Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
A highly significant essay, “A Thousand Yes-Men Cannot Equal One Honest Advisor,“ appeared recently on the website of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which is in charge of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. It was signed under the pen name Lei Si and was widely seen as pushback against a range of Xi’s recent policies, though elliptically cloaked through recalling tales of emperors and their advisors in China’s long past. As China scholar Andrew Nathan wrote in an online discussion about the post on ChinaFile:
The CCDI document … is an act of remonstrance: although it emanates from a posture of loyalty to the leader, it presents a more serious challenge. Chinese political tradition gives great value to ‘loyal remonstrance’ (jiàn), in which one warns a powerful figure as a way of serving him, at the risk of one’s head. Remonstrance comes from within the leader’s camp, rather than from opponents. And, as the historical and literary allusions in the document suggest, it comes about when the leader is in great danger — from himself.
According to Nathan, “observers will puzzle over whether the head of the CCDI, Xi’s close comrade-in-arms Wang Qishan, knew about this document in advance. Even if he did not, the fact that it appeared on the website of the Party’s own enforcement arm suggests that Xi’s most fervent supporters are the ones most worried about the path he has taken.”
A Thousand Yes-Men Cannot Equal One Honest Advisor
Several cadre leaders have been punished for breaking the law, and nearly all of them have said: There isn’t enough internal supervision and no one warned me; if there’d been someone there whispering in my ear, I wouldn’t have committed such grave crimes. The lesser problem is that there is no one there to warn people; the greater problem, which no one seems to be discussing and which breeds even worse mistakes, is the old saying that “a thousand yes-men cannot equal one honest advisor.”
– General Secretary Xi Jinping, in a statement made during the Hebei Provincial Party Standing Committee’s Small-Group Meeting on Democratic Life
‘A thousand yes-men cannot equal one honest advisor,’ a saying found in ‘The Biography of Lord Shang’ in Sima Qian’s Historical Records, was the Warring States period advisor Zhao Liang’s admonishment to the Qin chief advisor Shang Yang. Zhao Liang was willing to join Shang Yang’s camp, but he had a prerequisite: ‘A whole day of honest and straightforward speech must not go punished.’ That is to say, he could speak his mind honestly all day and not suffer any retaliation. Zhao Liang raised two examples from the previous generation, namely Wu Wang of the Zhou period, who did not lack honest advisors and so in the end succeeded in his great task, and King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty who surrounded himself with men who told him what he wanted to hear, and so in the end lost his kingdom and his life. Shang Yang accepted Zhao Liang’s requirement with pleasure, and indeed went a step further, saying: ‘Glib talk is merely pretty, straightforward talk is truthful, unpleasant talk is medicinal, sweet talk is sickening.’ Among the later generations, those who best understood this wisdom were Li Shimin, who became Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, and the Tang official Wei Zheng.
The relationship between Emperor Taizong and Wei Zheng can be likened to that of Duke Huan of Qi and Guan Zhong. At the time, Wei Zheng served as an advisor to the crown prince Li Jiancheng, and even urged Li Jiancheng to kill his younger brother Li Shimin at the earliest chance. During the bloody coup in which Li Shimin took control, Wei Zheng was able to remove himself from the conflict and subsequently enter into the close circle of his former enemy, now the new monarch, for which he must have shed grateful tears. Yet Wei Zheng continued to go his own way, frequently offending the emperor and opposing imperial orders. He wrote ‘Ten Considerations’ for Emperor Taizong, with many rules and regulations for him to ponder.
In general, Wei Zheng did not keep to his proper station. In his capacity as an official advisor, he made general suggestions, giving importance to matters both great and small. Emperor Taizong wanted to impress all second-born sons over the age of 18 into his army, but Wei Zheng absolutely refused to sign the document, and even argued his case in front of the entire court, saying: ‘If you dry out the marsh to catch fish, there will be no fish the following year; if you burn the forest to flush out prey, there will be no beasts the following year.’ In this way, he forced Emperor Taizong to rescind his order.
As if that weren’t enough, he also meddled in the emperor’s personal life, even questioning how much the emperor’s daughter should have in her dowry, and which prince should be given imperial favors. The other advisors at court did not even inquire about personal matters, but Wei Zheng had his hand in everything, proclaiming that this or that did not conform to proper ceremony, frequently making Emperor Taizong redden with anger as he had no way to back down gracefully.
Setting aside cultural and military achievements, and speaking instead of tolerance to such advice, after the first emperor of the Qin, no one could match Emperor Taizong. Even so, Wei Zheng did not let the emperor get away with anything, and spoke all day in his ear, reminding him to take advice gladly: ‘If someone is right, you should listen. If someone is wrong, you should listen. If someone is wise, you should listen, and if someone is not, you should still listen. Otherwise, how will your ministers dare to talk to you?’ Once, he spoke even more bluntly: ‘When you receive advice, your attitude is not as good as it was in the past. In the early years of your reign, you thirsted for advice and worried that people would not speak freely. After that, you continued to be pleased to hear advice. Now you’re still willing to receive advice, but you listen with an unhappy expression, and all your officials see it.’ With someone like Wei Zheng by his side, if the emperor had been an ordinary man, he would not have even wanted to appear in his own court.
That is not to say Emperor Taizong never got angry. Once, after he had retired from the court, he went to Empress Zhangsun to vent his anger, and shouted that he wanted to do in ‘the country bumpkin.’ Fortunately, the empress was very wise. She put on her ceremonial dress and knelt before the emperor to congratulate him on having such a loyal official, which is the mark of a true emperor, and only then did his anger turn to amusement. After Wei Zheng died, Emperor Taizong personally administered the sacrificial rites, and wrote him the eternal and widely-known ‘Discourse on Three Mirrors’: ‘In a mirror of copper, one can adjust one’s clothes; in the mirror of history, one can understand power and succession; in the mirror of one’s fellow men, one can understand one’s successes and failures.’ Wei Zheng was that third kind of mirror. In the 18th year of Emperor Taizong’s reign, when he lost in his military campaign against Korea, he sighed that ‘if Wei Zheng had been here, he would not have let me go ahead with it.’
Chinese culture teaches that one should seek causes within oneself, to withdraw when one is not needed, and to examine oneself three times a day. One should emulate one’s betters, learn from others, and modestly accept criticism in order to rectify one’s moral character and unceasingly improve. Confucius said: Among three people, one will be my teacher. He despised hypocrites who only looked out for themselves, and admired radicals like the madman Jieyu and old hermit He Diao.
In his eyes, the ideal social relationship was that of gentlemen being united despite disagreement and willing to work together for the common good. This is unlike the relationship between petty men, which involves disunity despite similar opinions and the formation of self-serving cliques. In the realm of politics, the ideal relationship between ruler and subject is that in which ‘the ruler deals with his subjects according to proper ceremony, while subjects treat their ruler with loyalty.’
The ability to air opinions freely and to accept suggestions frequently determined the rise or fall of an empire. In middle school, we all studied the story ‘Zou Ji Persuades the King to Accept Instructions’ from Strategies of the Warring States, and there are many similar examples in the following dynasties. King Zhou Li did not listen to Duke Zhao’s advice and sought to kill those who slandered him. This incited the anger of the people, who then destroyed the king’s dams and dykes. The eunuch Zhao Gao during the second reign of the Qin deliberately lied at court, and all the other officials obsequiously agreed with anything he said, while the few who spoke the truth were eliminated one by one until the emperor had no one trustworthy left around him. During the Battle of Guandu, Yuan Shao refused the well-intentioned but unpleasant advice of Tian Feng, Ju Shou, and others.
In contrast, Cao Cao summoned distinguished men from across the empire and took their advice, and even Yuan Shao’s advisors were useful to him. In this way, Cao Cao managed to defeat Yuan Shao and unify the north. But Cao Cao insisted on doing things his own way in the following Battle of Red Cliff, and as he fled in defeat down Huarong Avenue, he lamented the death of his advisor Guo Jia, which meant that there was no one around him to correct his mistakes. Wang Can, one of the seven leading writers of the Jian’an period, mentions in his ‘Like a String of Pearls’ that ‘if you look into a bright mirror, imperfections will not persist in your appearance; if you listen to honest speech, your mistakes will not entwine you.’ Most likely Emperor Taizong’s ‘Discourse on Three Mirrors’ had its roots in this passage.
We should not be afraid of people saying the wrong things; we should be afraid of people not speaking at all. In most cases, highly successful people are extremely open-minded, and they are deeply interested in hearing different opinions. When the Ming dynasty Confucian scholar Wang Yangming went out to inspect his domain, he had the local administrators hold up signs that said not the usual ‘remain quiet,’ and ‘stay out of the way,’ but rather ‘I want to hear the feelings of the people,’ ‘I am willing to hear of my own mistakes’ — and this later became a favorite tale.
Some in the international community see the Chinese Communist Party as having a stable set of leaders, a tremendous foundation in the masses, and a special ‘vertical democracy.’ Collective measures are decided on the basis of mutual communication that flows both up and down, the equal participation of individuals in organized events, and rational discussion that leads to efficacious consensus. Historically, the Chinese Communist Party has always opposed the vulgar idea that ‘we’re all talked about behind our backs, and we all talk about others behind their backs.’ It has advocated that those who have something to say should say it publicly, and that everyone seek a sincere and devoted unity through open and unhidden criticism.
Whether a member of the Party or not, one should try one’s best to listen to a range of opinions, to understand the genuine situation, and to guarantee correct and scientifically sound policy. The fundamental attitude of our Party toward criticism is to consider things as they stand, seek the truth in facts, and distinguish right from wrong, while also avoiding viewing events and treating people in terms of gratitude and enmity, gain and loss, advantage and harm, intimacy and personal distance, or allowing man-made resentment over opinions and differences to interfere with work.
In the Yan’an period, when the liberal-minded Li Dingming proposed the idea of ‘excellent troops and a streamlined administration,’ not a few people suspected that his motives were not pure, but Comrade Mao Zedong proceeded from the basic needs and overall good of the people, and responded sincerely, calling the idea a ‘medicine to reform our officialism, bureaucratism, and formalism.’ He initiated a full democratic discussion as he implemented the policy of ‘excellent troops and a streamlined administration’ to greatly increase working efficiency in the border regions of Shaanxi, Gansu, and Ningxia, along with the rear anti-Japanese bases, which helped them in their difficult victories. In 1949, on the eve of the successful revolution, Comrade Mao Zedong spoke of the 12th working method of the Communist Party Committee, emphasizing that the Secretary of the Party must be a good ‘team leader,’ and as such, must put all the problems on the table and pay attention to the work of those comrades whose opinions differ from his own. These ideas are everlasting, and embody the aspirations and magnanimity of all Communist Party members.
— Lei Si*
*Lei Si is a pen name for the author(s) of the above translated piece.
Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, hanging silk scroll, National Palace Museum, Taipei. (CC)