Governor Tends Plague Patients in Ancient China

Xin Gongyi avoids infection and cures a cruel local custom at the same time

Part of a Qing Dynasty painting titled “Activities of the Twelve Months (The Sixth Month),” showing various activities people engage in during the month of June. One of a set of 12 hanging scroll paintings by anonymous Qing Dynasty court artists. (Public Domain)
By Cindy Chan

When Xin Gongyi took up his new post as governor of Minzhou, he was deeply troubled by a cruel local custom. The residents had such a fear of disease that during an outbreak, family members had no qualms about abandoning their stricken loved ones to save their own lives. 

This was during the Sui Dynasty (581618) in ancient China, when filial duty had already been established for hundreds of years as a central tenet of traditional Chinese society. 

Xin Gongyi made his best effort to rectify the situation, setting an example by caring for the infected people himself on the front line. 

Still, it was not until after a major plague in the area that he made a breakthrough. Not only did he remain unharmed, but his compassion and generosity throughout the epidemic genuinely moved the residents such that they changed their ways. 

A famous doctor later cited Governor Xin as an example for government officials everywhere to follow.

A Talented, Caring Official

Xin Gongyi was a diligent student from a young age, having been taught history and the classics personally by his widowed mother. 

He came from a family of status; both his grandfather and father had held respected positions as governors in different provinces. Xin Gongyi himself was much admired for his knowledge and opinions. His discussions with other Confucian scholars while at college especially earned him esteem.

Xin Gongyi was also honest and upright and had a strong sense of responsibility. He served as a talented government official during the Sui Dynasty and held high-level positions in different parts of China before being appointed governor of Minzhou. 

Minzhou is located in what is now Gansu Province in northwestern China. Its custom of forsaking disease-stricken relatives began in the dynastic period preceding the Sui Dynasty.

When Xin Gongyi arrived in Minzhou, he was distressed to learn about this custom, where conscience and feelings of affection and loyalty seemed to vanish, and principles of human relationships and filial piety gave way to people’s desire for self-preservation. Many disease-stricken people died due to lack of care. 

Xin Gongyi decided to send subordinates to inspect the various districts of Minzhou and identify cases of ill people being abandoned. He ordered that they be transported to his own office, where he had a space arranged for them to stay and be cared for. 

‘Life and Death Are Arranged by Fate’

When summer arrived, an epidemic broke out, and several hundred people were infected. Xin Gongyi accommodated them by filling up the main hall and corridors of his office with sickbeds. He set up a couch there for himself, which he also used as his own bed, and handled official affairs from there, among his plague-stricken guests. 

Xin Gongyi used his own salary to buy medicine and hire doctors to treat the patients, and he also helped to care for the patients himself. 

Gradually, they all recovered, and Xin Gongyi summoned the families to take their relatives home. He also sincerely spoke to them about their custom.

“Life and death are arranged by fate, and having contact with the sick will not necessarily put you in danger,” he said.

“In the past, family members abandoned their ill loved ones, and many died under those circumstances. This time, as you can see, I brought all the afflicted people here with me, and I was with them day and night. Yet I have not succumbed to disease and remain healthy and safe, not to mention that the patients all recovered,” Xin Gongyi told everyone.

“You mustn’t abandon those who are ill anymore. Let go of that custom from the past.”

A Doctor’s Note to All Officials in Government

The family members all felt ashamed upon hearing Xin Gongyi’s words. They thanked him and took his words to heart. Following the plague, the residents of Minzhou abolished their custom and began to take care of each other with faithful kindness and filial devotion.

Xin Gongyi’s story is summarized in the medical text “Songfeng Shuoyi,” or “Songfeng on Epidemic Diseases,” written by Liu Kui, a famous Qing Dynasty doctor who used Songfeng as an alias.

Liu Kui also paid tribute to Xin Gongyi in his book, stating: “The reason Xin Gongyi was not infected in the epidemic was that he was an upright, honorable, charitable, and benevolent official. It was his karmic reward.”

“All government officials in the world need to be aware of this example,” Liu Kui said.

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