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King Li vs. The Duke of Wei
The consequences of ruling with violence or virtue
King Li of the Western Zhou Dynasty (878 – 841 B.C.) was a greedy and cruel leader. For his ministers, he appointed Yi Rong and similar people who only pursued quick profits and corrupt gains. These decadent choices led the Zhou Dynasty into disarray. The Zhou government monopolized the hunting, forestry and fishing industries, and reaped all of the profits without giving to the people. Civilians were not allowed to fish, gather firewood or even hunt in the forests or rivers. A royal court official named Rui Liangfu bravely gave King Li honest advice, “Your house is in danger! Yi Rong is only interested in capitalizing on the natural resources and gathering wealth. He doesn’t know that wealth comes from all things, not just money, and that it must be shared among all people. Anyone who tries to monopolize it will anger and offend the masses. Yi Rong is luring your majesty with black profits to violate the nature of heaven’s law. How can your house last forever?” King Li did not listen to the advice, and he further promoted Yi Rong to govern state affairs.
King Li’s tyranny finally enraged the people of the Zhou dynasty. The public began to condemn his wrongdoings. Another royal court official, Zhao, also warned King Li: “The people cannot tolerate your rule anymore!” King Li was enraged. He employed a sorcerer from the Wei kingdom to monitor and report whoever spoke ill of the King. Those who were reported were executed immediately. The public’s opinion of King Li’s rule immediately turned quite neutral. However, the feudal lords stopped coming to worship him.
In the thirty-forth year of King Li’s reign, his despotism became so severe that no one dared to even speak in public. People passing each other on the streets would only nod at each other or communicate with their eyes. King Li was very pleased with the result, and gloated to Zhao, “I can make all criticism against me disappear. Now no one has the temerity to speak against my rule anymore.” Zhao replied, “You didn’t stop the public opinion. You have only stopped your people from expressing it to you.” He cautioned King Li, “The consequence of blocking the voice of the people is worse than that of blocking a river from flowing.” King Li still would not listen. Threatened by the King’s terror, the people of Zhou were afraid to talk.
Three years later, the people of Zhou kingdom had had enough: they revolted against King Li, who subsequently fled from his palace to Zhi city.
On the next day Zou Ji received a guest at his home. He took the opportunity to ask his guest, “Do you find Mr. Xu or me more handsome?” The guest replied, “Mr. Xu is not as handsome as you.” On the following day, Mr. Xu visited Zou Ji at his home. Zou Ji checked him out from head to toe and decided that he was not nearly as beautiful as Xu.
At the next royal court meeting, Zou Ji said to Duke Wei, “I know it is a fact that I am not as handsome as Mr. Xu. However, my wife, my mistress and my guest all told me the opposite in order to please me because my wife loves me, my mistress fears me, and my guest wants my help. The State of Qi now controls many other states. It spans thousands of miles and 120 cities. All concubines and maidens in the royal palace love you. All the royal court officials fear you. All your people want something from you. It follows that everyone must be telling you many falsehoods in order to please you.”
Duke Wei of Qi state immediately declared, “That’s excellent feedback! From now on all government officials and civilians who point out my wrongdoings in person will each receive a handsome reward. Those who point out my wrongdoings in writing will each receive a medium reward. Those who point out my wrongdoings in public, which are ultimately relayed to me, will each receive a smaller reward.” As soon as Duke Wei’s edict was announced, many government officials hurried to the royal court to offer their advice. The royal court’s entrance was immediately crowded with people.
Several months later, people would occasionally come to the royal court to offer their advice to Duke Wei in person and a year later, no one could think of anything to advise him about. After the feudal lords of Yan, Zhao, Han and Wei states heard of Duke Wei’s policy to reward public criticism of the Duke, they came to the state of Qi to pay respect to Duke Wei although they are at the same royal level. The Qi state thus conquered the other states even without resorting to arms.
King Li of the Zhou Dynasty silenced the public through killing. Duke Wei of the state of Qi gained the same result by perfecting his rule with virtue. They both attained the same results, but their means led them to very different fates.
King Li of the Zhou Dynasty was the ordained monarch of China, but his feudal lords refused to worship him after he tried to control the public’s opinion through violence and despotism. [Note: During the Western Zhou Dynasty, power became decentralized from the King Li to the feudal lords, also known as “dukes” of a state. Strident annexations, battles and assimilations between states were typical during this period.] Duke Wei of the State of Qi was no more than a feudal lord, yet the neighboring feudal lords of the same royal level worshipped Duke Wei willingly as their exalted superior because of his virtuous rule.
Two opposite means to end the public’s criticism led to two opposite endings. Let it be a lesson to all of us: The consequence of blocking the voice of the people is worse than that of blocking a river from flowing!
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