Cao Bin was born in today’s Linshou County, Hebei Province. He helped to found the Northern Song Dynasty. Even though he had a long list of achievements and honours, he never showed off his accomplishments and gained the deep respect of the people.
On the fifth year of Xiande in the Latter Zhou Dynasty, Emperor Shizong (Chai Rong) asked Can Bin to pay an official state visit to the kingdom of Wuyue. Wuyue tried to give him gifts on many occasions, but Cao Bin always refused to accept them. On his way back, after he had boarded the ship, Wuyue left a large amount of gold, silver and other treasures on the ship as gifts to him. After he returned to the royal court, he turned over all the gifts to the royal court. The emperor was very moved by his action and gave all the gifts back to him. Cao Bin had no choice but to accept the emperor’s appreciative gesture. After he accepted the gifts from the emperor, he gave all of them away to his relatives and friends.
At that time, Zhao Kuangyin (who later founded the Song Dynasty and became Emperor Taizong) was an important general who led the royal army. Many officials tried to gain favour with him. Cao Bin was the only exception. Other than carrying on official businesses, he never went to visit Zhao at his home. After Zhao Kuangyin became the emperor, he once asked Cao, “In the past, I always wanted to get to know you better. Why did you deliberately keep your distance and stay away from me?” Cao Bin replied, “I was a close relative of the former Zhou emperor and was also an official in his court. I was concentrating on fulfilling my duties and not making any mistakes. How did I dare to befriend Your Majesty?” The Emperor thought even more highly of him because of his honest answer.
During the second year of Jianlong, Cao Bin served as a counsellor to Liu Guangyi as Liu led an army to put down a rebellion in Shu (today’s Sichuan Province). After the rebellion was put down, all the high-ranking officials from the Song army returned home with beautiful women, jade, silk, and other expensive items. Cao Bin only brought back his own books and clothing. Emperor Taizong recognised the large contribution that he had made in putting down the rebellion, and promoted him to governor of Yicheng. Cao Bin tried to turn down the promotion several times. The Emperor finally said, “You have made a large contribution and yet you have never tried to show yourself off. It is a common practice for a country to honour the good and punish the bad. You shouldn’t try to turn down your promotion any more.”
After the Song Dynasty was founded, the last ruler of the former Tang Dynasty ran away to Jilin (today’s Nanjing City) and formed the Southern Tang Dynasty. Cao Bin was asked by Emperor Taizong of the Song Dynasty to take down the Southern Tang Dynasty. As the Song army prepared to lay siege to and attack the city of Jilin, Cao Bin was afraid that his soldiers would hurt innocent citizens living in the city. So he pretended to be ill and asked his soldiers to light incense praying for his recovery and make a solemn promise not to hurt a single innocent person while laying the siege. After the Song army mounted a successful siege, it treated the ordinary citizens in Jilin well and was warmly welcomed by the people. After the ruler of the Southern Tang Dynasty asked to surrender, Cao Bin comforted him and his officials with kind words and treated them as honoured guests. After Cao Bin successfully finished his mission and returned to the Song court, in his written report to the emperor, he once again didn’t try to show off at all. He simply wrote, “I have been able to complete the task that the Emperor had asked me to do in the South.”
Before he led the army to the South, the Emperor had said that he would be promoted to the post of the Prime Minister if he was able to put down the Southern Tang Dynasty successfully. Therefore his deputy Pan Renmei immediately congratulated him for becoming the next Prime Minister after their victory. Can Bin laughed gently and said, “It isn’t how it is. I am only fulfilling my duty. We were able to achieve the victory solely because of the might of heaven and the military strategy that the royal court had developed beforehand. How have I made any major contribution? I deserve the top post of the Prime Minister even less.”
Even though Cao Bin held high-ranking official positions, he wasn’t wealthy at all. He gave all his leftover salary to his many relatives. The Record of the Song Dynasty describes him in this way, “After putting down rebellions in two countries (Shu and Southern Tang), he didn’t take a single extra penny. He was a general and the Prime Minister, and yet he never thought he was different from others because of his post.” While serving in the royal court, he never once went against the wish of the Emperor, nor did he discuss other people’s shortcomings. While on the road, he always ordered his driver to move his carriage off the road and let other officials’ carriages pass first, even if the other officials were ranked much lower than him. He never called his subordinates by their names directly in order to show his respect for them. When his subordinates came to report things to him, he always arranged his clothing carefully and put on his hat before seeing them. He treated his subordinates with a great deal of tolerance, and always put himself in their shoes first. When he was an official at Xuzhou, one of his subordinates made a mistake and the punishment was to hit him with a stick multiple times. Yet Cao ordered to delay carrying out the punishment for one year. People didn’t know why this was so. Cao explained, “I heard this official is newly married. If he is punished right away, his parents must think that his new wife had brought him bad luck and therefore would curse and hit her day and night, making it difficult for her to survive. The official will still be punished for his mistake. But the delay is not against the law.”
In The Book of Manners (Li Ji) it says, “A gentleman doesn’t exaggerate his accomplishments, nor does he show off his accomplishments. He just tells the facts as they are.” It says, “One should praise other people’s good deeds and accomplishments in order to treat them with respect and honour.” It also says, “Therefore, even though a gentleman behaves in a modest and low-key manner, the people naturally respect him.”
There is a Chinese idiom, “The sky above doesn’t say it is tall and yet it is tall. The ground below doesn’t say it runs deep and yet it runs deep.” Some people are very conceited. They like to show off and are always afraid that others don’t know how capable they are. Actually they are not capable at all. Those people with genuine knowledge and manners never try to show themselves off. If someone is truly capable, other people will recognise it naturally without the person saying anything at all. The Chinese people say, “The plum flowers are always quiet. Yet people are naturally drawn by their beauty. So many people come close to look at them that their footsteps beat a path along the way.”
Cao Bin not only had a lot of talents, he also had a lot of virtues. He was a gentleman who behaved “in a modest and low-key manner,” and was forgiving and tolerant toward others. After his death, Emperor Zhenzong of the Song Dynasty cried in anguish. Every time he talked about Cao with his officials, the Emperor would break down in tears. After his death, The Emperor gave Cao the title of Duke of Jiyang. He and Prime Minister Zhao Pu both received honoured places in the temple of Emperor Taizong. He is also widely considered as a great general.
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