The Han Dynasty was one of the most glorious periods in Chinese history. This article is about Gong Sui, an official of the Han Dynasty who was loyal and generous. Using his wisdom, he pacified rebellions without battles or even soldiers.
Loyal to the King
In the early Han Dynasty, emperors sometimes appointed royal family members as kings of certain regions, and granted them autonomy. Liu He, grandson of Emperor Wudi (also known as the Martial Emperor), was appointed as the King of Changyi (in today’s Shandong Province).
Liu was a playboy, displaying improper behavior. Gong, a high-ranking official working for him, was very worried, and often suggested to the chancellor, as well as the king’s teacher, to get involved in changing the king. When that did not work, he was very sad, and often broke out in tears.
Gong also gave recommendations to the king directly. Once when listening to Gong’s talk, the king covered his ears and walked away. “Gong’s words brought shame into my heart!” he said.
Despite these efforts, however, Liu did not change much. He still behaved indecently and wasted lots of money. Gong crawled on his knees into the palace to advise the king. Gong was in tears, and many people were moved to tears.
But the king did not understand why. “Why are you crying?” he asked. “Our kingdom is in great danger,” Gong Zhu replied, “My heart is broken. I hope your Majesty would listen to me.”
Liu asked others in attendance to leave, and listened to Gong. Gong explained to him the story of King of Jiaoxi (also in today’s Shandong Province). Jiaoxi King was fond of an officer who kept flattering him. Although the king had committed many sinful deeds, that officer kept adulating him. This led to death of the king, and the collapse of his kingdom. “Your Majesty, the fact that you only favor those who flatter you is as if you are following the path of Jiaoxi King.”
He then suggested the king to stay with people of great virtue and knowledge. The king agreed, and Gong recommended 10 people. However, Liu drove all of them away within a few days.
Advice to the Emperor
When Emperor Zhaodi passed away, he did not have a son to become his successor. Chancellor Huo Guang and other officials installed Liu as the new emperor.
Liu took his incompetent staff with him, and even robbed women on the way to the capital city. Upon arrival, he did not kneel down to follow the national funeral ritual.
Inside the emperor’s palace, Liu continued his erroneous ways with no restrictions. Gong was very worried, and once talked to An Le, who was in charge of the palace’s security, “The emperor has become increasingly arrogant, obscene, and extravagant. He wouldn’t listen to any advice. Even during the prior emperor’s funeral period, he drank and played with his companions, while riding around in a carriage with nine-colored banners. This has violated the moral code and ritual, and the public’s trust. You were the previous emperor’s chancellor, so please advise the new emperor.”
However, Gong was not able to change Liu. Because of his misconduct, Liu was removed from the emperor’s position within 27 days. In those days, Liu committed about 40 wrongdoing every day, or over 1,000 in total.
The staff members that Liu took from Changyi were killed for indulging the emperor, and leading him into a sinful life. Only Gong and another official were exempted, since they had advised the emperor to change his ways many times.
Emperor Xuandi reigned after Liu He. After some time, Bohai County (in today’s Hebei Province) had a famine, and many people became robbers while some planned to rebel. The local governor was unable to control them.
Emperor Xuandi wanted to appoint a capable official to handle this. High officials recommended Gong, and the emperor approved it. When meeting Gong, however, he was somewhat disappointed, given that Gong was a short man who was already in his 70s.
Nonetheless, Emperor Xuandi asked Gong about his plan for Bohai County. “Bohai Country is a remote region and people there have not understood your Majesty’s graciousness. They struggled for food and local officials did not treat them well. Therefore they stole the weapons. That does not mean they intend to rebel.”
The emperor was delighted to hear this. Gong then asked, “Do you want me to suppress or appease them?” “I would like to find a capable official to reconcile with them,” said the emperor.
“I heard that handling people out of order is like organizing messed up ropes—it will work when you do things slowly, and hastiness would lead to the opposite result. I hope that after I get there, the chancellor and other officials will not restrict my work, so that I can handle it based on the local situation.” Xuandi agreed, and gave him gold as well as additional carriages.
When Gong arrived at Bohai County, local officials lined up soldiers to welcome him. Gong dismissed them all. In addition, he issued an order to remove the government positions responsible for arresting robbers. Gong then issued another order that any person carrying farm tools were good citizens, and should not be arrested – only those carrying weapons would be considered robbers.
The cities soon quiet down. Many robbers put down their weapons and picked up farm tools. Thus, Gong ended the robbery crisis without using force.
In addition to opening the official granary to lend grain to people, Gong also appointed some honest officials to pacify the public. Noticing that people in the region preferred trading goods instead of agriculture, Gong set up an example of being thrifty, and promoted farm work. In particular, he asked each person to plant a Chinese elm tree (whose fruits are edible), 100 scallions, and a block of chives. Moreover, each family needed to raise two female pigs and five chickens. He asked people to work the land during spring and summer, and urged them to harvest in the fall.
When seeing some people still carrying knives or swords, Gong advised them to sell the sword for a cow and sell the knife for a calf. Furthermore, he also encouraged people to store nuts, water chestnuts and other agricultural products. Over time, people in Bohai area held savings, and the crime rate dropped dramatically.
Modesty and Generosity
A few years later, Emperor Xuandi asked Gong to return to the capital. Wang Sheng, an official working for him, wanted to come along. But other officials were against that, thinking Wang often drank too much.
Gong did not reject Wang and took him to the capital. After arrival, Wang still drank every day, and did not visit Gong, either. One day the emperor summoned Gong to the palace. While on his way, Gong met Wang, who was drunk. Nonetheless he gave Gong some advice, “If the emperor asks how you handled Bohai, you can say, ‘It is not that I am capable. The success is because of your Majesty’s virtue.’”
As expected, the emperor asked about Bohai and Gong replied as Wang suggested. The emperor was delighted, and asked Gong how he could be so humble.
Gong told the emperor that it was Wang who told him this. The emperor was impressed by Gong’s honesty and generosity in giving credit to his subordinates. Since Gong was very old, the emperor gave him a less strenuous job managing the decoration of the royal garden, the royal temple, and ceremonies. The emperor also appointed Wang as Gong’s deputy.
“Stories of Officials: Gong Sui,” The Book of Han, by Ban Gu.“Stories of the King of Changyi,” The Book of Han, by Ban Gu.