Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 23 Zhang Zhongding

No. 23 Zhang Zhongding: This old man is not normal, better watch yourself.

According to Inspector of Court History Zhu Xiyu, his grand uncle Zhu Yinju lived very close to Zhang Guaiya (Guai: strange, Ya: high cliff. One interpretation of that is Zhang gave himself this pen name to convey his exceptional, high above the rest of the world quality. But Song Dynasty Official History had another interpretation: “Guai – contrary to normal, Ya: a danger to everything”). So the two were very intimate friends. In fact, the first two poems in Zhang’s collection were titled “To Zhu Yinju”.

Near the eastern wall of Zhu’s house, there’s a very large jujube tree. It was very tall, large, and straight. One day, Zhang suddenly pointed to the tree and said, “would you be willing to give this tree to me?” Zhu said yes. Upon hearing this, Zhang very slowly reached into his left sleeve, sudden a short sword flew out at shoulder level, cutting the tree neatly in half. Zhu was very surprised, and asked Zhang where he learned such skill. Zhang said he learned it from Chen Tuan, he just never told anyone about it before.

Then another time, while living in Bushui (in Henan) Zhang was walking home one day, and saw a scholar who offended him by the apparently “flippant” attitude he displayed in riding his donkey. Zhang sped toward him. But he has taken no more than 100 steps when the scholar suddenly yielded to the side of the road. Zhang saluted to the scholar, and asked about his name. As it turns out that was poet Wang Yuanzhi. When asked what made him yield to the side, Wang replied “The way you flew toward me, there was a charm that suggested you are not an ordinary person”. To which Zhang said “When I first saw you I thought you were arrogant and flippant, so I wanted to teach you a lesson. But we are okay now, how about you come back to my village to have a drink?” The two went to Zhang’s house hand in hand like long time good friends, and stayed up all night drinking and talking, eventually became great friends.





Wuyizidi: not many people would want to do physical harm to another just because they thought the other was arrogant and flippant. Zhang’s reputation for unconventional eccentricity was well earned indeed. But if we were to examine the many stories of his life, we will find that he was not someone with underdeveloped social skills. Rather, he knew the world and the people who populated it all too well, he just consciously, courageously chose to go against the conventions that to him seemed very unreasonable. Here are two examples that showcased his judgment, common sense, as well as innovative thinking:

When he was governor of Hangzhou, a case came before him where a young man is in dispute with his brother-in-law. The brother in law offered as evidence the will of his very wealthy father in law. The will clearly stated: “since the son is only 3 at this time, the brother-in-law is to be entrusted with managing the family asset. When the son reaches age of adulthood, he would get 30%, and the son-in-law 70%. If the son think it unfair, he can contest it in court.”

Zhang stared at the will for some time slack-jawed in amazement, then ordered his men to pour wine on the ground of courthouse to commemorate the deceased father. He couldn’t stop praising the father: “brilliant, simply brilliant!” He turned to the son-in-law: “your father-in-law was wise indeed. If he didn’t leave a will clearly stating the division of assets in an arrangement like this, chances are good the 3 year old would be murdered long before he reaches adulthood”. Zhang granted the son 70%, and the brother-in-law 30%. Upon hearing the decision, everyone praised Zhang’s judgment and insight.

In feudal society, property cannot be passed to daughters or their husbands. This is of course far from reasonable. Here even Zhang is making decisions based on deeply ingrained traditions. But he displayed a great understanding of the father’s intent. The father was wise indeed, as Jin Yong pointed out: even if the son lost the case and received only 30%, it was still better than getting murdered.

In another case of property dispute, the younger brother is suing his older brother, saying the split was not even as their father dictated. Again, the father passed away when the younger one was a child. The elder sibling had managed the assets for a long time. The younger one suspects the elder one hid some assets during the split. The case had dragged on for a long time when Zhang got his hands on it. By chance Zhang was passing by the sibling’s houses on his way to a temple, on the spot he ordered all members of both households to come out of their houses. He said to both of them: “the elder brother contend the split was even, the younger one thinks the older one has more. So let’s do this: you guys swap your houses right now. Each of you move into the other’s house right this moment. And members of your household are forbidden to go into the other house from now on.” In one brilliant stroke, he ended the protracted arguments, as neither side can protest further given their previous stances.

As an official he frequently solved intractable problems with quick, unconventional solutions like these. All of this were much appreciated by people of his time. They praised him for being “clear-sighted and decisive”.

Guaiya is the inventor of something all of us still use today – paper currency. When he was in Sichuan, known for its precipitous mountain paths, he founded carrying money in metal form too cumbersome. So he invented a paper currency called Jiaozi 交子 (1 Jiaozi = 1,000 copper coins). Given his noms de guerre, this is ironic on many levels.


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