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Advisor Cheng Yang 1

Han, Yu (768 A.D.-824 A.D.)

    Someone asked me about Advisor Cheng Yang, "Is Advisor Yang a man of high principle? He studied extensively and was well informed. Practicing ancient moral doctrines, he did not seek fame. He lived on the border of Shanxi Province. After being a clerk in a library for six years, he became knowledgeable. Thousands of people there were edified by his virtue and became good citizens. In 783 A.D., Court Official Bi Li recommended him to the emperor. The Emperor appointed Yang to be his advisor. People considered the title of advisor glorious, but Yang did not show pleasure on his face. He has held the position for five years. His great character remains the same. He is not a person who would allow wealth and power to corrupt his character."

    I responded to him, "The chapter titled ‘Hen-divination 2' in The Book of Changes 3 says, 'In a family, a woman should respect her husband’s opinion by being gentle and silent. However, a man should solve problems by thinking independently and making wise judgment.' Yang failed to fulfill his obligation. How can you say that he is man of high principle? 'Gu-divination 4' says, ‘When one does not hold a government position, one should cultivate his virtue.' 'Jian-divination 5' says, 'When a country is in trouble, a government official should devote himself to his country rather than his personal gain.' This is because the moral doctrine one should follow depends on one's circumstance. The statement in Gu-divination can be interpreted as follows: Even if one does not hold a government position, he should still serve his community. The statement in Jian-divination can be interpreted as follows: Those who hold government positions but do not like to get their hands dirty with work will be ridiculed as officials who neglect their duties while taking the pay. Their irresponsible practices should not be followed as examples and their negligence may cause serious consequences. Yang has held his position as an advisor for a long time. He should be familiar with the gains and losses of our country by now. Furthermore, the emperor has shown special favor to him, but he never spoke one word on politics. In fact, his apathy toward our political gains or losses is similar to that held by the people in the of State of Yue toward the economic success or failure of the State of Qin 6. By and by, his apathy has deteriorated to such an extent that accomplishments will not give him any pleasure and negligence will not cause him any shame. If one asks him about his job, he will say, 'An advisor.' If one asks him about his salary, he will say that it is the same as those of the great officers in the emperor's court. If one asks him about politics, he will say, 'I don't know.' Are these the characteristics of a man of high principle?

    "I have heard, ‘If one holds a government position, but fails to perform his duty, then he should resign. If one is responsible for evaluating political gains and losses, but fails to make any comments, then he should resign.' Has Yang said what he should as an advisor? For those who have the duty to speak up, it is wrong to keep silent. So it is for those who hold their position but fail to perform their duties. Does Yang seek his office simply for financial gain? People in ancient times said, 'One should not acquire a job simply for financial gain.' Those who receive a good salary, but fail to perform their duties should resign and find a lesser position with a smaller salary, such as a doorman or night-watchman. Confucius used to be a manager in a rice warehouse; later he was a herdsman. He did not dare to neglect his duty. He would say, 'The accounts must be balanced.' Or 'The cattle and sheep must be well tended.' It is obvious that both Yang's position and salary are substantial. Is it right that he receives a good salary without performing his duty?"

    Someone said, "No. It is not that way. Yang hates to slander his superiors and to expose the emperor's faults for his personal gain. Therefore, though he gives advice to the emperor frequently, he will not tell people that he does so. The Canon of History says, 'If you have a good idea, then tell the emperor about it privately. After the idea is executed successfully, you should go out and ascribe the success to the emperor.' Perhaps this type of humbleness was what Yang had in mind." I responded to him, "It is really confusing if Yang acted as you said. Giving advice to the emperor without accepting credit from the public is the duty of the prime minister, and is not proper behavior for an advisor. Yang was originally a commoner, living on a wooded mountain in seclusion. The emperor promoted him to this position due to his virtue. An advisor is expected to perform his duty by giving advice. Then the entire world and future generations will understand that there are officials in our government who can openly criticize its policy even though the criticism may embarrass their superiors. They will also understand that our emperor has an open mind that enables him to admit his mistakes and accept good advice. If talented recluses in caves have heard of this practice, they would admire the emperor for his virtue. They would wear formal attire and come to the palace to present their ideas. The utilization of these talented people will promote our emperor to the rank of great ones such as Yao and Shun, and immortalize his reputation. The duty that you quoted from The Canon of History is for the prime minister, and is not proper for an advisor. If what Yang had in mind was similar to what you said, then he really underestimated the wisdom of our emperor, and may cause the emperor to start feeling the shame of accepting advice."

    Someone said, "Yang did not seek fame, but people made him famous. Although he did not seek a high position, the emperor appointed him to the position of advisor. Although he accepted the offer, he has still adhered to his own moral codes. How can you reprove him?"

    I said, "All great men have not sought fame or important positions since ancient times. All they have done is lament the upheaval of his time and empathize pity people's sufferings. A man of high principle dare not attend his own virtue alone. He must save the entire world at the same time. He will pursue his goal diligently until his death. Therefore, Yu, who had worked on the problem of flooding of the Yellow River for eight years, did not enter his house even though he passed by it three times. Before his seat could become warm, Confucius had to go to another state to persuade its king to improve people's lives. Philanthropist Mo had to leave to help people before the flame burned his stove black. Did these two great men and one good man not know how to enjoy themselves? It was because they truly feared God's will and sympathized with people who suffered hardship. When God endows a man great talents, He intends for him to use his talents to complement other people's insufficiency rather than enjoy his own life. As for eyes and ears to a body, eyes control vision and ears control hearing. Only after one sees risks and obstacles and listens to others' experiences may one make one's body and soul secure. A great man is the eyes and ears of contemporary people. Contemporary people are the body of a great man. If Yang lacks talent, he should find a lesser position suitable for his skills. If Yang is talented, then he should fear God's will, sympathize with people who suffer hardship, and thus should be busy with work. How can have so much free time to enjoy his own life?"

    Someone said, "I have heard that a gentleman does not consider disclosing one's faults a virtue. Based on your argument, you are an upright man. But do you think, perhaps, that you criticize Yang a little too much and that it may damage your reputation for kindness? Guo-wu 7 loved to point out other people's faults and hold them accountable. This was the reason why he was killed in the State of Qi. Have you heard his story?" I said, “When a virtuous man holds a position, he will fulfill his duty despite the risk to his own life. If one is not in office he should expound virtue by writing essays. I only use Yang's story to demonstrate what is right, not to attack him to show how virtuous I am. Guo-wu was killed because he failed to speak to the right person and criticized too freely in a corrupt country. An ancient book says, 'Only a good man can accept straightforward advice.' It means that after a good man hears of his mistake, he will correct it. You told me that Yang can be a man of high principle. Although Yang has not yet achieved that level, it does not mean that Yang can never be a good man. 8"

1 Cheng Yang of the Tang dynasty was a native of Beiping City. Kang-zong was his other first name.

2 "Hen" means constancy.

3 The Book of Changes discusses the science of divination based on the Eight Diagrams. Each diagram consists of an arrangement of single lines and divided lines which are presented in eight groups of three lines each. These designs are said to have derived by Emperor Fu Xi from the design on the back of a tortoise.

4 'Gu-divination' is a chapter title in The Book of Changes. "Gu" means poison or worms in one's stomach.

5 ‘Jian-divination' is a chapter title in The Book of Changes. "Jian" means trouble.

6 Yue and Qin were two states during the Spring-fall period. Yue was located in Southeastern China, while Qin was located in Northwestern China. These two states were separated by a long distance and had no connections whatsoever.

7 Zuo was Guo-wu's other first name. King Xiang met Guo-wu. Gu-wu talked about many people's faults. King Xiang said, "Living in a corrupt state and loving to find others' faults will incur enmity." As expected, later, Gu-wu was killed.

8 After Yang read this essay, he corrected his mistakes by giving the emperor two pieces of advice. It was this essay that drove Yang to be a responsible advisor.