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Chapter XVI. Three Precautions1

The lord of men has three precautions to take. If the three precautions are complete, the state will be safe and he will be prosperous; if the three precautions are not complete, the state will fall into danger and his life will become precarious.

What are meant by the "three precautions"?

Whenever ministers memorialize the Throne the faults of the authorities in power, the mistakes of the personnel in charge of state affairs, and the actual conditions of the officials, 2 if the lord of men, instead of keeping the secret, divulges it to courtiers and favourite vassals and thereby makes ministers, who want to speak to the Throne, please the courtiers and favourite vassals before they submit any instance to the lord of men, then frank and straightforward speakers will not be able to have an audience of the ruler and loyal and honest men will be kept farther and farther aloof. 3

If the ruler does not by himself benefit the men he loves but would benefit them only after the courtiers have praised them, and if he does not by himself hurt the men he hates but would hurt them only after the courtiers have blamed them, then the lord of men will lose his prestige, and his ruling authority will fall into the hands of his attendants. 4

If the ruler dislikes the toil of governing the state by himself and lets the ministers group together and administer state affairs, and if in so doing he passes his handles and shifts his position 5 to chief vassals and places the power over life and property in their hands, then his prerogative will be infringed. 6

These are called "the three precautions unaccomplished". If the three precautions remain incomplete, the situation portends molestation and regicide.

In general, there are three kinds of molestation: Molestation through the formation of juntas, 7 molestation through the dictation of state policies, 8 and molestation through the application of penal laws. 9

If ministers who hold the honour of chief vassals have the key to the state government in their grip for patronizing the officials and make the administration of foreign and home affairs necessarily go through their approval; and, though there are worthy and upright personages, if people disobeying them always have bad luck and those obeying them always have good luck; then no official would dare to be loyal to the sovereign and worry about state welfare and thereby dispute the advantages and disadvantages of the Altar of the Spirits of Land and Grain. If the lord of men, however worthy, cannot devise plans by himself, and if there are ministers who dare not be loyal to the sovereign, then the state must be doomed to ruin. It is then called "a state without ministers". However, a state without ministers does not imply the scarcity of royal guards and the lack of ministers in the court. It really means a state whose ministers hold to their bounties, nourish their friends, practise their private ways of life, and never exert their spirit of loyalty to the public. Such is called "molestation through the formation of juntas".

Again, suppose chief vassals distribute private favours, have all powers to themselves, overawe the country by pretending to have influence abroad, follow the like and hate of the sovereign with his forced interpretation of the signs of fortune and misfortune, advantages and disadvantages. And suppose the lord of men listens to them and upholds their policies even by humiliating himself and neglecting state welfare. Then, when the policies fail, the sovereign has to share the consequent disasters with them; when the policies succeed, they take all credit to themselves. Finally, if all the government employees unite their minds and identify their words to speak of their virtues, then though others speak of their vices to the Throne, the sovereign never will believe. Such is called "molestation through the dictation of state policies".

Finally, in matters of court and jail administration as well as prohibition and punishment, if ministers have powers to themselves, their act as such is called "molestation through the application of penal laws".

In short, if the three precautions are not complete, the three molestations will arise; if the three precautions are complete, the three molestations will stop. If the sovereign succeeds in stopping and debarring these three molestations, he will attain supremacy.


1. 三守.

2. With Wang Hsien-ch`ien 舉臣 implies 眾臣.

3. The first precaution is against divulging secrets.

4. The second precaution is against losing prestige.

5. With Kao Hêng 藉 refers to 勢位.

6. The third precaution is against losing the reins of government.

7. 明劫. I read 明 for 朋 in this chapter.

8. 事劫.

9. 刑劫.

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IATHPublished by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia