Ancient Tales from China: “Straight Talk” with Royal Leaders for Benefit of the People (Part 1 of 3)
(Minghui.org) Yanzi was the prime minister of the State of Qi during China's Warring States Period (475 – 221 B.C.). The Yanzi Records book tells us about his “straight talk” with the Dukes of Qi that inspired them to do the right thing.
“Yanzi was well-educated, well-read, and knew a lot about historical and current events. He served three rulers of Qi. He exercised and advocated ethical and economical conduct from the king and his top officials. He was extremely loyal and always gave the rulers suggestions that would benefit the state and its people, even though the ideas might not be popular with the duke. With his help, the dukes ruled appropriately, and the people followed them with respect and affection,” the book says.
Differentiating Good From Evil at All Times
When Yanzi observed that the Duke of Qi (title of the ruler of the State of Qi) lived a lavish lifestyle, he used his own frugal lifestyle as an example to persuade his lord not to squander resources. Yanzi told him: “Being economical is an essential quality of a monarch and a main component of morality.”
Yanzi dealt with the state's matters in an impartial manner and never accepted gifts – from land, house, to carriage and clothes. He declined all of them. He ate meager food, coarsely processed grains and plain vegetables, and he wore simple black clothes. He rode an inferior carriage when attending court and lived in a humble dwelling, an old small house near the noisy market, which he inherited from his family.
When Qi Jing Gong (Duke Jing of Qi) first became king, he was willing to listen to and take advice from Yanzi and several other competent and upright officials. As a result, in just a few years the State of Qi went from a chaotic to a well-governed state.
However, Duke Jing started to indulge in luxuries, building an extravagant palace, raising taxes and decreeing strict laws and cruel punishments. Yanzi used every possible opportunity to persuade him to adjust the high taxes and strict laws.
Yanzi used different angles to reason with the Duke and explain why he should lower taxes. He said: “A righteous ruler will reward the good and eliminate problems for the people. He will love his people like his sons, shelter them like the sky and harmonize them like the earth.”
He pointed out that rulers should have consideration for people's situations so they can live in peace and prosperity. They should not rely on harsh laws and punishments to maintain social stability. Instead, they should rule with benevolence and virtue, and teach people about ethics, etiquette and protocol so they will obey the laws. This way, there wouldn't be a lot of litigation, and stability and harmony would occur as a natural result.
Duke Jing planned to attack the neighboring State of Lu. Yanzi believed that they should maintain a peaceful relationship with neighboring kingdoms and not casually get involved in wars.
He advised the Duke: “Please treat the State of Lu with courtesy in order to diffuse old grievances and demonstrate your virtue.” The Duke took his advice and decided not to attack Lu.
Duke Jing once asked Yanzi whether he could rule other states like his legendary ancestor Duke Huan.
Yanzi replied: “The reason Duke Huan enjoyed such great achievements was that he loved his people. He always kept the people's interests in mind and ruled with integrity. He didn't levy heavy taxes to satisfy his own desire for wealth. He didn't enslave people to build him palaces. The state was governed by honest and righteous officials. My lord has close relationships with bad people and has distanced himself from good people. Your people live in misery and poverty. How can you aspire to achieve Duke Huan's accomplishments?”
Duke Jing Gong improved his behavior after this conversation.
Duke Jing asked Yanzi another time: “What should rulers be most concerned about?”
Yanzi replied: “You should be worried if you cannot differentiate between good and evil.”
Duke Jing asked him how to achieve that.
Yanzi said, “Prudently select the people whom you keep close to you. If the people around you are all upright and kind, then the state officials will do their jobs well, and you'll naturally be able to differentiate good from evil.”
Yanzi also told him: “[When it comes to governing a state], the best idea is to care for its people; the best action is to make its people happy; the worst idea is to treat its people harshly. The worst action is to do something that will corrupt moral values.”
If a person is surrounded by ill-willed people, then correct suggestions won't be able to get to that person. It's like the person's eyes and ears are covered, and they can't see the truth. That would put them in a very dangerous situation. By the same token, if people in society want to improve their moral values and reduce wrongdoings, they need to stay close to their teachers and stay away from bad people.
Persuading the Duke to Show Solicitude to People Displaced by Flood
A continuous rain of 17 days once flooded houses in the State of Qi. There was a shortage of food, and it was very cold. Many people were displaced and starving. However, instead of sending people and resources to help them, Duke Jing continued to indulge himself, enjoying lavish meals every day and drinking around the clock.
Yanzi was very worried about the displaced people. He repeatedly requested Duke Jing to release the stockpiled millet to the people. The Duke refused.
Yanzi then gave his own grain to people affected by the flood. He gave them his own tools and tried his best to help them.
He then walked to the palace and told Duke Jing: “It's been raining for 17 days. Every town has dozens of collapsed houses. Every village has several starving families. The elderly, the infirm, women and young ones were already in a dire situation, not having enough to eat and barely enough clothes to keep warm. Now they don't even have a roof over their heads. They are desperate and need immediate help.
“But my lord, you didn't have any sympathy, refused to help them and continued to have fun drinking and wasting food.
“In your palace, horses eat food that humans eat, and the dogs are fed lamb and beef. Your wives and concubines enjoy all the finest luxuries. Don't you think you're too generous to your horses, dogs and wives but too harsh to your people?
“Please ask yourself, when your kingdom is full of impoverished victims who are suffering from hunger and cold, and they are so desperate since they have no place to ask for help, how could the King be still in the mood to binge drink and have fun? We officials serve you. It's our job to discuss state affairs with you, to help you make the right decisions that are beneficial to the state and its people.
“People are impoverished, they are starving and cold, and they have no one to turn to! But their lord is turning a blind eye to their desperate situation. I didn't do my job well! I have sinned!”
Yanzi then requested Duke Jing to approve his resignation, and left.
The Duke was ashamed of himself after hearing Yanzi's heartfelt speech. He ran after Yanzi, asking him to stay on his job.
Since it was still raining, and the road was quite slippery, he couldn't catch up with Yanzi. He then told his servants to prepare his carriage and rode the carriage to Yanzi's home. He saw Yanzi giving his grain and rice to the people. The tools lent to the victims were still lying on the ground, and Yanzi had left his home.
Duke Jing rushed out and finally caught up with Yanzi.
“I was wrong. You decided not to assist me any more. I may not be worthy of your assistance, but please think for the people. Please stay by my side. I'm willing to give the food and other goods in my palace to the people. You can decide how much,” the Duke gasped.
Upon returning to his position, Yanzi immediately sent officials to visit the displaced people to distribute food to them. Duke Jing also urged his ministers to help with the disaster relief. He cut back on the number of dishes he ate at each meal and stopped drinking alcohol. He ordered that his horses no longer be fed millet, and that his dogs no longer be fed meat porridge. He also reduced the gifts given to his favorite wives and concubines.
The rain finally stopped. The whole State of Qi, from the monarch to his ministers and people, worked together to get through the disaster.
The Doctrine of the Mean by Confucius states: “Knowledge, benevolence, and courage are the universally binding virtues.” In addition to wisdom and kindness, a person of high moral value also needs to have courage, just as Yanzi demonstrated.
(To be continued)