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Talent recruitment in ancient times

The most important skill of attracting talents to work for you: show your courtesy and sincerity.

05·27·2015

Talent recruitment in ancient times

The most important skill of attracting talents to work for you: show your courtesy and sincerity.

05·27·2015

Being polite, courteous, and humble is vital in any era. But during ancient times, it was the best way of improving personal image and winning the hearts of others. Since seizing control of entire countries was no small feat, even for powerful rulers, officials with the ability to assist in country management were extremely valuable and highly respected. In order to recruit talented people, rulers seized every opportunity to display their courtesy and sincerity. It is unclear how much was real or fake, but they got what they wanted. Let’s appreciate the art of recruitment together.

周公吐哺 (Zhou Gong spits out food)

Sometimes showing hospitality is simple: opening doors for guest even when you are busy.

Ji Dan (姬旦), more widely known as Zhou Gong (周公), the son of Emperor Wen and brother of Emperor Wu in Zhou Dynasty, was the most influential person famous for being courteous to the wise. In order to recruit capable people, Zhou Gong met with visitors all day. In case he missed anyone, he always rushed to open the door whenever someone came. It was said that even if he was taking a shower, and guests had arrived, Zhou Gong would run to welcome them without drying and tying up his hair, just held it. If he was having dinner, he would spit out the food in order to meet them immediately. Since he was always like this, there was a saying about him: “Hold hair three times during a shower; Spit out food three times during a meal (一沐三握发,一饭三吐哺).” His respect for talent was a model for politicians later.

千金买骨 (Buying bones with a thousand taels of gold)

Image courtesy of cenal.com.cn.

Image courtesy of cenal.com.cn.

As with Zhou Gong, King Zhao of the State of Yan in the Warring States Period was also eager to recruit talented officials. His adviser, Guo Wei, provided him with a very creative idea.

Guo told a story: An emperor in olden days wanted to buy a swift horse, but could not find one for three years. One day, an official bought the bones of a dead swift horse back with a thousand taels of gold in the name of the emperor.  The emperor was very angry.  But the official said this way they could get a living, swift horse. Later, just like the official had expected, many people went to the emperor selling their swift horses, because when they knew that the emperor spent so much money on a dead horse, they believed that he would pay even more for a living one.

Then Guo said, “It will also work attracting talented people. You show your respect to me, thus people wiser than me will believe you will treat them well.”

Emperor Zhao accepted his suggestion. He built Gold Terrace (黄金台) for Guo and respected him as a teacher. Unsurprisingly, many famous minds like Zou Yan (邹衍) and Yue Yi (乐毅) came to Yan, and Yan became stronger and more prosperous with their help.

虚左以待 (waiting with the left seat empty)

Image coutersty of kf.cn.

Image coutersty of kf.cn

In the Warring States Period, there were four aristocrats called the Four Lords of the Warring States, famous for housing talent under their roofs. In spite of their noble identity and reputation, it was never easy to convince a capable man to work for them. To recruit a man named Hou Ying, the Lord Xinling of Wei (信陵君), one of the Four Lords of the Warring States displayed great patience.

Hou Ying (侯嬴) was 70 years old at that time and lived in retirement. One day, Lord Xinling visited him with a generous gift. Hou refused, saying that receiving such a gift would be against his principles. Then, Lord Xinling held a grand banquet and rode his carriage to invite Hou, with the left seat empty. In those days, the left position was more honorable than the right, not to mention that Lord Xinling served as his driver. But Hou did not show gratitude and just sat on the left. But Lord Xinling was not enraged at all and performed even more respectfully. When they passed by a slaughterhouse, Hou asked Lord Xinling to stop, saying he wanted to meet a friend. Lord Xinling did so. Hou went to talk with his friend Zhu Hai (朱亥), with Lord Xinling waiting outside for a long time. But Lord Xinling kept a gentle expression on his face until they finished.

When they arrived at the banquet, Lord Xinling introduced Hou to all the guests and made a toast to him. Hou said to Lord Xinling, “All I did today was to build your reputation. People who saw today’s situation will consider me as an arrogant and rude person, but consider you as a great gentleman.” Since then, Hou became Lord Xinling’s advisor. Zhu Hai also worked for Lord Xinling later.

三顾茅庐 (Make three calls at the thatched cottage)

Image courtesy of nianw.com.

Image courtesy of nianw.com.

The Three Kingdoms was another period of war in Chinese history. China was divided into three states and each of them wanted to swallow the other two.  In order to strengthen themselves, all three rulers searched for talent desperately. Cao Cao (曹操), the head of Wei, wrote three famous public announcements to recruit able people, and treated those who came to him with kindness and generosity. But it was Cao’s rival, Liu Bei (刘备), the king of Shu, who enjoyed the better known reputation of valuing talent, courtesy of the famous story “Make three calls at the thatched cottage (三顾茅庐)”.

It was said someone recommended Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮) to Liu, saying that Zhuge was a very wise and knowledgeable man, and could help him unify the whole country. Liu decided to invite Zhuge in person. He arrived at Zhuge’s house in Longzhong, but was informed that Zhuge was not at home. Several days later, Liu went again, but still failed to meet Zhuge, because he had been out of town for days and had not come back. Another few days passed, Liu made his third call. This time, Zhuge was at home but taking a nap. Liu did not disturb him. He stood quietly beside the bed until Zhuge woke up.

Zhuge was deeply moved by Liu’s sincerity and decided to follow him. In the following 27 years, Zhuge devoted the rest of his life to assisting Liu Bei and his son Liu Shan after Liu Bei died, to repay Liu’s appreciation and respect for him.