Thriftiness is a virtue. A family or nation, that indulges in extravagance and luxury often leads to heavy losses or disaster—while being thrifty is often associated with prosperity.
Below are three examples from Chinese history.
Emperor Wendi of the Han Dynasty (180–157 B.C.)
For 23 years, Wendi was an emperor during the Han Dynasty, but he hardly expanded a palace or a garden. Nor did he add furniture to the palace or buy extravagant clothing for the royal family. He once considered building a terrace, but after doing some calculations, he discovered that the cost would be close to the sum of 10 families’ assets, so he dropped the idea.
In addition to wearing plain clothing himself, Wendi also restricted the queen from wearing extravagant clothing. When he died, his tomb was filled with ceramic cookware, and no gold, silver, or copper ornaments were permitted. His tomb was also relatively small compared to other emperors.
Despite his thriftiness, Wendi was very generous with people who needed assistance, such as widows, orphans, and poor families. He instructed his administration to distribute rice, meat, and wine to seniors who were 80 years or older. In addition, anyone older than 90 was to be provided with clothing and quilts. He ordered his government officials to implement these policies, and any official who did not comply was punished.
Because of his thriftiness and hardworking attitude, the period of Wendi is well recognized and respected in Chinese history.
Zhuge Liang (181–234)
One of the most well-known sages in Chinese history, Zhuge Liang lived during the Three Kingdoms period. As chancellor, or prime minister, of Shu Han, he had great power and privileges. He did not use his privileges to make a fortune, but instead lived an ordinary life. When elaborate funerals were held for high ranking officials or wealthy people, Zhuge Liang told his subordinates to bury him in a small mountain tomb that could only hold a coffin. Other than his regular clothing, no other items were to be put in his tomb.
In a letter to his son, Zhuge Liang wrote, “One should calm his mind to improve himself, and live a modest life to establish his virtue.” “By paying little attention to material interests, one would be clear about his mission; by remaining calm without pursuit, one would be able to achieve great things.”
Sima Guang (1019–1086)
Sima Guang was a high-ranking official, scholar, and historian during the Song Dynasty, and was well known for his high standing in society. Despite his privileged position, he always led a simple life. When the emperor bestowed upon him and other officials valuable jewelry and gold as gifts, he gave the items to his relatives. When his wife died, Sima Guang had to sell some of his land to pay for her funeral.
In one communication with his son, Sima Guang wrote, “Virtue starts from being thrifty.” On the other hand, indulging in luxury leads to greed, disasters, and even the loss of life—both for the poor and rich alike.