Bao Tong: Criticizing the Emperor is a Social Responsibility

A commentary by Bao Tong
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bao-liu-07142017.jpg Former top government aide Bao Tong is shown in a file photo.

There is an article in People’s Daily Online titled, “Deepen Your Knowledge in Sinology with Chairman Xi’s Speeches,” in which the anonymous author talked about the “Fifteen Anecdotes that Chairman Xi Jinping Shared with the World.” I read the first entry and found a few bones to pick.

This entry was from Xi Jinping’s speech delivered at the Parliament of Pakistan, which said “Strong wind reveals the strength of grass, and genuine gold stands the test of fire." The author states that this expression is a variation derived from Tang Emperor Li Shimin’s poem, “To Xiaoyu.” The verses were “Jífēng zhī jìng cǎo, bǎn dàng shì chéng chén.” The author explains that this means “only the toughest grass can withstand gusty winds, and only in troubled times can the most loyal courtiers be revealed.”

These is nothing wrong with Xi’s speech. My beef was with the People’s Daily article.

First, the two sentences may not have come from Emperor Li’s poem after all, and to use the Tang Dynasty Emperor-Courtier relationship as an analogy for the China-Pakistan relationship is completely inappropriate. Secondly, the interpretation of “only in troubled times can one tell who the most loyal courtiers are” is inaccurate. Thirdly, the author fails to finish what he or she has set out to do as the title claimed, i.e. to help readers deepen their knowledge in Sinology.

The “Ban” and the “Dang” in the verse “bǎn dàng shì chéng chén” are in fact each a poem of a few hundred words in Da Ya (Hymns of the High Court) from the Book of Songs.  Both were written by scholar-bureaucrats of that time; both were circulated freely in the Emperor’s Court, without any holding back. To understand their true meanings, and to understand why Li Shimin lamented about
“bǎn dàng shì chéng chén,” please read the two poems and the rest is self-explanatory.

The poem “Ban” opens with a rather direct message:

“Reversed is now the providence of God;—
The lower people groan beneath their load.”

Translation: “The High Emperor deviates from his duty; the common men live to suffer”. The poet flatly pointed out the fault of the emperor without any reservation.

Similarly, the poem “Dang” is just as sharp and explicit. The first few verses read:

“How great is God, who ruleth men below!

In awful terrors now arrayed,

His dealings seem a recklessness to show,

From which we shuddering shrink, dismayed.

But men at first from Heaven their being drew,

With nature liable to change.

All hearts in infancy are good and true,

But time and things those hearts derange.”

Translation: “The Emperor in the High Court, you are the king of the people. King, you are a merciless tyrant, you are of such poor quality. Little control do we have, we common people are born to this fate. You have made promises, but they are all empty to our dismay. “

Therefore, it is very clear what the “Ban” and the “Dang” are. There is no need to overinterpret “Ban Dang” as “a time of turmoil.” “Ban Dang” it means “to criticize the Emperor,” be it in good times or in troubled times.

So, Emperor Li’s “bǎn dàng shì chéng chén” is in fact a recognition and appreciation of “honest officials who dare to criticize the Emperor.” It is also a recognition of and appreciation for those “loyal and honest” officials who speak up to their ruler. Li Shimin was not infuriated by the criticism, and he of course did not have those officials beheaded. Quite to the contrary, Li saw such criticism as “positive energy” – if we can use today’s buzz words – that it is not a bad thing at all.

The “Ban” and the “Dang” are two unique poems of their kind in the Book of Songs. They are different from the romantic “Guān Jū”; they are not about the ups and downs of rural lives like “Qī Yuè,” and they are in no way like “Shuò Shǔ,” which cursed the corrupted blood-sucking rulers.  However, these two poems share a trait common to the rest of the poems in the Book of Songs; that is, they are all free expressions of human feelings and emotions! No wonder Confucius said, “In a nutshell, of the three hundred poems in the Book of Songs, there are no depraved thoughts!”  No depraved thoughts mean that they are pure and just. I believe this is an acknowledgement of simplicity and honesty.

Li Shimin was a smart man. He did not rise to his throne by pure luck or myth. He was fully aware of the cumbersome formality of the Imperial court and of the calculations and agendas of his ministers.  He knew that those always submissive to his orders were the most useless. Doing nothing but praising the Emperor is just deception, causing the Emperor to live in a state of euphoria or in his own pipedream. This could bring great dangers to the country and unfathomable sufferings to the people.

Li Shimin understood that those officials who only said things to please his ears were either trying to be on his good side or having other hidden agendas. He knew that the hard-working officials who contributed to his country, who were trusted by the people, were not those trying to please him. Instead, the good officials were honest and down to earth. They were just, and they drew a clear line between right and wrong.

Whether the emperor liked it or not was not their utmost concern. They did not make policies based on the Emperor’s preferences. They would not twist the facts to appease their lord. They would not report a lost battle as a victory just because their Emperor did not like to hear bad news. The Tang Emperor knew very well that he did not need the petty officials; rather, what he needed were honest courtiers who were loyal to his court -- even if they dared to criticize him, even if they scolded him with their words, written or spoken!

Li Shimin’s view was advanced and beyond his times. “To Xiao Yu“ is a short poem with only four verses.


Only the toughest grass can withstand gusty winds;

Only frank words can reveal true loyal courtiers.

The brave shall seek justice, and

the wise must embrace kindness.


The first verse is common knowledge. The third and the fourth verses were ideas from Confucius 101. There is nothing new here. What really stands out is the “only frank words can reveal true loyal courtiers” – that having the guts to scold the Emperor is a unique characteristic of loyal courtiers! This is Li Shimin’s reflection, and it is the theme of this poem. Without this verse, the point of this poem is moot, and it would have become just another ordinary stack of verses.

“Genuine gold stands the test of fire” comes from the love for gold, but “only frank words can reveal true loyal courtiers” comes from the appreciation of loyal ones. Li Shimin valued loyal and honest courtiers more than he did gold. His quest of how to “spot the loyal courtiers” had finally come to the conclusion that “Only frank words can reveal true loyal courtiers.”

In his time, an Emperor was the highest ruler of all. One was never to disobey the Emperor. To offend the Emperor was suicidal. Common bureaucrats were fearful and submissive. No one would dare to upset the Emperor. No one would have risked his own life were it not for his responsibilities for the people and for society. Therefore, throughout the centuries and the dynasties, honest officials like these are always a rare find. Of course, Li Shimin deserves some of the credit for this, for he, an emperor who ruled more than 1,500 years ago, had already realized that “only frank words can reveal true loyal courtiers”.

We should further ask, then, why “only frank words can reveal true loyal ‘courtiers’” but not the loyal “people?” It was because Li was the Emperor. In his throne, Li viewed no one as his equal, but all as courtiers under his rule. This was his perspective as an Emperor. He was the Emperor Taizong of Tang, after all. Who could have asked him not to think as an Emperor? Who could have asked the Emperor of Tang to take in others’ perspectives?

Translated and edited by Min Eu.

Bao Tong, former political aide to the late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, is under continual surveillance and frequent house arrest at his home in Beijing.


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