Advise Frankly and Preserve Moral Integrity
Ji An (? - 112 BC), courtesy name Chang Ru, lived in Puyang County during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - 9 AD). For generations, his family has held high ministerial positions. He admired the principles taught by Huang Di and Lao Zi, and he was an upright and straightforward man. As an official, he always put the welfare of his country and people first, didn't worry about his personal safety, and advised the emperor frankly. He became famous for his selfless behavior.
During the rule of Emperor Han Wu Di (141 – 87 BC), a large fire occurred in Henei County. Over one thousand houses were destroyed. The emperor sent Ji An to investigate the cause of the blaze. Ji An discovered that the fire was the least of the people's problems, as there were over 10,000 families suffering because of a severe drought. The people were starving and had eaten the bodies of the deceased to survive. Ji An made the people's needs his priority and took action to ameliorate the situation. By showing a Fu Xin (a document from the emperor), he got the local officials in Henei County to distribute food stored in a government granary to the poor people who were suffering. When he returned to the royal court, Ji An returned the Fu Xin and confessed to the emperor that he had used it in order to help the starving people. Emperor Han Wu Di realized that although Ji had used the document for unintended purposes, he had acted kindly so Ji An was spared punishment.
Once, while selecting Confucian scholars, the emperor kept talking about his plans. Ji An said, "Your Majesty, although you superficially appear to be executing justice and humanity, there are many desires in your heart. How can you compare with the rule of Tang Yu?" (Tang Yu refers to two Confucian sages Tang Yao and Yu Shun. In ancient times, Tang Yu referred to the ideal time when regulations were clear and people were wealthy and happy.) The emperor became very angry and red in the face and immediately dismissed everyone. Many officials were afraid that Ji An had gone too far. Some of them said that Ji An was wrong for speaking out. Ji An said, "The emperor sent for high ranking officials to assist him. How could they flatter and please him, which could allow the emperor to do wrong things? Moreover, I am already a high ranking official, even though I cherish my body, how could I damage the empire just to keep my rank and save my own skin?"
The great general Wei Qing was promoted again and again. His older sister even became the queen. The officials were afraid that they would lose favor if they did not show Wei enough respect. However, Ji An still treated Wei as an equal. Some people told him that he was wrong to be this way. Ji An said, "I let the great general have a guest with whom he can feel equal, isn't this respecting him?" After Wei Qing heard this, he was even more convinced that Ji An was a very virtuous person and he could see that Ji was not a sycophant. He sought advice from Ji An many times when deciding policies and treated him even better.
When Liu An, the Huainan King, rebelled, he was afraid of Ji An. He said, "This person likes to advise frankly and preserve moral integrity. He would sacrifice his life to maintain justice. However, to manipulate Prime Minister Gongsun Hong would be as easy as instructing a child."
Ji An could always point out shortcomings in the empire or crafty officials who were self-serving and not really looking after the country. It seemed nobody could affect his moral integrity. The emperor praised him as an official who could go through the hard times with his country and respected him so much that when Ji An requested an audience, the emperor dared not to meet him unless he was dressed appropriately. The emperor did not show the same manners to other top officials, such as granting an audience with great general Wei Qing in the bathroom, or meeting Prime Minister Gongsun Hong without his imperial hat.
Although Ji An had too much pride, lacked in propriety, liked to criticize others directly, and was intolerant of other people's mistakes, when there were big issues that affected the country and people, he could ignore his own safety and still advise the emperor frankly. In this way he preserved his moral integrity, which was very rare even in ancient times. Because of this, he was famous throughout the capital and the country.