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Releasing Prisoners

Ou-yang, Xiu 1 (1007 A.D.-1072 A.D.)

    Gentlemen value integrity. Punishment is designed for criminals. Prisoners sentenced to death are the worst villains who are guilty of the most heinous crimes. To die for a just cause and look upon death as going home is much more moral than simply living in an ignoble existence. This extremely high standard is difficult to follow even for a gentleman.

    In the sixth year of his reign, Emperor Tai-zong 2 of the Tang dynasty let more than 300 prisoners on death row go home. He stipulated that they must return to be executed at their scheduled time. Thus, he demanded that the worst villains do something that would be difficult even for a gentleman. It turned out that the prisoners all returned at their designated time. Thus, criminals easily accomplished a task that even a gentleman would find hard to do. Is this common to human nature?

    Someone might say, "The ones who had committed felonies were truly villains. After Emperor Tai-zong demonstrated beneficence and kindness to them, they were able to become good men. It was beneficence and kindness that entered people's minds so deeply and changed their characters so fast."

    I said, "Emperor Tai-zong acted thus simply because he desired to seek fame. He must have thought that the prisoners would expect amnesty upon their return. Was this the reason why he released them? The criminals must have expected to be pardoned upon their return. Was this the reason why they all returned?

    Releasing prisoners with the anticipation that they would return was the way Emperor Tai-zong helped prisoners avoid death sentences. Returning and expecting pardon was the way the prisoners helped the emperor gain this undeserved reputation. Thus, I only saw that Emperor Tai-zong and the criminals conspired with each other to steal fame. There was nothing in this event related to granting beneficence and kindness or converting criminals to virtue.

    Suppose I am wrong, and it was Emperor Tai-zong's beneficence that made the difference. At the time of releasing the criminals, the emperor had governed beneficently in China for six years. However, he still failed to prevent these criminals from committing the most heinous crimes. To think that his one-day grace could make the prisoners on death row look upon death as going home and make them remain virtuous does not make any sense."

    Then what should Emperor Tai-zong have done? I said, "He should have released the prisoners and executed them upon their return. If later he were to release another group of prisoners and give them the same offer, and if they were to return, then it would be possible to infer that their return resulted from his beneficence. However, it is certain that the second group would not return.

    Thus, releasing prisoners and pardoning them upon their return can only be done occasionally. If we do it frequently, then all murderers can avoid capital punishment. Can we allow this practice to be established as the permanent law of a nation? A just law would not pardon prisoners frequently. Consequently, the governments of Emperor Yao, Emperor Shun, and the Three Emperors 3 were based on sensibility. They did not do unusual things to distinguish themselves, and did not contradict common practice in search of fame."

1 Yong-shu was Xiu Ou-yang's other first name. In his late years, he called himself Liu-yi-ju-shi (a sixty-one year old Buddhist scholar). He was a native of Lu-ling City in Ji-zhou County (which is either present day Ji-an-xian City or Yong-feng-xian City of Jiang-xi Province). When Xiu Ou-yang was four, his father died. His family was poor and could not afford to purchase writing brushes and paper. His mother taught him by writing words on the ground with a tree branch. In 1030 A.D., Ou-yang passed the Advanced Exam at the age of 24. In 1041 A.D., he became an advisor and then drafted the emperor's edicts. At that time Yan Du, Qi Han, and Zhong-yan Fan resigned their positions as prime minister one after another. He told Emperor Ren-zong that he should have retained these great prime ministers. His words offended the emperor. Consequently, he was demoted to Mayor of Chu-zhou City (present day Chu-xian City of Anhui Province). While he was in Chu-zhou City, he called himself "Old Drunkard". Later, he was transferred to Mayor of Yang-zhou City and then Ying-zhou City. Afterwards, he was reinstated as the member of the Royal Academy. He was appointed by Emperor Ren-zong to revise The History of the Tang Dynasty. In 1060 A.D., he became the Vice President of the Privy Council. In 1061 A.D., he worked closely with the prime minister, Qi Han, to administer state affairs. During the early years of Emperor Shen-zong's reign, he was demoted to Mayor of Bo-zhou City. Later, he was transferred to Mayor of Qing-zhou City and then Cai-zhou City. When he was the imperial tutor of the crown prince, he recruited talented scholars. He retired at Ying-zhou City. After he died, the emperor honored him by giving him the posthumous name "Wen-zhong" (Duke of Loyalty and Literature). In his early years, he loved to read Yu Han's essays. After taking pains to explore them thoroughly, he promoted ancient Chinese literary essays. His campaign for Chinese classics served to demonstrate principles that could be put into practice. All the Chinese scholars became his followers. Whenever he finished writing an essay, he would revise it many times. China's great writers that came after him like Gong Zeng, An-Shi Wang, Dong-po Su and Che Su were all his students. It is difficult to write great essays and it is even more difficult to produce a group of great writers. Here is one story about Ou-yang: When Dong-po Su took the Advanced Exam, Ou-yang was the examiner. In this exam, Su's score was the highest, but Ou-yang put him in the second place and put Gong Zeng in the first place. Ou-yang said, “Su is only twenty-two years old. If I put him in the first place, he might become proud." It turned out that Su became the greatest and the most prolific writer during this period of China's Renaissance.

2 Emperor Tai-zong was the son of Emperor Gao-zu of the Tang dynasty. Shi-ming was Emperor Tai-zong’s first name.

3 "The Three Emperors" refers to Emperor Yu of the Xia dynasty, Emperor Tang of the Shang dynasty, and Emperor Wu-wang of the Zhou dynasty.