An Honest, Righteous, and Selfless Government Official
(Clearwisdom.net) Yang Fu, also known as Yang Hongji, was an accomplished scholar from Hubei Province in the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 A.D.). He advanced to the high positions of Hanlin academician and prime minister. He was known as a moral, honest, and righteous man who was also very low-key. He was revered as one of the most virtuous prime ministers in Chinese history.
From 1402 to 1405 A.D., during Emperor Yongle's reign, Yang Fu worked as an advisor for the crown prince and as the chief judge of the civil service examination at the Ministry of Rites. Yang Fu had two younger brothers, Yang Hao and Yang Cheng. When Yang Fu became the chief judge of the civil service examination, his brothers believed that he would open a back door for them. Many candidates for the examination, including sons of the county mayor and other county officials, approached Yang Fu's two brothers and fawned all over them. Yang Fu's brothers were asked to take a trip, paid for by the dishonest candidates, to the capital city and get the exam questions from Yang Fu.
When they arrived at Yang Fu's house in the capital city, they asked him to reveal some of the exam questions. Yang Fu was outraged and reproached his brothers for wasting time on cheating. He said, "If you don't have the real talent and knowledge, you will bring disaster upon the nation and its people. Besides, revealing exam questions is a crime punishable by the execution of my entire clan. Are you trying to kill yourselves?" Yang Fu's younger brothers were overcome with embarrassment. Next Yang Fu inscribed a banner with the motto "Lofty spirit and character will forever reside." He told them to take it home with them and start cultivating their morality according to the motto.
Later the crown prince was late in picking up Emperor Yongle. The Prince of Han took the opportunity to speak ill of the crown prince before the Emperor, who then sentenced the crown prince to prison for ten years. As an advisor of the crown prince, Yang Fu was also thrown into prison. Nevertheless, Yang Fu continued to study diligently to prepare himself to serve the people better after he was released.
Yang Fu was released after Emperor Hongxi assumed the throne in 1424 A.D., and he was appointed to start a royal academy. After Emperor Xuande succeeded to the throne, Yang Fu was promoted to be the grand secretary of the highest rank.
Yang Fu's younger brothers died young after Yang Fu was sentenced to prison. Their two sons kept trying for the civil service examination, but they still hadn't passed by the time they were 30. Finally they went to their uncle, Yang Fu, in the capital city. Yang Fu was in tears because the sight of them reminded him that his two younger brothers had died young, leaving their families destitute. The two begged Yang Fu to open a back door and find them a low-level position in the government. Yang Fu shook his head and told them that one either passes the civil service examination or gets a special post from the emperor himself. He explained to them that it was illegal to get in by the back door and that it was something he would not permit. Yang Fu added that he would not even do it for his own son, Yang Dan. Yang Fu had five sons, but four had already died. Yang Dan was his only surviving son.
Disappointed, Yang Fu's two nephews started to weep. They named a few government officials who had opened a back door for their sons. Yang Fu told them patiently, "A man must rectify himself before he points out other people's misconduct. Besides, a man should learn from virtuous men. A man must think that only the best should qualify as a government official, otherwise such a man will harm the nation, damage his reputation, and lose his morality. He will also damage his family reputation and create karma for his family. You should stop thinking this way." He then wrote a motto on a banner that said "Public authority should never be used for personal profit." Yang Fu gave the banner and 1,000 taels of silver from his own salary to his nephews and told them to look after their mothers and make a living as farmers instead.
One day his only son, Yang Dan, left home for the capital city to visit him. Yang Fu asked him, "On your trip to the capital city, did you hear of any government official that was particularly virtuous and honest?" But his son became excited and said, "I am glad that you asked me that question. I must complain about the mayor in Jiangling County named Fan Li. I am the son of the important prime minister. All the mayors I met during the trip were extremely polite to me except him. He was the only one who did not pay attention to me." After hearing his son's story, Yang Fu started to wonder if the mayor of Jiangling County might be an honest official who did not spend the county budget trying to impress important people. Yang Fu reproached his son and told him, "Fan Li treated you just like the son of a commoner. This is exactly what's great about his character. How could you speak ill of him? In my opinion, your thoughts were not righteous. You must never think of yourself as anyone important just because you are the son of the prime minister."
Yang Fu kept Fan Li's name in mind because he knew that Fan must be a very honest official since he was widely respected by the residents of Jiangling County. Yang Fu even promoted Fan Li twice to be a prefecture-level official.
One day the Dowager of Emperor Yongle remembered that Yang Fu had been sentenced to prison because of the crown prince and then lost four sons, so she gave Yang Dan a low-level position in the government. Yang Dan was overcome with zealotry and vanity. He often showed off his position by parading the streets with sons of government officials. The people on the streets had to give way to him and bow to him. When Yang Fu learned of his son's behavior, he reproached him severely and made a few rules for him to follow as a government official. Yang Fu told his son to never bully his people and to treat his people as well as he would treat his own parents. He wrote his son a motto on a banner, which said, "A good government official must work as diligently as a cow and must be willing to provide service to even a small child." Then Yang Fu told his son to hang the banner on his bedroom wall as a constant reminder. After that, Yang Dan became diligent at work and governed his speech and actions cautiously, which won him much praise from his people and from his supervisor.
When Emperor Zhengtong succeeded, he was still a young child. There were many political conflicts in the royal government, and eunuchs had the power. The royal court was divided by different factions. As the prime minister, Yang Fu decided to teach the royal court to stop fighting for power. He set an example by firing his own son, Yang Dan, and sending him home to work as a farmer instead. He told his son that this was a decision based on the interest of the nation. He wrote his son a motto on a banner, which said, "A good subject will remember to teach his children to be simple and honest."
In the sixth year of Emperor Zhengtong's reign, Yang Fu returned home to sweep his ancestors' tombs. When he entered his house, he saw the four banners he had written hanging on the living room wall. Yang Fu worked in the government for 50 years. Despite his position of power in the government, Yang Fu conducted himself based on strict morals. He was a good example to his fellow government officials and to his son and relatives.
Nowadays many Chinese government officials use their power for personal benefits. Nepotism, factions, political struggles, and corruption are rampant among the Chinese government officials. These officials have violated the heavenly law and have lost the trust of the people. Only those people with high moral character and values will act selflessly at all times, be responsible for the people, and win people's respect.