The Difference Between "Being Loyal to Your Emperor" and "Loving Your Emperor"

Hong Ming

PureInsight | March 8, 2004

[] Many contemporary Chinese associate the ancient concept of loyalty with those government officials that foolishly or without questioning followed their emperors' orders, even when they knew that those orders compromised their emperors' and their country's interests.

Many modern day Chinese falsely associate the ancient Doctrine of the Mean advocated by Confucius with those so-called wise people who know what's best for themselves, safeguarding their personal security and playing it safe in this insecure world by staying neutral, particularly when facing two polar factions.

When thinking of women's social status in ancient Chinese society, many contemporary Chinese think of those powerless Chinese women in the patriarchic Chinese society. They were denied the means and opportunities to earn their own livings. They were taught by men to believe that when they became widowed, they should stay widowed for the rest of their lives, guarding their chastity out of the respect for their deceased husbands. Even if they were destitute, they were expected to starve themselves to death, rather than marry another man who would provide for them.

I used to be one of these Chinese who misinterpreted much of ancient China's concepts and values, and regarded them as dross. Later, I had the opportunity to read many ancient Chinese classics with a peaceful, unbiased and non-judgmental mindset. Then, I realized that I actually knew nothing of ancient Chinese culture. My prior knowledge of ancient Chinese culture was the twisted version that the Chinese Communist Party had planted in the minds of the Chinese since it took over China in the 1949. I realized that the genuine, ancient Chinese culture was immensely profound. The ancient Chinese culture has been distorted, leading to the disappearance of many precious Chinese traditions. It has caused the vast majority of Chinese to lose their understanding of their culture and behave in ways that are contrary to precious Chinese traditions. As a result, the morals of China's contemporary people have continued to deteriorate to a point where the entire Chinese society is in moral chaos. I hope to clarify some of the true meaning of these ancient Chinese values and provide people an opportunity to understand true, ancient Chinese culture.

During the reign of Emperor Chengdi of the Han Dynasty (51 – 7 B.C), there was a young man named Zhang Fang, whose family had held an official rank for generations. Zhang Fang's mother was a princess, and his own wife was the Empress' younger sister. Emperor Chengdi and Zhang Fang were bosom friends. Emperor Chengdi often indulged himself with Zhang Fang in drinking and partying, often late into the night, and thus neglecting to administer the affairs of state. Zhang Fang enjoyed Emperor Chengdi's company, and vice versa. Emperor Chengdi's mother, Grand Empress Dowager Wang, felt Zhang Fang was responsible for Emperor Chengdi's negligence of duty as emperor. She eventually pressured Emperor Chengdi to banish Zhang Fang from the capital city. According to historic records, years later when Emperor Chengdi died in 7 B.C, Zhang Fang couldn't stop crying after hearing the news and died soon afterwards.

This is usually considered a trivial, historical episode. What started me thinking was the comment that an ancient Chinese historian made about Zhang Fang. The rough translation of the historian's comment was: "Zhang Fang loved his emperor dearly, but he was not loyal to him. Because of his love and disloyalty to the emperor, Zhang Fang was far from [the model of] benevolence and justice."

Based on today's modern concepts, Zhang Fang was completely devoted to Emperor Chengdi, because he was Emperor Chengdi's most beloved friend in all kinds of merry-making. In fact, Zhang Fang was such a dear friend that he died of sorrow over Emperor Chengdi's death. But the ancient Chinese thought that Zhang Fang "loved his emperor" but "was not loyal to him." They thought Zhang Fang was "far from [the model of] benevolence and justice." The historian's comment led us to consider the ancient Chinese perspective regarding the meaning of "loyalty to one's master or emperor." This is apparently a completely different perspective than that of today's Chinese. For the ancient Chinese, the meaning of true loyalty is an honorable moral character, far above [the usual concept of] love.

With that in mind, we should probably revisit those most memorable characters in ancient Chinese history that are known for their undying loyalty. Those loyal subjects presented brave petitions to their emperors for the benefit of the people; fulfilled their duties to their deaths; risked their lives to make honest suggestions to tyrants; bravely stood against those corrupt, high-level officials that had a very negative influence over the unwise emperors or government administrators. We already know that the ancient Chinese thought Zhang Fang "loved his emperor" but "was not loyal to him." Then the next question is: what is true loyalty?

Ji An was an important courtier during the reign of Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty (157 – 87 B.C.). Ji An once enraged Emperor Wudi with his frank suggestions, and many of his colleagues later reproached him, calling him straightforward and blunt. Ji An explained, "The purpose of having courtiers is to help the emperor to rule the country. Are we court jesters who are responsible for pleasing and entertaining the emperor? Is it our job to idly watch the emperor ruin the country? Are we trusted with the important positions of courtiers only to put our interest and security before the interest and security of the country? If so, what will become of this country?"

There was an important discussion related to loyalty in "XV Filial Piety in Relation to Reproof and Remonstrance" from The Book of Filial Piety. One of Confucius' disciples named Zeng asked, "I would venture to ask if unconditional obedience to the orders of one's father can be pronounced filial piety." Confucius replied, "What words are these! What words are these! Historically, if the Son of Heaven (an emperor) had seven ministers who would remonstrate with him, although he did not have the right methods of government, he would not lose his possession of the kingdom. If the prince of a state (or a feudal lord) had five such ministers, though his measures might be equally wrong, he would not lose his state. If a great officer had three, he would not, in a similar case, lose [the headship of] his clan. If an inferior officer had a friend who would remonstrate with him, a good name would not cease to be connected with his character. And the father who had a son that would remonstrate with him would not fall into the pit of unrighteous deeds. Where a case of unrighteous conduct is concerned, it stands to reason that a son must by no means keep from remonstrating with his father, nor a minister from remonstrating with his ruler. Hence, since remonstrance is required in the case of unrighteous conduct, how can unconditional obedience to the orders of a father be accounted as filial piety?"

True loyalty includes helping to prevent one's master or emperor from making the wrong decisions. In other words, a subject is loyal when he is responsible to the country, the people and his emperor. With this in mind, we know that, by partying without restraint with Emperor Chengdi, Zhang Fang had turned Emperor Chengdi into a foolish and selfish ruler. Indeed, Zhang Fang could not be further from being loyal to Emperor Chengdi.

I wonder if there is any "loyal courtier" left in today's China who would risk his life to be truly responsible for China and her people. With the traditional Chinese culture branded in the minds of the ancient Chinese, they were capable of telling right from wrong. Even during the most chaotic periods in Chinese history, because of the strong influence of traditional moral values, the Chinese throughout their history always supported or sympathized with those truly loyal historic characters, even as they were being persecuted by others. The public's support of the loyal subjects was a natural manifestation of core Chinese moral values. However, since the Chinese Communist Party took over China, "If a person is not after self-interest, heaven and earth will kill him" has already become a motto prevalent throughout all of Chinese society! Apparently, with the erosion of traditional Chinese culture and moral values, the true spirit of loyalty is fading.

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