and counsel to kings, princes and lords; the king of Qi invited him to be Qi’s prime minister. Later generations respectfully referred to the wealthy and wise Fan Li as 陶朱公/TaoZhuGong – Lord Tao Zhu (the Lord of Vermilion Ceramics).

Which brings 陶朱公/TaoZhuGong to my house…

As a child growing up, apart from the watercolours and a couple of oil paintings hanging on the walls, there was a calligraphy piece of twelve neat columns done in the ancient chinese script (clerical script – lishu). I couldnt understand what the words meant then, but I could recognize the characters at the end indicating the author — 朱公. Which to me meant Grandfather Zhu or Ancestor Zhu, my family name.
As I gradually learnt the meaning of the words and lines, which are aphorisms in trading and business, I actually grew up thinking these wise words were penned by some illustrious ancestor of mine, who had passed his wisdom down through generations of Zhu/Chu.
[not too wild an assumption for a child actually, growing up with a businessman father who started in commodities trading; and learning about sugar futures, crude palm oil spot and freight scheduling during dinnertime]

Here are the 《陶朱公理財十二則》 or TaoZhuGong’s Twelve Business Principles, which had been hanging on the wall in father’s study for so many years:


Some English versions are here, but does not fully correspond to the above.


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