Guiding Integrity: The Upright and Honest Advisors of Ancient China

Illustration of a man dressed in the robes of an ancient Chinese official.
In ancient Chinese history, wisdom and integrity were paramount virtues and those endowed with good character diligently fulfilled their duties, prioritizing their responsibilities over personal gain or safety. (Image: Zhiqing via Kanzhongguo)

In ancient China’s history, wisdom and integrity were paramount virtues. Rulers often sought counsel when faced with perplexing matters, including unsettling dreams and omens. Those endowed with good character, like Yan Zi and Gongsun Sheng, diligently fulfilled their duties, prioritizing their responsibilities over personal gain or safety.

Yan Zi’s wise counsel and integrity

Duke Jing of Qi, suffering from kidney disease, had been confined to his bed for more than 10 days. One restless night, he dreamed of a daunting battle against two suns, a battle he lost, leaving him waking in a cold sweat. Disturbed by this dream, he feared it might be a grim omen signaling his death.

The next day, Duke Jing summoned Yan Zi, his trusted minister, and shared the troubling dream. Yan Zi pondered over the dream and advised the Duke to consult a dream-reader for interpretation. Trusting his minister’s wisdom, Duke Jing delegated the task to Yan Zi.

After he dreamed of battling two suns, the Duke sought advice from his trusted minister, Yan Zi.
After he dreamed of battling two suns, the Duke sought advice from his trusted minister, Yan Zi. (Image: Aberrant Realities via Dreamstime)

Yan Zi, upon leaving the palace, swiftly arranged for a dream-reader to visit the Duke. He instructed the dream-reader to tell the Duke: “Your kidney disease, being yin, is overshadowed by the yang of the two suns in your dream. As one yin cannot overcome two yangs, this dream foretells that your kidney disease is nearing its end.”

The dream-reader relayed these words to Duke Jing according to Yan Zi’s instructions. The interpretation brought immense relief and joy to the Duke. With a lightened spirit, coupled with judicious medication and dietary adjustments, his health improved remarkably within days.

Overwhelmed with gratitude, Duke Jing decided to generously reward the dream-reader. However, the dream-reader, displaying remarkable integrity, declined the reward, revealing that the interpretation was Yan Zi’s insight. When Duke Jing offered the reward to Yan Zi, he too refused, saying: “My words would only be effective if spoken through the dream-reader. Had I spoken directly, you might not have believed me. Thus, the credit belongs to the dream-reader, not to me.”

Ultimately, Duke Jing rewarded both Yan Zi and the dream-reader, praising their virtues. “Yan Zi does not seek glory, and the dream-reader is not greedy for rewards. These are traits befitting true gentlemen,” he exclaimed.

Gongsun Sheng’s truthfulness and bravery

In another kingdom, King Fuchai of Wu experienced a disturbing dream: He saw three black dogs barking, alternating between north and south, and the fire under his cooking pot was extinguished. None of his ministers could decipher this dream, so he summoned Gongsun Sheng, renowned for his exceptional skill in interpreting dreams, to provide clarity on this perplexing vision.

The fire had been extinguished under King Fuchai's cooking pot, an ominous sign.
The fire had been extinguished under King Fuchai’s cooking pot, an ominous sign. (Image: Swisshippo via Dreamstime)

Aware of the potential danger in interpreting the King’s dream, Gongsun Sheng bid a tearful farewell to his wife. “The King’s summons to interpret this ominous dream is no small matter. I cannot lie, but speaking the truth may lead to my death,” he said somberly.

Before King Fuchai, Gongsun Sheng bravely interpreted: “This is an omen of the kingdom’s downfall. The dogs’ barking signifies the loss of the ancestral temple’s master, and the extinguished fire signals the depletion of food supplies.” Enraged by this grim forecast, King Fuchai executed Gongsun Sheng. Tragically, his prediction came true, and the Wu Kingdom fell to the forces of Yue.

These tales reflect the ancient Chinese reverence for truth and integrity. The ancients valued honesty and trustworthiness above all, even in the face of danger or death. Their steadfast commitment to uphold traditional values and truth was deemed more significant than life itself. In a world where one’s character determines fate under wise or foolish rulers, these stories of Yan Zi and Gongsun Sheng remind us that a person of integrity deserves the utmost respect and admiration from all.

Translated article

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