Ancient Brotherhood: The Story of Yang and Zuo
(Minghui.org) One of the key virtues of traditional Chinese culture is yi (义), also known as brotherhood or uprightness. It includes loyalty to friends, and even sacrificing one’s own life for the sake of friends. The story of Yang and Zuo is such an example of true friendship.
This took place prior to the Qin Dynasty over 2,000 years ago. Zuo Botao, near 40, lived in Jishishan (in today’s Gansu Province) and loved reading. He had become very knowledgeable through self-learning. Upon hearing that the King of Chu (a kingdom near Yangtze River) valued virtue and was recruiting talents, he started a journey to the kingdom of Chu.
It was already winter time when he arrived at the place of Yong (near today’s Baoji in Shaanxi Province). After walking in the rain for an entire day, he saw a cottage at dusk. He knocked on the door and asked for an overnight stay. The owner let him in, set up a fire to dry Zuo's clothes, and offered him a nice dinner.
Seeing almost nothing in the room except for books, Zuo knew the owner was also an intellectual. The owner said that he was Yang Jiao'ai and that he really enjoyed reading books too. The two talked about books the whole night without sleep.
As the rain continued the next day, Yang invited Zuo to stay and offered him the best food he had. They felt they had known each other for a long time and thus swore they were brothers. Zuo was five years older so he was considered the elder brother.
Zuo stayed for three days until the rain stopped. He then invited Yang to go to Chu with him to apply their talents serving the nation. Yang agreed, and joined Zuo for the trip.
After walking two more days, they were stopped by the rain and had to stay in a hotel. As all their money was used up, they had no choice but to take off in the rain again while taking turns carrying the only thing they had left—a bag of food.
The journey was rough however. Before the rain stopped, gusty wind started, and then a big snow followed.
As they were ready to climb over the Mountain Liang, they were warned by locals that there were no places to stay for the next 100 li (about 30 miles). Zuo asked Yang if they should proceed. Yang answered, “Life and death is determined by heaven. Since we have come to this point already, we have no choice but to continue.”
They thus walked to the mountain and stayed inside an old tomb for the night. Having only one layer of clothes to keep warm, they shivered in the freezing cold during the night.
The snow became heavier the next day and the accumulation was over a foot.
Zuo said to Yang, “We won't be able to find a resting place close by, and we are short of food and clothes. If one of us carries everything, that person can survive and arrive at the Kingdom of Chu. Were both of us to continue, even if we were not frozen to death, we would die of hunger. I would rather give my clothes and all the food to you and let you go. I am too tired to walk further and will stay here to die. After the King of Chu appoints you an official position, please come back to bury me.”
“No way will I accept this,” Yang exclaimed, “Though we were not born by the same parents, we are like real brothers. How can I leave you here and seek fame for myself?” He then helped Zuo walk forward.
After a few miles, Zuo said, “The snow is getting heavier and heavier. Let's find a place to rest.”
They found a dead mulberry tree. Yang helped Zuo to sit down and lean against the tree, while going himself for dry branches to make a fire for warmth. When he came back, however, he saw that Zuo had taken off all his clothes and put them in a pile.
“I have thought this over,” said Zuo, “There is no way for both us to survive. Don't waste time here. Please put on my clothes, take the food, and continue your journey. I'll wait for death here.”
Yang cried in great grievance. “We swore to live together and die together. How can we separate like this?”
“But if we both die of hunger here, who will bury us? We need one alive,” replied Zuo.
“In that case, let me give my clothes to you and I will sit here to die,” said Yang.
“I am already very ill, and your are much younger and stronger. Also you are more talented than me. You will certainly have a great future once you meet the King of Chu. My death is all right. Please don't stay here. Just move on,” continued Zuo.
“It would be shameful if I let you die here and seek fame for myself,” answered Yang.
“When I met you,” said Zuo, “I felt I had known you for many years. I knew you were very capable and that is why I invited you to go to Chu together. The rain and snow stopped me—that is my fate. But if you die with me here, that would be a huge sin for me.”
After these words, Zuo stood up and tried to kill himself by jumping into a river. Yang held him and cried. Putting clothes around Zuo, Yang help him to sit down under the mulberry tree again. By then, Zuo's face had already turned pale, and his limbs were becoming cold. He could no longer speak, and just waved hands signaling Yang to leave.
“I'm leaving,” Yang wept, “Bother, please help me even when you are in the netherworld. If I get an official position, I will for sure come back to bury you properly.”
Zuo nodded in agreement. Yang left with the clothes and food, while Zuo died under the tree.
With limited food and two layers of clothes, Yang managed to arrive at the capital city of Chu. He went to the hotel that the King arranged for recruiting talents and met a high-ranking official named Pei Zhong. Pei tested Yang's knowledge and insight, and was happy to see that Yang answered all questions smoothly. Pei reported him to the King.
The King invited Yang to his palace. Yang presented ten strategies to make Chu stronger, all directly targeting the existing problems in the kingdom. The king was blissful. He appointed Yang a Zhong Dafu, an position close to the king, and awarded him gold and silk.
As Yang knelt to thank the King, he started to cry. The King was awed and asked why.
Yang told the story how Zuo sacrificed clothing and food, so that he could survive and come to see the king. The King was in grief, as were the other officials.
When Yang asked for a temporary leave to find and bury his friend, he was approved. The King also gave an honorable title of Zhong Dafu—the same rank as Yang—to Zuo along with a decent amount of money for his burial.
Yang came back to the Mountain Liang and found the dead mulberry tree. Zuo's body was still there and he looked the same as if alive. Yang cried mournfully. With locals' help, he selected a good tomb site facing a creek, which was backed by a cliff and surrounded by many hills.
Yang bathed Zuo's body in scented water and dressed him in Zhong Dafu's gown. Putting the body in an inner coffin followed by an outer coffin, Yang then buried him. He also built a wall around the tomb and planted trees around it. About 30 feet away, Yang constructed a temple with a statue of Zuo, and assigned someone to guard it.
During the burial ceremony inside the temple, Yang cried so hard that the locals and his staff were all moved to tears.
Chinese people used the term of “The friendship of Yang and Zuo” to describe the relationship between true friends who are willing to die for each other.
Li Shi Zhuan, written by Liu Xiang in Han Dynasty.Yushi Mingyan (Stories Old and New), written by Feng Menglong in Ming Dynasty