The Ming Dynasty’s Wanli period (1573-1620) was an era marked by political and economic stability, as well as significant cultural achievements. During this time, Zhejiang Province was a prosperous region with a thriving economy, and it was also home to many prominent scholars and intellectuals, such as Lu Shi Ke. As such, it was a hub of cultural and intellectual activity, and many wealthy families in the region sought to attract talented scholars to educate their children.
One man living there, surnamed Ma, was quite wealthy. He had never received an education and regretted it, so he wanted to find a good teacher to educate his four-year-old son named Ma Ji Liang, whom he treasured. Hearing that Lu Shi Ke had gained a reputation as a famous scholar, Ma sought him out and prepared a generous offer to invite him to teach his child.
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Lu Shi Ke agreed to tutor the boy and came to live in the family’s household. He conducted himself with strict propriety and did not involve himself in the affairs of the Ma family beyond his duties as a teacher. Despite being shown great respect by his hosts, Lu Shi Ke remained reserved and maintained a strict distance between himself and the household. Meanwhile, the maids and nurses who cared for the young Ma Ji Liang moved freely about the house.
A servant girl bought Lu Shi Ke a plum
One day, a servant girl named Xiang Qing brought a plum to the scholar as a gift. She offered him the plum and said: “Please have this plum, sir.” However, Lu Shi Ke refused the offer, shaking his head and saying: “No, thank you.” Having a quick wit, the servant girl tried a little wordplay with him to lighten the mood. Since her name “Qing,” is a homonym for the Chinese word for apricot, “xing,” she said: “If you don’t want the plum, do you want my apricot?”
In response to her playful comment, Lu Shi Ke slammed his ruler on the desk with a loud noise, causing Xiang Qing’s face to turn pale with shock. From that moment on, all the servants in the household treated Lu Shi Ke with the utmost respect and formality, walking slowly and carefully and maintaining a respectful demeanor in his presence.
Lu Shi Ke had been teaching at Ma’s home for half a year. During that time his student, Ma Ji Liang, demonstrated good behavior and followed his example. When he had free time between classes, Lu Shi Ke would sit with the boy and tell him stories about filial piety from ancient and contemporary times. Ma Ji Liang enjoyed these stories and listened to them attentively without becoming bored or restless.
Lu Shi Ke spoke with Mr. Ma, the boy’s father, telling him: “Education during childhood is the foundation for achieving great accomplishments later in life. One needs to cultivate moral character before developing artistic and literary talents. Lacking such a bedrock, how will even the greatest of talents be useful to one who has character defects?” Mr. Ma was pleased with Lu’s wise words and teaching style.
One year, in late autumn, Lu Shi Ke caught a cold. After he finished teaching for the day, he went to bed to get some rest. When Ma Ji Liang told his mother about it, she became worried that Lu’s quilt was not warm enough and asked the maid to take a new silk blanket to Lu’s bedroom. When Mr. Ma went to see how Lu Shi Ke was feeling the following morning, he saw a red woman’s shoe by his bed. He quietly picked it up, realizing it belonged to his wife, and put it into his sleeve before leaving.
After he left, he asked his wife why her shoe was in Lu Shi Ke’s bedroom. His wife replied that the maid carelessly rolled the shoe into the blanket while sending it to Lu, but Ma did not believe her. That night, he ordered the maid to go to Lu’s room and pretend that her mistress wanted him to come to her. Then he followed the maid with a knife. Ma thought if Lu opened the door, he would kill him immediately.
When Lu Shi Ke heard the maid convey the supposed offer from Ma’s wife, he became very angry and shouted: “What are you talking about? I will tell your master about this lie at dawn, and he will whip you to death.”
Upon hearing this, Ma left, but the doubts in his heart still remained. Therefore, he forced his wife to go knock at Lu’s door.
When Lu heard the knock on his door, he asked who it was. The voice of Ma’s wife answered him from outside the door. Then Lu Shi Ke said: “I was honored to be hired as a teacher by a virtuous man. How can I fall into moral decay in the dark of night? How can a lady see a gentleman in his room at night?”
Ma’s wife replied: “Please open the door. I have something to tell you.”
Lu Shi Ke said: “What is there for the lady to say to the gentleman? Even if you have something to tell me, please come with the master tomorrow. The door is the boundary between life and death, between man and beast, so leave at once! Otherwise, you will destroy your husband’s reputation! Even if I lose my job, I will not open the door for you.”
Upon seeing that Lu was firm and unyielding, Mr. Ma finally believed the teacher was incorruptible. He dropped the blade he had intended to use to kill the scholar, leading to the resolution of the life-and-death crisis between them.
Early the next day, Lu Shi Ke announced that he would no longer be teaching the Ma family’s son. Mr. Ma apologized to him and praised him, saying: “Sir, you are a true gentleman!”
Exercising self-restraint and not giving in to lustful desires can truly be a matter of life and death, and it is the line between humans and beasts! Once you cross this line, disasters will follow. On the other hand, those who can resist temptation and pass the test will be blessed. In the case of Lu Shi Ke, he eventually placed first in the imperial examination and was appointed as the high-ranking Minister of Justice.
Translated by Joseph Wu