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Zou Wrote a Letter in Jail to King Liang-xiao

Zou, Yang (circa 154 B.C.) 1

    Yang Zou worked for King Liang-xiao of the Han dynasty. Zou was wise, impassioned and ethical. His colleagues Sheng Yang and Gui Gong-Sun were jealous of him and slandered him to King Liang-xiao. The king was angered, so he imprisoned Zou and ordered the jailer to put him on trial. He recommended that Zou be sentenced to death. While in prison, Zou wrote a letter to King Liang-xiao. It said, "I have heard, 'Loyal officials will always be rewarded and their king will trust them without any doubt.' I used to believe the truth of this saying, but now I consider it empty words. History tells us the story of Prince Dan of Country Yan who planned to assassinate the tyrant of Country Qin. Ke Jing 2 admired Dan's moral courage and decided to help him execute his plan. Even the Heavens were moved by Jing's bravery and had a rainbow pierce the sun as a sign that the tyrant would be killed. However, after Dan saw that the rainbow failed to penetrate the sun completely, he worried that Jing would fail. History also tells us the story of Mr. Wei. After General Bai 3 of Country Qin defeated the Chang-ping troops of Country Zhao, he planned to destroy Country Zhao. Therefore, he sent Mr. Wei to ask King Zhao of Country Qin to increase the army's food supply 4. Even the planet Venus 5 was moved to give a promising sign by devouring Mao 6. However, after King Zhao saw the phenomenon, he lost confidence in Bai's plan. Isn't it sad that even though the loyalty of Jing and Wei changed the Heavens and Earth, they could not gain the trust of their masters?

    "I am loyal to you with all my heart and do my best to advise you. It is your official who failed to carefully investigate the charge against me. Consequently, people trust the verdict of the jailer and doubt my innocence. I feel I am being treated like Jing and Wei. Even if they had risen from their graves and worked again for their masters, Prince Dan and King Zhao, they would not gain their trust. I wish you would investigate my case more carefully. In the past, He Bian offered a stone to King Wu and later to King Wen of Country Chu. Bian claimed there was jade inside. Both kings considered him a swindler. King Wu cut off his left leg and King Wen cut off his right leg. Another example of a loyal official who was persecuted was Si Li of Country Qin. He was sentenced to death by Prime Minister Hu. This lesson led Ji-zi to pretend to be insane and led Tong Lu of Country Chu to stop pursuing a political career. I wish you would appreciate the loyalty of He Bian and Si Li, and ignore the slander heard by the King of Chu and Prime Minister Hu so that I will not be humiliated by Ji-zi and Tong Lu in heaven. I have heard that Tyrant Zhou cut out Bi-gan's heart 7 and that the King of Country Wu threw General Zi-xus corpse 8 into a river. At first, I did not believe these stories, but now I finally can see they are true. I wish you could investigate my case carefully and show me a little sympathy. There is a saying, "A friendship of a lifetime can be as shallow as one that is new. Even two people who take carriages and meet by accident on the road may converse as congenially as old friends." This is because friendship is determined by deep understanding. It was friendship that led Wu-qi Fan to escape from Country Qin to Country Yan and to give his head to Ke Jing to assist him in his attempt to assassinate the King of Qin. It was also friendship that prompted General She Wang of Country Qi to flee to Country Wei. His escape led Qi's troops to attack Wei. Wang ascended the city wall to speak to Qi's commander. He said, 'You have come here because of me. I have no reason to become Wei's burden.' Then he committed suicide so that Qi would withdraw its troops. Wang and Fan left their old countries and died for their new kings not because they had tired of old friends and sought new ones, but because their new kings' deeds appealed to their ideals and they admired virtue limitlessly. Here are two more examples. Although Qin Su was notoriously untrustworthy, he kept his word like Wei-sheng 9, but only for Country Yan. General Gui Bi helped Country Wei destroy Country Zhong-shan even though he lost six cities in a battle while he was a commander for Zhong-shan 10. Why did Su and Bi act as they did? This is because friendship is based on mutual trust and understanding. One time someone slandered Su to the King of Country Yan while Su was Yan's Prime Minister. The king revealed his anger by gripping his sword, but he treated Su to delicious horse meat instead. After General Bi defeated Country Zhong-shan, he was proud of his victory. Someone slandered him to King Wen of Country Wei. However, the king ignored the slander and offered Bi a jade piece that shone in the night. Why did the two kings act in this way? It was because those kings and their officials trusted each other as though they had cut out their hearts to show their sincerity. This trust could not be shaken by baseless slanders. Similarly, any woman who is brought into the palace, whether she is beautiful or not, will be the object of others' jealousy. Any scholar who acquires a position in the emperor's court, whether he is talented or not, will suffer the grudges of others. In the past Xi Si-ma's knee was broken by someone in Country Song, but he eventually became the Prime Minister of Country Zhong-shan. Ju Fan's teeth and ribs were broken by someone in Country Wei, but he eventually became Duke Ying of Country Qin 11. These two people believed that their dreams would surely be realized by means of their personal friendship with their king. They did not care about opinions of other people, so they were vulnerable to persecution by their jealous colleagues. This was the reason why Tu-di Shen drowned himself by crouching in a ceramic barrel and having it pushed into a river. This was also why Yan Xu 12 tied a huge stone to his back and sank himself into the sea. Although they were not accepted by their contemporaries, they were determined not to lower their characters by allying themselves with their corrupt colleagues in order to win over the heart of their king. However, a wise king will stick to his ideals and go to great lengths to look for talented people. This was the reason why King Mu of Country Qin appointed Xi Bi-li to be his Prime Minister when Bi-li was begging food on a street 13 and why King Huan of Country Qi offered a high-ranking position to Qi Ning when Ning was feeding a bull yoked to a wagon 14. These two people did not gain their position by rising through the ranks over time. Their king appointed them simply because their minds were similar and their deeds matched. Their friendship was as strong as glue or paint. Given that not even a brother could have sown discord between them, how could these kings have been puzzled by the opinions of other people?

    "Consequently, hearing only one side of a story will generate evil; favoritism will create a mess. For example, in the past, the King of Country Lu adopted Ji-sun's advice to expel Confucius. The King of Country Song listened to Zi-ran and imprisoned Di Mo. Even with a sage's reputation and eloquence, Confucius and Mo could not avoid slander. As a result, the above two countries were put in danger. Why? This was because a widespread rumor has the destructive power of a fire that can melt gold and accumulated slanders the ability to incinerate bones. In contrast, the King of Country Qin used You Yu of Country Rong to unify China; Kings Wen and Xuan used Zi-zang of Country Yue to strengthen Country Qi. Were these two countries burdened by their traditions and affected by biased opinions or baseless rumors? By careful observation and listening fairly to all sides, each of these three kings earned a reputation for wise judgment during his reign. Thus, a common ideal will allow a foreigner to become like a brother to his king as occurred with Yu You and Zi-zang; differing opinions will make a brother by birth become an enemy as happened with Zhu, Xiang, Guan and Cai 15. If a king can adopt the wise policy of Countries Qi and Qin, and give little attention to the type of thing that the kings of Countries Lu and Song heard, then the Five Overlords 16 will pale in comparison and the great work of the Three Emperors 17 will be easily accomplished. Consequently, a wise king will become politically awakened. He will discard Zi-zhi's 18 advice, will not be deceived by the talent of wicked Tian-chang 19, will knight the offspring of a hero like Bi-gan, and will glorify the tomb of a heroine like the Pregnant Woman 20. Because he never tires of pursuing virtue, his great work will benefit all the people in China. King Wen of Country Jin extended his trust even to his enemy 21. In time, he gained influence over several countries. King Huan of Country Qi appointed his enemy 22 as his prime minister. Later, the king united China. Why? This was because these two kings were kind, sincere, and considerate. These inner qualities cannot be replaced by fancy rhetoric.

    "As for Country Qin, the king used the proposal of Yang Shang to weaken Countries Han and Wei in the east. Soon, Qin became a superpower. However, Shang suffered a cruel sentence in the end: His body was dismembered by chariots. Country Yue adopted the strategy of Zhong Wen to destroy its strong rival, Country Wu. It subsequently became the leader of China. Ultimately, Wen was forced to commit suicide despite his good advice. These lessons taught Shu-ao Sun 23 not to protest each of the three occasions he had to leave his position as prime minister. They also taught Duke Zhong-zi Chen to give up his title and take a job irrigating gardens. If a leader can get rid of his pride, cultivate the heart to return favors, be kind, sincere and generous, and share his prosperity and woe with his officers to the end, then the dog of Jie can be made to bark at Yao and the guest of Zhi can be persuaded to assassinate You 24. A kind king can expect even better service due to his power and wealth. This principle is so natural that it is unnecessary to cite either the story of Ke 2 whose extended family was sentenced to death or that of Yao-li 25 who had his wife burned.

    "I have heard that if you throw a pearl that is bright like the moon or a jade piece that shines during the night at a passerby in the dark, everyone will grasp their swords and glare at you. Why? This is because the object comes at the victim without a reason. Twisted roots can be made into tools fit for the emperor despite their odd shapes and gnarled looks. Why? This is because the emperor's artisans can improve on their shapes and appearances. Similarly, sending a gift, even as precious as the Sui pearl 26 or the He jade 27, without a reason might incur anger rather than gratitude. However, if one has someone to recommend him, he can make great contributions even though his talent is like a withered tree. Now there are many commoners in the nation who live in poor neighborhoods and are trapped in hardship. Although they receive wisdom by studying the life of Emperors Yao and Shun, develop the eloquence of Yi and Guan 28, display the loyalty of Long-feng 29 and Bi-gan, and try their best to devote themselves to the emperor, he will instinctively grasp his sword and glower at them as in the case mentioned above simply because these commoners had no one to improve their twisted-root looks. This lack of support will prevent the talented commoners from developing their potential like the withered tree.

    "Consequently, a wise emperor will govern his nation by principles, just as a talented potter will stir the clay for his mold smoothly and evenly. The emperor will be neither bound by base slanders nor moved by a multitude of voices. To give counter examples, the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty followed Official Meng's advice that he meet with Ke Jing 2. It turned out that Jing hid a dagger and attempted to assassinate him. In contrast, Emperor Wen of the Zhou dynasty brought back Shang L while hunting along the Jing and Wei Rivers. The Qin dynasty was destroyed because the emperor trusted only his favorite officials. The Zhou dynasty was established because Wen appointed Shang L to the position of prime minister, even though he met him by chance. Emperor Wen's success was based on his ability to surmount restrictive advice, ride his thoughts beyond the usual boundaries, and pay attention only to bright and outstanding principles. However, a king today is drowned in the flattery and slanders of his officials, and is impeded by curtains and walls 30. In effect, open-minded scholars are put into the same stable with cattle and horses. This was the reason why Jiao Bao 31 was indignant about his government.

    I have heard that one who enters the king's court in splendid attire will not pollute justice with his personal relationships, and one who tries to fortify his reputation will not sacrifice his principles for profit. For example, Zeng-zi 32 refused to enter a village because it was named "Seng-mu" 33. When Mo-zi 34 heard that the town he was approaching was called "Zhao-ge" 35, he ordered his carriage to turn back. If the scholars with high principles in China had to be yoked by the powerful and threatened by their supervisors, and had to serve fawning officials against their principles in order to get close to a king, then we would find these scholars dying in mountain caves and lakes rather than coming to the palace and devoting themselves to the government.




1 Yang Zou was born in Lin-zi County during the Han dynasty. In the age of Emperor Jing, Zou, Sheng Mei and Ji Yan worked for the King of Country Wu. They all were famous for their debates and writings. The King of Wu planned to rebel against the central government. Zou wrote a letter to dissuade him, but his advice was not accepted. Therefore, he fled to King Liang-xiao with Sheng Mei and Ji Yan. Later, he was falsely charged by Sheng Yan and Gui Gong-sun and put into prison. In order to vindicate himself, he wrote this letter to King Liang-xio. After reading it, the king immediately acquitted him and treated him as a guest of honor.

2 Ke Jing was born in Country Wei during the Warring States Period. He worked for Prince Dan of Country Yan to assassinate the Tyrant of Country Qin. Unfortunately, he missed the target and was killed.

3 "Bai" is Chinese for "white".

4 The plan failed because Duke Ying opposed it. Mr. Wei was subsequently framed by the duke and sentenced to death.

5 Chinese people call Venus the Great White Star.

6 "Mao" is Chinese for "the Pleiades". It was also a time unit (minute) used in Country Zhao.

7 Bi-gan was the uncle of Tyrant Zhou of the Shang dynasty. The chapter titled "The Shang Dynasty" in the book Chinese History says, "Emperor Zhou indulged himself in wine and women, and did not care about state affairs. Bi-gan said, 'I will advise the emperor even if it means risking my life.' Therefore, he advised Emperor Zhou continuously for three days. Tyrant Zhou was angered and said, 'I have heard that a sage has seven holes in his heart.' Then he cut out Bi-gan's heart to see if it was true."

8 In 494 B.C., King F of Country Wu conquered Country Yueh. The King of Yueh had to surrender, but he sent a young, beautiful spy to be King F's wife. The spy persuaded King F to not to devastate Country Yueh. However, General Zi-xu insisted that Country Yueh be destroyed. King F would not listen. After the general committed suicide, King F put his corpse in a leather bag and threw it into a river. During the next three years, the King of Country Yueh served the King of Wu like a slave and did not dare to show a tired face. However, he slept on a wood pile and tasted bile each night to remind himself of his shame. In addition, he secretly reinforced his army. In 473 B.C., the King of Yueh rose up and finally destroyed Country Wu.

9 The chapter on "Robber Zhi" in Zhuang Zi says, "Wei-sheng had a date with his lover under a bridge. The woman did not arrive, but the tide came in. Wei-seng held on to the bridge pier to keep his promise, so he drowned."

10 General Gui Bi lost six cities in one battle when he was a commander of Country Zhong-shan. His king wanted to kill him, so he fled to Country Wei.

11 Ju Fan of Country Wei followed Envoy Jia Xu to go to Country Qi. The King of Qi gave Fan gold and wine. Xu suspected this was because Fan had revealed Wei's secrets to the King of Qi. After Xu reported his suspicion to the Prime Minister of Wei, the Prime Minister hired a thug to break Fan's ribs and teeth with a club. This incident led Fan to flee to Country Qin. He eventually became a duke there.

12 Yan Xu lived at the end of the Zhou dynasty.

13 Xi Bi-li was born in Country Yu during the Spring-Fall Period. While Bi-li was bagging food on a street, King Mu questioned him. Recognizing his talent, the king offered him a position of prime minister.

14 One night King Huan of Country Qi went out and heard Ning drumming a bull's horn and singing. The king spoke to Ning. King Huan was so impressed that he appointed Ning to be a high-ranking official.

15 Zhu was the son of Emperor Yao. Xiang was the brother of Emperor Shun. Guan and Cai were the brothers of Duke Zhou of the Zhou dynasty. These are all examples of internecine strife.

16 During the Spring-Fall Period: King Huan of Country Qi, King Wen of Country Jin, King Mu of Country Qin, King Zhuang of Country Chu, and King Xiang of Country Song.

17 Emperor Yu of the Xia dynasty, Emperor Tang of the Shang dynasty, and Emperor Wu of the Zhou dynasty.

18 Zi-zhi was the Prime Minister of Country Yan. King Huai gave him complete authority. Then the entire country became a mess.

19 King Jian of Country Qi admired Tian-chang's talent, so he appointed Tian-chang to a high-ranking position. Later, the king was killed by Tian-chang.

20 Tyrant Zhou of the Shang dynasty wanted to see how a baby was born, so he cut open the womb of a pregnant woman. After Emperor Wu conquered the Shang dynasty, he turned the Tomb of the Pregnant Woman into a shrine.

21 "His enemy" refers to Eunuch P. For details, see the essay "Eunuch P went to See King Wen".

22 "His enemy" refers to Zhong Guan. Prince Huan and his brother, Jiu, fought for the kingship. Guan worked for Jiu. One time Guan shot an arrow at Huan, but it was deflected by one of Huan's buttons. For details, see the essay "Zhong Guan and Ying Yan".

23 Shu-ao Sun was a talented scholar who lacked a government position. Three months after Qiu-xiang Yu recommended him, Sun became the prime minister of Country Chu. Actually, Sun acquired the position as prime minister three times. He never celebrated. He left his position of prime minister three times. He never regretted this.

24 Jie was a tyrant and Yao was a kind king. Zhi was a robber and You Xu was a virtuous hermit. The sentence means "If A treats B well, B will do anything that A desires even the desire is evil."

25 Yao-li was born in Country Wu during the Spring-Fall Period. The Prince of Country Wu sent him to assassinate Qing-ji. Yao-li suspected that Qing-ji might know the prince wanted to kill him and he would try to escape if he saw Yao-li. Consequently, Yao-li asked the prince to set his (Yao-li's) house on fire in order to kill his wife. Then Yao-li visited Qing-ji in Country Wei and told him that he (Yao-li) had killed his own wife and was fleeing to avoid capture. Qing-ji believed his words and let his guard down. Seeing this, Yao-li attacked Qing-ji and killed him.

26 Sui was a small country east of the Han River. The Man from the South of the Huai River says, "After the King of Sui found a wounded serpent, he applied some medicine to its wound. Later, the serpent dove to the bottom of a mighty river and returned with a pearl in its mouth to repay the king's kindness."

27 He Bian of Country Chu acquired a jade stone from Jing Mountain. Bian presented it to King Li, but the king thought he was a swindler and cut off his left leg. When King Wu inherited the throne, Bian presented the stone to him also. King Wu considered him a swindler too and cut off his right leg. When Wen became the king, Bian held the stone close and cried at the foot of Jing Mountain. King Wen sent some people to ask him why he cried. Bian replied, "I do not feel sorry for my severe sentences. I am sad only because a valuable jade is considered a worthless stone and a loyal person is considered a swindler." Consequently, the king ordered a jeweler to work on the stone. As Bian had predicted, the jeweler found jade inside the stone.

28 Yin Yi was a prime minister in the Shang dynasty. Zhong Guan was a prime minister of Country Qi during the Spring-Fall Period.

29 Tyrant Jie of the Xia dynasty spent long hours drinking wine during the night. Long-feng admonished him severely. The tyrant was offended and killed Long-feng.

30 "Curtains" refer to the king's wives and the walls refer to his officials.

31 Jiao Bao was a man of principle during the Zhou dynasty. He complained that the government failed to recognize his talent, so he gathered vegetables along the roadside. Zi-gong ridiculed him by saying, "Jiao lives to criticize the government and gather vegetables." Then Bao gave up gathering vegetables and stood by the River Lo, starving himself to death.

32 Zeng-zi was a disciple of Confucius and the author of the Bible of Filial Obedience.

33 "Seng-mu" means "better than a mother". Perhaps this village was famous for its beautiful women. Therefore, businessmen named it "better than a mother" to attract tourists.

34 Mo-zi was a Chinese philosopher of the Spring-Fall Period. He advocated being loving toward all, industrious, and frugal.

35 "Zhao-ge" means "singing in the morning". The morning is the time for work rather than for entertainment.