Ancient Rulers


Derek, in chapter 39 there is a line that says rulers called themselves “alone, bereft, and unworthy.” Can you shed some light on how these terms originated?


In the original Chinese, these terms were gu, gua, and bu gu respectively. The ancients believed that the higher you climb in terms of position and authority, the more humble you must become in order to wield the power effectively. Therefore, the absolute ruler of China must practice the utmost level of humility, and referring to themselves with terms expressing lowliness was one way to do that.

Of the three terms, gua is the one that caught on while the others fell into disuse. Chinese Emperors often referred to themselves as Gua Ren (literally “this person, who is bereft of virtue”). This can still be seen today, in Chinese-language historical dramas popular in Asia. An actor portraying the Emperor would often say Gua Ren instead of of “I” or “me.”


Derek Lin
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