Stories from Ancient China: Yan Shu's Honesty

Yan Shu (991-1055) lived during the period of the Song Dynasty of ancient China. Even when he was young, he was an honest, kind, smart, and hard-working kid. He was able to write to a high standard when he was only seven years old and by the age of 15 his intelligence and wisdom reached an unprecedented level. Thus the County Magistrate recommended him to Emperor Zhen Zong as an ingenious youth.

Yan Shu could have gone to be directly examined by the Emperor, but he insisted on taking the Imperial Examination. He said that only if he did well on the test, would it count as real ability. The Chief Examiner agreed to let him take the test with another 3100 people.

When the test started and he saw the topic, he realised that it was something he had done before. He held his pen up and thought about it, and then raised his hands and said, "Your Excellency, I have already covered this topic. If I do it again here, isn't that cheating? Can you please give me another topic?"

The Chief Examiner thus agreed to give him another topic.

Yan Shu received his new topic, read it over several times, thought about it, and then picked up his pen and finished his writing in one sitting. The Chief Examiner was shocked. He commented that this person's threads of ideas came out so quickly and harmoniously that he must be nothing less than a genius.

Yan Shu was well respected by everyone for his honesty in asking to take the test and asking for reassignment of the topic. This story was passed on not only among the fellow test takers but also to Emperor Zheng Zong. Emperor Zhen Zong immediately asked to see Yan Zhu and commended him, "You not only have genuine talent and knowledge, but more importantly, you have the good character of honesty!"

In ancient China, no matter in which of the various levels of government or big and small businesses, the most important criterion for employing people was whether this person had good moral character. If a person had great ability and skills but a crooked heart, he would not be employed. Because Yan Shu has the great character of honesty, he later was became one of the very important officials in the imperial government.

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