Ancient Ways of Behavior: Ji An, the Minister Who Dared to Speak Frankly to The Emperor

Hong Ming

PureInsight | July 21, 2003

[] Ji An was the minister of Emperor Wudi in the Han Dynasty. He was a very honest person and dared to speak frankly to the emperor.

Once there was a fire in Henei and thousands of homes burned down. The emperor sent Ji An to inspect the damage. While traveling across Henan province, he found that over ten thousand families were starving to death due to the drought, and even father and son were eating each other. He used the name of the emperor and ordered the local officials to open government grain warehouses to feed people. After returning, he asked for the emperor's forgiveness for forging the order. The emperor saw his loyalty and rewarded him.

Ji An thought that, as a minister, one should be loyal to his own responsibilities and should not avoid pointing out wrongdoing by the royal government to protect personal standing. One time, the emperor convened many Confucian scholars and said he would do this and that. Ji An said immediately, "Your majesty, the desire in your heart is very strong even though on the surface you try to look benevolent and humane. How can your achieve the benevolent government that Yao and Shun gave during their times with what you hold in your heart?" The Emperor became enraged, called the meeting off, and left immediately. The Emperor then said to the people who were next to him, "Ji An is so obstinate." Other ministers were so worried about Ji An and criticized him. Ji An said, "The purpose of His Majesty establishing ministry positions is to have us help him govern the country, definitely not to flatter him so that he is unable to govern the country well and gains infamy. We are in these positions, so if we only treasure ourselves, won't we hurt the country?" After he calmed down, Emperor Wudi didn't punish Ji An. He once said, "In ancient times there were officials that are very honest and loyal. Ji An is like them."

We can also learn from historical records that Ji An handled matters impartially. Whoever it was, even the Empress Dowager's family members, he also dared to offend them. Once the Empress Dowager's brother had a dispute with Marquis Weiqi. The Emperor discussed this with the ministers. Another minister Zheng agreed with Marquis Weiqi at the time but feared the Empress Dowager, so he dared not to insist on his position. However, Ji An spoke up and insisted that Marquis Weiqi was right.

Empress Wei's brother, Qing Wei was a general, and he was a personal favorite of the emperor. All ministers except Ji An piled flattery on him. Even though Ji An refused to flatter him, the general still respected Ji An very much, and always politely asked him for advice. The emperor also admired Ji An. When the emperor met the general or other important ministers, he always wore more casual clothes. However, whenever Ji An was reporting, the Emperor always dressed formally. Once when Ji An wanted to make a report and the Emperor didn't have enough time to change clothes, he hid himself behind a curtain while Ji An conveyed his message.

Emperor Wudi could also very cruel. He sometimes would execute a minister he had once liked simply due to a minor mistake. Ji An angrily said, "Your Majesty, you laboriously seek virtuous and talented ministers, but after you've found them you kill them before they display their talents. These virtuous talents are limited; if you kill without limit like this, whom can you depend on to govern the country if all those who are virtuous are killed?" The Emperor smiled and said, "We can find virtuous talents at any time, the only concern is how to find them. If we can't find them, we won't worry about virtuous talents. The so-called virtuous talent is just like a useful tool. If they have the talent but are not willing to contribute, there's no difference from those without talent, and they are useless even if I don't kill them." Ji An said, "Although I could not win Your Majesty over by way of language, I know in my heart it is not like what you said. I hope your majesty can correct this and not ignore the principle I've expressed although I am clumsy with language."

King Huainan said during planning for a rebellion, "Among the ministers in Han Dynasty, only Ji An can admonish the emperor frankly. He fears no death for the sake of justice. So he can clearly distinguish right and wrong and is not easily swayed. However, people like Prime Minister Hong Sun are not even worth mentioning."

The most important reason that Ji An was not easily swayed was perhaps because he could let go of his personal gain in the face of right and wrong. The prosperity of a dynasty or a country depends on honest ministers like him.

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