Stories from Ancient China: Selflessly Fulfilling One's Duty

Bing Ji, a man from the West Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.), was very forgiving and morally respectable. He did a lot of great things in a low-keyed manner and never showed off.

Emperor Xuan of Han (91- 49 B.C.) was an emperor of the Chinese Han Dynasty from 74 B.C. to 49 B.C. His life story was a riches-to-rags-to-riches story. Emperor Xuan's birth name was Liu Bingyi. He was born in 91 B.C. to Liu Jin, the son of then-Crown Prince Liu Ju, and his wife Consort Wang. Emperor Xuan was the great grandson of Emperor Wu (140 - 87 B.C.).

Late in Emperor Wu's reign, conspirators accused Crown Prince Ju of using witchcraft against his father, Emperor Wu. Prince Ju was forced into a rebellion which was defeated. Prince Ju committed suicide, and his two uncles died with him. Empress Wei also committed suicide. Prince Ju's concubine Consort Shi and Emperor Xuan's parents also died in the incident in the capital. Emperor Xuan (then baby Bingyi) was but a few months old at the time. Bingyi was spared, although he was imprisoned and overseen by the Ministry of Vassal Affairs. He was put into the custody of the warden Bing Ji. Bing knew that Prince Ju was actually not guilty of using witchcraft and took pity on the child, and selected two kind female prisoners, Hu Zu and Guo Zhengqing, to serve as his wet nurses and caretakers. Bing visited them each day to see how the child was doing. Bing Ji reported to Emperor Wu several times, telling him that there was not enough evidence to support the witchcraft accusation, but each time he was reproached by Emperor Wu.

A friend of Bing Ji was worried about him for speaking his mind and repeatedly told him to stay clear of the storm. "His Majesty himself ruled on the witchcraft plot. Everyone is trying to draw the line with those who are involved in it. Why do you risk your own safety to seek justice for Prince Ju or look after his grandson Bingyi? Did it ever occur to you that you might be accused of being an accomplice to the witchcraft? Is it wise for you to take the risk?"

Bing Ji replied in an impervious manner, "One has to comport with kindness and morality. The witchcraft case was a conspiracy. Besides, Prince Ju's grandson Bingyi is just a baby. What crime has he committed? I cannot look away and turn a blind eye, I cannot live without conscience."

Emperor Wu became ill near the end of his reign. He heard there that some magicians claimed that an aura of an emperor was appearing from Chang'an prisons. Emperor Wu ordered that all prisoners, regardless of whether they had been convicted or not and regardless of the severity of the charges, were to be executed. When the eunuch delivering the edict arrived at the Vassal Affairs prison that Bing oversaw, Bing refused to accept the edict, stating that no one who had not been convicted of a capital crime should be executed, and particularly not the emperor's own great-grandson. The eunuch filed charges against Bing for refusing the abide by the edict -- a capital offence -- but by that time Emperor Wu had realised his error and declared a general pardon. The prisoners in all other prisons were dead, but the prisoners at Bing's prison survived.

Years later, the regent Huo Guang offered the throne to the 17-year-old Bingyi, at the recommendation of Bing Ji, and became Emperor Xuan. However, Bing Ji never once mentioned what he had done for Emperor Xuan, although his family repeatedly prompted him to do so. "You have saved His Majesty's life and done him great service. If you informed His Majesty in person, you will surely get a big promotion. Anyone else would be proud of taking this credit. Why are you keeping your lips sealed?" Bing Ji replied with a smile, "It is my duty as a subject. It was an honour to have the opportunity to repay the grace of the emperor. I wouldn't be a gentleman if I exchanged it for wealth or power. I am well above such a thought."

Eventually Emperor Xuan heard from the grapevine what Bing Ji had done for him. He was so deeply touched that he was sleepless until he made Bing Ji the Marquis of Boyang.

Meanwhile, Bing Ji became very ill, which worried Emperor Xuan. A royal subject named Xia Housheng knew that heaven always rewarded good deeds, so he told the emperor, "I have heard that heaven will reward those who have done many good deeds and even their offspring. Bing Ji has not been rewarded for his great deeds, so it stands to reason that he will recover from his illness. Your Majesty does not need to worry too much." Shortly afterwards, Bing Ji indeed made a full recovery and accepted the title of Marquis of Boyang. He also became the prime minister and was rated one of the most moral prime ministers in Chinese history.

Saving a life brings one infinite virtue. Hence, it is only natural that Emperor Xuan wanted to repay Bing Ji for saving his life. Although the reward seems to have come from the emperor, it actually was bestowed by heaven. Because Bing Ji's act of charity and kindness comported with the heavenly law, heaven rewarded him with honour and good fortune.

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