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The Preface to the Biographies of Cruel Officials

Chinese History by Qian Si-ma (145-86 BCE)

   Confucius said, "If a government governs people with laws and corrects people with punishment, people may avoid punishment, but they will have no sense of shame. If a government governs people with morals and educates people with manners, people will be ashamed to do anything improper." Lao-zi said, "A good man will not remember helping others. This is why he is virtuous. A man with a low moral standard will never forget the favors that he offers to others. Because he gives a favor with the intention of asking for one in return, his help thus becomes valueless in the moral sense." He also said, "The more laws a government establishes, the more criminals they create." Indeed, it is so.

   Laws are tools for governing people. They are not the main factor in determining whether a political system will remain clean or corrupt. In the Qin dynasty, the net of law could be said to be tightly woven. However, fraud and crime emerged everywhere. When the political system was most corrupt, the government officials and people mutually hid the truth, looked for loopholes and avoided their responsibilities. Finally, the corruption led to the collapse of the government. During this corrupt era, an official had to stop crimes as if they were rushing to a fire, or were trying to cool boiling water. Had they not determined to adopt a strict policy of dealing with these problems, they simply could not have functioned in their jobs. It would have been totally irresponsible had they preached morals. Therefore, Confucius said, "If I were the judge in a trial, I would act in the same way as any competent judge. The important thing is to eliminate lawsuits." Lao-zi said, "Foolish people would laugh at you if you preach morals to them." The statements of Confucius and Lao-zi do not contain empty words.

   After the Han dynasty replaced the Qin dynasty, the government eliminated all cruel punishment and improved people’s lives. It also emphasized simplicity and honesty instead of pomposity. The laws were quite lenient. Even one who committed a serious crime was given a chance to correct his mistakes. The leniency did not destroy the social order. On the contrary, the effects of laws continued to improve. Not only was there no crime, but also the whole country lived in peace. In view of these facts, governing a country is determined by morals rather than strict laws.