Stories from Ancient China: Correcting a King's Faults with Righteousness and Selflessly Serving the People

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Yan Zi was the Prime Minister of the State of Qi during the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States (476 B.C. to 221 B.C.). Assisting the king and aristocrats of the State of Qi for dozens of years, Yan Zi did not avoid criticizing the king's faults frankly, and he administrated the country with honesty, uprightness, and selflessness. Free from corruption, he left behind numerous touching and inspiring stories.

One day, King Jinggong of the Kingdom of Qi held a banquet and invited his friends and officers. Drinking happily, he said, "Just feel free to drink as much as you want. Don't take etiquette too seriously."

Yan Zi quickly responded, "It is etiquette that differentiates man from animals. Nowadays a five-foot-tall child in Qi can be stronger than you and I, but because of etiquette they dare not mess things up. Animals take the strongest as their leaders and the strong eat the weak. As a result, they keep changing their leaders. If our officers disregard etiquette, our country will surely be in chaos and the king could be replaced. When that happens, how would you handle it? As a result, people cannot live without etiquette and rules."

Hearing Yan Zi's criticism, King Jinggong was very unhappy and turned away from him without paying attention to him. Soon King Jinggong had to leave. Everyone but Yan Zi stood up and saw him off. When King Jinggong came back, Yan Zi did not stand up or receive him. King Jinggong asked everyone to be cheerful, but Yan Zi did not cooperate. Instead he drank by himself.

Witnessing Yan Zi's bad manners, King Jinggong was furious. "You just said how important etiquette and rules are, but now you ignore them yourself!"

Yan Zi left his seat and quickly bowed, "Your Majesty. Please don't be angry. I dare not be offensive. All I did was to demonstrate what the lack of etiquette would lead to. If your majesty should disregard etiquette, it would be like this."

King Jinggong was suddenly awakened, "Apparently it was my fault. Please be seated. I'll listen to your advice."

From then on, King Jinggong perfected the system of etiquette and consolidated the rules to administrate the Kingdom of Qi. All government officials followed etiquette and all the people obeyed the laws.

Knowing that King Jinggong was fond of extravagance, Yan Zi used his own frugality to influence King Jinggong. As the primer minister, Yan Zi lived near the busy downtown in an old house which he inherited from his ancestors. When King Jinggong tried to move him to a much bigger and brighter house, Yan Zi declined, "My ancestors used to live here. It's already too much for me to live here as I don't contribute to the country as much as they, let alone that I should live in a better house. One should not pursue extravagance. Besides, it's pretty convenient to shop here. It helps me to understand the lives of everyday people as well." Later, while Yan Zi was visiting the State of Jin, King Jinggong took advantage of this opportunity to move Yan Zi's neighbors away and build a large beautiful house at the same place. On his way back, Yan Zi learned of this so he parked his carriage outside the city and dispatched his subordinate to request King Jinggong to demolish the new house, to rebuild his neighbors' homes, and to ask them to move back. After several requests, King Jinggong agreed and Yan Zi finally returned to the city.

While Yan Zi managed to build up prosperity for the State of Qi, he lived a very frugal life. One day, no sooner did Yan Zi sit down for lunch, than an officer from King Jinggong arrived to discuss business with him. Having learned that the officer had not had lunch, Yan Zi offered to share one bowl of rice with him. In the end, the officer did not eat, and neither did Yan Zi. When the officer reported this to King Jinggong, he was very astonished, "I never knew the prime minister is so poor. It's my fault." Right away King Jinggong ordered his envoy to send one thousand liang of gold and one thousand Shi of rice to Yan Zi, which Yan Zi turned down. The envoy tried three times, but Yan Zi declined them all.

Finally, Yan Zi went to thank King Jinggong. The king replied, "I didn't know you were so poor. With our kingdom being so rich, this small offer of presents really means nothing."

Yan Zi replied, "Your majesty, thank you for your concern. In fact I don't have any hardship at all. In my understanding, if I give away the gifts from your majesty, it's an act of deceiving your majesty and pleasing other people. As an honest officer, I cannot do that. If I get a lot of things and keep them for my own luxury, I wouldn't be a moral person. Besides why do I need so much money and so many things anyway? As the saying goes, the subordinates follow what the superiors do. You ask me to administer all the officers so I have to be free of corruption for the kingdom. This way I can be a role model for the officers. On the other hand, if I should pursue an extravagant life, all of them would follow my example. How would I lead them then?" King Jinggong nodded his head. After this, his life became less extravagant.

King Jinggong loved to indulge in a life of pleasure. One day he had been drinking in the palace until midnight. Since he did not want to stop, he went with his servants to Yan Zi's home to drink with him. Going out to receive the king, Yan Zi asked, "Your majesty, is there something urgent to make you visit me so late at night?" "Wine is delicious and gold is shiny. I just want to enjoy the beautiful night with my prime minister," the king replied. Normally when the king personally came to an officer's home to drink with him, it would be the greatest honor. Yet Yan Zi was rather unhappy. He replied seriously to the king, "There are so many people around your majesty who can drink with you. It's not my duty to do so. I dare not follow the order."

King Jinggong then turned to another favorite officer of his, Tian Rangju. When the king arrived, Tian quickly wore his military uniform, carried his weapons, and received the king. He anxiously asked, "Is there another state trying to attack us? Is there a riot?" Smiling, the king said, "Not at all." Pretending to be puzzled, Tian continued, "Then why does your majesty personally come to his officer late at night?" "Nothing. I just want to drink with my general for his tireless job," the king answered. Exactly as Yan Zi had said, Tian replied, "There are so many people around your majesty who can drink with you. It's not my duty to do so. I dare not follow the order."

Surprised at the rejection from his officers, the king was very unhappy. Finally he went to the home of Liang Qiuju, where Liang happily received him. Delighted, King Jinggong beat the drums and played music in person. "Do moral people also like this?" he asked Liang. "With the same eyes and ears, why don't they?" They enjoyed drinking the whole night.

Later King Jinggong wanted to promote Liang so he praised him in front of Yan Zi, "While some people do not prepare for what I like, he got it ready for me. Therefore he is loyal to me. Whenever I need him, he shows up next to me. So I know he cares about me." Yan Zi replied, "When an officer has all of the king's time, it's disloyal; when one son has his father all the time, it's unfilial. As a key minister, it is loyal to guide the king to treat his officers with respect, to be compassionate to his people, and to be trustworthy for his governors so that everyone will be loyal to the king and love the king. Today among all the ministers and people in the State, only Liang is "loyal" to you. What is going on? It's wise to take the criteria of punishments and rewards as being what's good or bad for the state." King Jinggong understood and decided not to reward Liang.

Once Yan Zi was accompanying King Jinggong to tour Mai Qiu when an elder came by. He said, "Long live your majesty. I hope that you won't offend your people." Confused, King Jinggong said, "It's possible that people can be prosecuted for offending their king. I've never heard any king offending his people." Yan Zi asked: "Did Jie (the last emperor of the Xia Dynasty) and Zhou (the last emperor of Shang Dynasty) offend kings or their people? Were they killed by kings or the ordinary people?" Suddenly awakened, King Jinggong rewarded the elder with some land to thank him for his advice and wisdom.

In front of Yan Zi's frank criticism, King Jinggong sometimes felt embarrassed so he tried hard to punish Yan Zi. Nevertheless he knew what Yan Zi said made sense no matter how it offended the ears. As a result, King Jinggong often admired Yan Zi for his courage of offending the king for the sake of the country and its people.

Finally Yan Zi passed away. King Jinggong learned about the sad news while he was sightseeing. He urged his servant to get back as quickly as possible. Complaining the horse was running too slowly, King Jinggong jumped out and ran on his own feet. Still he was not as fast as the horse so he got back into the carriage. He tried four times this way to outrace the horse. Finally he was running and crying, "Sir Yan Zi kept advising me day and night, urging me on even a small detail. Yet I have been indulging in pleasure all the time. Disaster fell on him instead of me. The Kingdom of Qi is in peril. Without Yan Zi, who can the people complain to?"

Taking the people as essential, Yan Zi focused on ordinary people in his frank criticism of the king, his governing of the state, and his own actions. With his kindness, his wisdom, and his good deeds for the people, he has been memorialized among ordinary people ever since.

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