Stories from Ancient China: Honest Words for the King; Open-Hearted and Selfless

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Yan Ying was an official of the Qi State during the Spring and Autumn Period (722 - 481 BC). In the third year of King Zhuang's reign, Luan Ying, a scholar from the Jin State, escaped to Qi. King Zhuang hosted a feast for Luan Ying and told his officials, "Luan Ying is very talented. I'm treating him well so that he will want to help me expand my state."

Yan Ying had already met Luan Ying by then. He told King Zhuang, "Luan Ying is cunning and dishonest. I noticed it when he first talked with me. Just now, I saw that he was full of flattery to you and had no words of sincerity. He is acting this way because he has some ulterior motives. As King, you should be on your guard."

The King did not listen and trusted Luan Ying just as before. At the same time, Luan Ying also paid bribes to many officials and made them say good things about him. Yan Ying repeatedly told the King to watch out for Luan Ying. Eventually, the King became very impatient and blurted out, "You don't know what's good and what's bad! Has Luan Ying offended you in the past? You tell me everyday how terrible he is. I think you fall into the category of terrible people!"

Yan Ying was not shaken. He said, "My King likes to hear sweet words, so Luan Ying caters to your desire. If you call such a person loyal, who wouldn't be loyal, then? I have nothing to hide in my heart, but I cannot stand sycophancy. Only wicked people care so little about their honour."

A year later, it was discovered that Luan Ying was a spy of the Jin State. King Zhuang did not reflect back on what he did. Instead, he still blamed Yan Ying for being impolite and wanted to charge him for offending the ruler.

Three years later, King Zhuang was killed by Cui Zhu, who was an official in the king's court and sought to become the ruler. No one else dared to mourn King Zhuang's death, yet Yan Ying leaned onto the king's body and cried passionately, with no concern for his personal safety. Cui Zhu said, "The king did not take you seriously. Why are you mourning his death?"

Yan Ying said solemnly, "A loyal official does not flatter; a wicked official does not speak the truth. Having served under him, I should of course be loyal. How could I only point out his mistakes yet forget the greater loyalty?"

Cui Zhu's assistants wanted to kill Yan Ying. Cui also detested Yan Ying, but he changed his mind and told those that followed him, "If he is not afraid, what good does killing him do? He is well respected by the public. If we spare his life, it will be good for our public image."

In order to consolidate his power, Cui Zhu confined all the officials to Taigong Temple and surrounded the temple with over 1,000 troops. Every official was required swear their loyalty to him. Anyone who did not would be killed immediately. Cui had already killed seven people, and the situation was extremely tense.

It was Yan Ying's turn. Everyone held their breath to watch what he would do. Yan Ying raised his wine glass with poise, and sighed to the sky with both anger and sorrow, "How despicable! Cui Zhu killed the king without reason. All those who assist the bad in doing evil will not end well." He then drank the whole glass. Cui Zhu was both ashamed and angry. He pushed his sword against Yan Ying's chest and asked him to swear his allegiance. Yan Ying was not afraid at all and said solemnly, "I will never bow to you!" As Cui Zhu was about to kill Yan Ying, an assistant of Cui's said, "You must not kill him! You killed the king because he was not ruling the country well. That's why the people of the country did not revolt against you. If you killed Yan Ying, there will be a lot of trouble." Cui Zhu could do nothing but let Yan Ying leave.

After King Jing became the ruler of Qi, Yan Ying became concerned that the king blindly trusted Liang Qiuju, who was a sycophant. Once, Liang was again singing unfounded praises for the king. The king was so pleased by the flattery that he said that Liang was the most in sync with him. Yan Ying came up to the king and said, "I see it differently. Liang was only flattering you. These are purely words of sycophancy. He may agree with you on some things, but he is not really in sync with you."

The king was embarrassed, and said, "What's the difference anyway?"

Yan Ying said plainly, "Of course there is a difference! Being in sync is like cooking a broth. You need water, fire, vinegar, sauce, salt, plum, and other condiments. You have to mix them well, then boil them. If it's too bland, you add some condiments. If it's too strong, you add more water. This is how you make a good broth. The same is true for the relationship between the king and the officials. When the king is right, the officials should protect him. When the king is wrong, the officials should point it out in order to correct the mistake. Only then can a country be stable and its political affairs be handled properly."

The king fell silent. Yan Ying then said, "Liang Qiuju only wants to please the king. Regardless of the matter, he only follows what the king says. This is 'agreement,' but not in sync. How can this benefit the king or the nation? Unfounded flattery only fosters self-importance for the king. Listening to his words are like adding water to water: there is no taste. If a musical instrument has only one pitch, nobody would want to listen to it."

The king thought about Yan Ying's words for a while and recognised that Yan Ying was right. He told other officials, "I have long heard that Yan Ying was extremely courageous and loyal. Today I finally had the chance to see it myself. He was not afraid to anger me and dared to say what other people didn't dare say. He is one with true loyalty!"

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