A Chinese Idiom: Would Rather Die in Justice Than Live in Disgrace

Yi Dou

PureInsight | July 19, 2004

[PureInsight.org] [Note: Eastern Wei Dynasty and Northern Qi Dynasty were northern dynasties during the period of Northern and Southern Dynasties in China from 420 – 589 A.D., an age of civil wars and disunity. ]

In 550 A.D., General Gao Yang of the Eastern Wei Dynasty forced his emperor, Emperor Xiaojin, to resign. Gao Yang then appointed himself king and established the Northern Qi Dynasty. In the following year, he poisoned the already overthrown Emperor Xiaojin and his three sons. One year there was a solar eclipse, which terrified Gao Yang. [In ancient China, an emperor is considered as the son of heaven; therefore, the solar eclipse was believed to be an omen of the emperor's fate. ]

Gao Yang feared that it was an omen that he would soon be overthrown, so he asked a court subject that he trusted. "Wang Mang [1] had already seized the power of the Liu family. How was it possible that the Liu Xiu (a loyal descendent of the Liu family) could overthrow Wang Mang and seize the power back?" [Gao Yang asked about Wang Man's opinion, because Wang Mang has committed the same sin that he had – overthrowing his own emperor. ] The subject replied, "It is Wang Mang's own mistake. He didn't wipe out the entire Liu family." In order to prevent any descendent of the Eastern Wei Dynasty from overthrowing his regime, Gao Yang ordered a massacre of more than 700 royal family members with the Eastern Wei Dynasty's royal surname, Yuan, including infants.

As soon as Gao Yang's edict was announced, all the people surnamed Yuan outside the royal family were terrified, worrying that they would become the next batch of victims. They gathered to discuss what to do next. A county magistrate named Yuan Jing'an suggested, "The only way to survive is to beg Gao Yang to permit us to change our surname from Yuan to Gao in order to show our loyalty to him."

Yuan Jing'an's fraternal cousin named Yuan Jinghao objected to his proposal strongly. "How can we abandon our name and submit ourselves to Gao Yang in order to survive! Any man with a backbone would rather be broken jade than intact terracotta! I would rather die before I change my name!"

"Would rather be broken jade than intact terracotta" is a metaphor of "would rather die in justice than live in disgrace."

[1] Wang Mang: After 200 years of its establishment, the Han Dynasty rule by the Liu (a Chinese surname) family was interrupted briefly during AD 9-24 by Wang Mang, a reformer and a member of the landholding families. The economic situation deteriorated at the end of Western Han Dynasty. Wang Mang, believing the Liu family had lost the Mandate of Heaven (a king's rule was based on the blessing of Heaven and that if a king ruled unwisely, Heaven would be displeased and would give the Mandate to someone else) took power, turning the clock back with vigorous monetary and land reforms, which damaged the economy even further. Wang Mang seized the throne from the Liu family and founded Xin (means "new") Dynasty in 9 A.D. but was overthrown fourteen years later. The throne was then returned to Liu family.

Translated from: http://www.zhengjian.org/zj/articles/2004/6/12/27575.html

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