The tale of Han Xin


This is a story from the Records of History by Sima Qian, a compilation of biographies of various notable people in ancient China. However, I encountered this story from reading Chin-Ning Chu’s book Thick Face, Black Heart. Therefore, not only will I recount the story from Sima Qian but also summarize Ms. Chu’s interpretation of said event.

Han Xin (231-196 BC) grew up in a poor household with a widowed mother. Despite his poverty, he was a diligent student in both military strategy as well as the martial arts. One day, as he was walking home, he encountered a group of local toughs and ruffians. Knowing of Han Xin’s diligent kung-fu practice, the leader of the gang challenged Han Xin to a fight. If Han Xin refused the challenge, then Han Xin was to crawl under the leader’s legs like a dog. Han Xin did so and endured years of disrespect and humiliation as a result.

According to Ms. Chu, Han Xin knew that he was up to the task of fighting that hoodlum. He had the skill and he had the strength. The problem was, though, that had he tried to prove himself and ended up injuring, maiming, or killing the gang leader he would have been condemned as a criminal. This would mean either languishing in prison, getting executed, or even exiled to the frontier. So while he was seen as a coward and endured years of humiliation, he did end up being one of China’s most famous generals and even a king.

I moved to a different town in Korea during my stay there. One night I came back to my previous town to take care of some business. I invited both “Jonas” and “Rick” to hang out with me for a beer and they were nice enough to accept my invitation.

As we were talking, the subject came around to “Karen”. She is the Korean-American professor I mentioned before who would harass me into attending her language exchange club meetings and would harass me if I ever skipped them. Her university is in the city where Jonas and Rick still lived when I moved from there. What I never mentioned was that at the time I was gung-ho about learning Korean and did a damn good job at it, which was why Karen wanted me to be at every meeting.

Jonas also was keen to learn Korean. I’ll say this: his pronunciation isn’t as good as mine, but his knowledge of Korean grammar is vastly superior. If you know anything about Korean, its grammar is especially difficult.

Anyways, so I was mentioning about Karen’s constant harassment when I was living in that city when Jonas said something along the lines, “Yeah she tried to do the same thing to me. I ended telling her I was very busy and very tired. I even begged her to let me rest up and apologized to her a lot. She left me alone since then.”

The next day when I was on the bus going back to my city, I was thinking about what Jonas said. At first I felt that Jonas disrespected himself by acting the way he did. Jonas, just like everyone else, has the right to do what he wants in his free time as long as he isn’t breaking the law. Karen was a professor, but she wasn’t his boss. He worked at an elementary school. He had to answer to the principal, maybe even someone from the Education Office, but not to Karen. Why did he have beg to be let go of a language exchange club, which was a completely voluntary social group? He was in no legal or financial obligation to do what Karen wished. Why did he beg and apologized to her like a wimp?

What applied to Jonas also applied to me. Jonas was in no obligation to do what Karen wanted nor was I. The fact of the matter, however, was that Jonas lived the life he wanted and I didn’t. While Jonas was studying the Indo-Chinese scripts of Burmese, Thai, Lao, and Khmer I was stuck in the stupid language exchange meetings getting bored out of my mind. While Jonas was developing his own vlog series, Karen was nagging me about attending or skipping the meetings. One night when Jonas was working on his hobbies, I got stuck in the language exchange dinner “party” wanting to get myself out.

Just to note, there were others who felt that I had to accommodate my life to their demands, such as dropping all of my plans just to go out drinking. Karen, however, was the most determined to keep me under her thumb.

The main question was still why Jonas was able to get away from Karen and live his life while I couldn’t.

When I finally got back in the States, I had some breathing room to be able to think about this matter. I forget why, but one day I remembered something Karen once told me. Karen not only taught the classes she was assigned, but also spent time teaching extra classes, attended university functions, and even got involved in student clubs such as the language exchange. Karen didn’t have to do all that extra work, she volunteered freely to do those things. According to contract, she could have simply have gone home after her last class.

There was this other American professor in her university who did just that. Once he finished his last class of the day and put in his office hours, he went home or spent time with his fiance. Karen hated him for that. She wanted to him to spend more time doing things for the university. Two questions came to mind: Why did Karen take it personally that her coworker cared more about his fiance than the school? Where did she get off thinking her coworker needed to change his lifestyle to satisfy her, such as volunteering more hours to the university?

Ego! That is what it all was. It was not Karen’s place to tell others what to do or even get angry when others do what they want, but she had the ego the size of Detroit and that her ego needed to be fed and validated constantly.

She asked Jonas to attend the group meetings and Jonas did a song and dance about how tired he was and begged her to let him stay home. In this scenario she was the Goddess of Mercy caring for a pathetic, weak mortal Jonas was playing. By letting Jonas go, she got to feel like she is the most benevolent being in the Universe.

She asked me to attend the groups and I would either say no or simply skip the meetings if I could. By doing so, she became the Lord Jehovah and I became Lucifer thumbing my nose at Divine Authority. She had to get me under her leash or else she would live the rest of her life as a loser.

Fighting for one’s ego is stupid. I knew that long before I met Karen. Letting our ego take over our thinking distracts us from living the life we want to live and even can ruin our career, families, and friendships. I’ve made that mistake before and so have others. Karen, however, was still letting her ego do all the thinking for her. She could have exercised or looked for a better paying job with her free time. Instead she decided to spend her time trying to put a lasso on me, a guy who eventually not only moved to a different city in Korea but also out of Korea altogether!

That was her mistake. My mistake was that I valued my sense of pride so much that I couldn’t bear to sacrifice it to placate Karen’s ego. I knew intellectually that my ego is not worth fighting for, but on a subconscious level it wasn’t the case. I knew my goals were more important than Karen’s drama and her stupid club, but I felt that my sense of pride was essential.

To put it this way, Jonas was Han Xin who crawled under the legs of that gang leader, barking like dog, only to come out and on his way to being one of the greatest generals in Chinese history. I was the schmuck who beat up the gang leader and ended up spending the rest of my days in prison.

That’s the next goal of mine, to have the insights as both Jonas and Han Xin. A lot of people, especially in first world nations, are driven by their egos and that’s why things like drama and office politics exist. Fighting ego with ego is like fighting fire with fire, everything will burn. Plus, just because other people like Karen or spiritual bullies have all the time in the world to engage in petty drama doesn’t mean I do nor do I want to.

Being able to handle people and their egotistic drives means being able to commit my time and energy to my goals. Being able to handle people and their egotistic drives means living my life according to my volition over living life for someone else. Being able to handle people and their egotistic drives means safeguarding my emotions and well-being from those who want to destroy my spirit.

I still have that book on emotional blackmail. I also have a copy of Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. There are probably other articles and books for me to read on human psychology and what-not. Thankfully there are comment sections all over the internet, filled to the brim with hypersensitive big babies.

One thing must be clear: my goal is to use this learning to help myself and others defend their autonomy. My goal is to help myself and others protect their sense of self-worth and happiness from those who want to destroy it. Ultimate, I want to come up with short term strategies to free ourselves from our egos so that we don’t become like those who live their lives bringing hatred and misery.

As Marcus Aurelius once said:


By the way, I’m calling this new philosophical quest Han Xin Dao (韩信道) or The Way of Han Xin.


Capt. Idiotic

8 thoughts on “The tale of Han Xin

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