Stories from History: Promoting Those Who Speak Frankly for Honest Advice and Less Flattery

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During the Yongle period of China’s Ming Dynasty, there was a newly appointed official of the Emperor’s court. His name was Gao Wenya. One day, without knowing the official edict, he spoke frankly about the Emperor Jianwen and used forbidden words without restraint. When the imperial supervisor Chen Ying heard what Gao Wenya said, he sought an audience with the emperor to determine Gao Wenya’s punishment.

Upon hearing what Chen Ying had to say, Emperor Zhu Li replied, “As Gao Wenya is an official new to his post, his actions are forgivable. His comments are worthy of our attention. We should not discard what he said simply because it was frank and offensive.”

The Emperor then proceeded to summon Zhen Ci, the minister of Official Personnel Affairs and told him, “We will hear more honest advice and less flattery if we cease to punish all those who are straightforward.

“Since ancient times, clear-sighted emperors always heeded remonstrations. I believe you understand my intention in telling you this. From now on, whenever politics are discussed, we should see what benefits we can gain from such commentary. People’s opinions are precious and we should not bring punishment to those who speak solely because they have used forbidden words. Chen Ying is mean hearted and unable to aid me in implementing a kinder policy, you should be wary of him. Gao Wenya is sincere and straightforward, and his honesty should be praised. Have the ministry evaluate him and promote him.”

(From Classic Stories and Hearings by Yu Jideng, Ming Dynasty)

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