While students of Chinese philosophy may for various reasons decide against reading ancient history recorded by Sima Qian in 91 BC, teachers and scholars if they want to broaden their views on or deepen their understanding of ancient Chinese doctrines and civilization should not give the Records of the Historian (Shiji) a miss.
Apart from the depictions of the rise and fall of empires, rulers and states, Sima Qian also commented on the practices of Daoists, Confucians, Legalists, Lords (Jun), Marquises (Hou) and various other renowned personalities of ancient times. Many of them are still referred to now and then, either as good or bad examples for the Chinese.
It seems to me that teachers and scholars tend to follow the thoughts of or are by and large influenced by their more established peers. Often they do not think out of the box when dealing with ancient Chinese philosophy.
For example, some teachers and scholars really believe that Confucius and Mencius, and the ancient Daoists were actually against making profits or gains. Since my thoughts differ, I submit two examples from the Records of the Historian - the actions of an eminent ancient Daoist and a famous Confucian - to support the case that there is nothing wrong for people, except rulers, be they Daoists or Confucians to make profits or gains:
1) When the Patriarch Lu Shang (Jiang Ziya – the adviser to King Wen) was given Yingchu as his fief, the land was swampy and brackish and sparsely inhabited; but he encouraged the women to work, developed skilled occupations and opened up trade in fish and salt, so that men and goods poured in from every side. Soon the state of Chi was supplying the whole world with caps, belts, clothes and shoes, and the states between the Eastern Sea and Mount Tai paid homage to it.
2) Tzu-kung, after studying with Confucius, went to hold office in Uei (Wei?). He made money by buying cheap and selling dear (Remember the maxim of ‘Buy low, Sell high’?) in the region of Tsao and Lu. Of the seventy disciples of Confucius, he was the richest. While Yuan Hsien had not even husks enough to fill his belly and lived hidden in a wretched lane, Tzu-kung traveled in a carriage drawn by four horses with an escort of riders bearing rolls of silk to present to the rulers of states. And wherever he went, the ruler received him as an equal. Indeed, it was thanks to Tzu-kung that the fame of Confucius spread – a clear case of power increasing reputation.
[The Money-makers – Shiji]
Jiang Ziya was a famous Daoist who lived more than five centuries before the time of Laozi. Legend has it that Jiang Ziya or Jiang Taigong fished with a straightened hook while waiting for his soon-to-be protégé, King Wen to find him.
Tzu-kung is placed third, east of the sage, from the Assessors in the temple. Confucius used to say, ‘From the time that I got Tzu, scholars from a distance came daily resorting to me.’ [Page 115 and 116 Legge]
In ancient times, greedy rulers would resort to annexing land of weaker states or raise taxes on the people to profit or gain. Heavy taxes for wars to annex land or to beautify palaces would place a heavy burden on the people. Therefore Confucius and Mencius exhorted rulers not to think about profits but instead to prosper the people and subsequently the state.
In modern times, if rulers are greedy for profits, corruption pervades. And there are too many examples of that happening in many parts of the world.
Perhaps the final word shall come from the great sage himself.
The Master said,
‘Riches and honours are what people desire. If it cannot be obtained in the proper way, they should not be held. Poverty and meanness are what people dislike. If it cannot be obtained in the proper way, they should not be avoided.’
[4 .5 Analects]