Stories from Ancient China: Honesty and Living up to One’s Promise

Lu Yuanfang was a minister in the Tang Dynasty during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian. He was honest, always lived up to his promises and was an incorruptible and prudent official.

Lu Yuanfang had a residence outside Luoyang City called Jinxiu Garden, which was a rare property to come by and characterised with elegant pavilions and buildings, fine bridges and clear streams. Later, the Lu family’s fortunes declined and they found it hard to make ends meet. So Lu Yuanfang held a discussion with his two nephews Lu Yin and Lu Mao and they decided to sell the property.

When the news circulated that Lu Yuanfang was selling Jinxiu Garden, immediately two businessmen came to see him. Lu Yuanfang told them frankly the reason why he was selling the property. The two businessmen were worried that he might ask an unreasonable price for the property. Lu Yuanfang said, "My elder brother and I built this property together and planned to pass it on for later generations to live here… I do not want to make a fortune from it and would like to sell it at 700f the cost. You may pay me six to seven thousand liang of silver." When the two businessmen heard this, they were overwhelmed with happiness and could not believe their ears. The deal was made on the spot. For fear that Lu Yuanfang might change his mind, the two businessmen gave 50 liang of silver to Lu Yuanfang as a deposit. They decided that the purchase would be settled in three days time.

After the two businessmen left, the mayor of the city invited Lu Yuanfang to his place, telling Lu that he intended to purchase Lu’s residence and asked Lu to name a price as high as he would like. But Lu Yuanfang cupped one hand in the other and apologised and told the mayor that he had already promised to sell the property to someone else. He also told the mayor that although the sale was not yet settled, the purchasers had already paid him a deposit. The mayor insisted that he wanted to purchase the property and offered Lu twice as much money. Still, Lu Yuanfang politely declined his offer and firmly stated that once he had promised someone something, he would keep his word. The mayor was not at all happy and asked Lu Yuanfang to go back and think it over.

On his way back home, when Lu Yin and Lu Mao heard that Lu Yuanfang had refused the mayor’s offer they could not understand why he did so. They said to themselves quietly, "How come our uncle is so stubborn? What will happen to us in the future if we offend the mayor? Also, the sale is not yet settled and it is all right to renege." When Lu Yuanfang heard what they said, he criticised them sternly, saying, "As a man, one must keep his word. You have already grown up. How can you not understand such a principle?"

That night, Lu Yuanfang tossed and turned in bed and could not sleep. The next day, he went to see the mayor early in the morning. The mayor was very happy and thought he had changed his mind. Against all expectations, though, Lu Yuanfang stuck to his original decision. The mayor was furious and scolded Lu Yuanfang for being ungrateful saying, "If it had not been for my fair judgement that year, the nine generations of the Lu family would have been implicated." Lu Yuanfang looked quite embarrassed and knelt on the floor, but he still would not change his mind.

When Lu Yuanfang’s mother heard of this, she confronted Lu Yuanfang angrily, "Do you understand the principle of repaying a small debt of gratitude with all one could? The mayor wants to buy our property. We should not feel parsimonious even if we give it to him for free!" Lu Yuanfang knelt on the floor and said that he could not break his promise to others. He said to his mother, "You and father have taught us since childhood that what is said cannot be unsaid. Now I have already promised someone else; how can I break my promise?" Hearing these words, his mother became speechless.

Meanwhile rumours made the rounds: there must be something sinister about the sale of Jinxiu Garden at such a low price. The two businessmen also began to feel uneasy about it. They decided to go to take a look first before they settled the deal. The two men came to take a look around the residence, but could not find anything wrong with it. So they decided to buy it and planned to use it for a restaurant. When Lu Yuanfang heard this, he warned them that they could not use it for a restaurant, since there was no underground conduit for carrying off waste-water. The two businessmen were disappointed to hear this and gave up the property they loved.

The whole family complained that Lu Yuanfang told the prospective purchasers the truth. Lu Yuanfang, however, had no regrets. He said, "If I didn’t tell the truth, I would be cheating the buyers. No matter how difficult our current situation is, I will be honest and keep my word!"

Just as his whole family was worried that they could not find another buyer, the two businessmen came back again and asked to buy Jinxiu Garden, after all. It turned out that when Lu Yuanfang told them the defect of the property that day without any reservation, they felt quite touched. His honesty made them believe that there would not be any other defect in the property, and so they now decided to use the property to open a silk shop.

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