Doing One's Duty Without Claiming Credit
Bing Ji (? – 55 BC), a man from the West Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), was very forgiving and morally respectable. He did a lot of great things in a low-keyed manner and never showed off.
Emperor Xuan of Han (91 – 49 BC) was the emperor of the Chinese Han Dynasty from 74 BC to 49 BC. His life story was a riches-to-rags-to-riches story. Emperor Xuan's birth name was Liu Bingyi. He was born in 91 BC to Liu Jin, the son of then-Crown Prince Liu Ju, and his wife Consort Wang. Emperor Xuan was the great-grandson of Emperor Wu (156 – 87 BC, ruling from 140 – 87 BC).
Late in Emperor Wu's reign, conspirators accused Crown Prince Liu Ju of using witchcraft against his father, Emperor Wu. The prince was forced into a rebellion to defend his own life, which was defeated. Liu Ju committed suicide, and his two uncles died with him. The princes’s entire family, including the prince’s son and daughter-in-law, who were Emperor Xuan's parents, also died in the incident in the capital.
Emperor Xuan (then baby Bingyi) was but a few months old at the time. Bingyi was spared, although he was imprisoned. He was put into the custody of the warden Bing Ji. Bing got involved in the trial of Liu Ju’s case and found that Prince Liu Ju was actually not guilty. Bing Ji advised Emperor Wu several times, telling him that there was not enough evidence to support the accusation, but each time he was reproached by Emperor Wu. He took pity on the child, and specially selected two detailed and honest female prisoners, Hu Zu and Zhao Zhengqing, to serve as his wet nurses and caretakers. Bing visited them each day to see how the child was doing.
A friend of Bing Ji was worried about him for speaking his mind and repeatedly told him to stay clear of the storm. "His Majesty himself ruled on the case. Everyone is trying to draw the line with those who are involved in it. Why do you risk your own safety to seek justice for the prince or look after his grandson Bingyi? Did it ever occur to you that you might be accused of being an accomplice to the prince? Is it wise for you to take the risk?"
Bing Ji replied in an impervious manner, "One has to comport with kindness and morality. The witchcraft case was a conspiracy. Besides, the Emperor’s great-grandson is just a baby. What crime has he committed? I cannot look away and turn a blind eye to it. I cannot live without conscience."
Emperor Wu became ill near the end of his reign. He heard seers claim that an aura of an emperor was appearing from Chang'an (the capital of the Han dynasty) prisons. Emperor Wu ordered that all prisoners, regardless of whether they had been convicted or not and regardless of the severity of the charges, were to be executed. When the eunuch delivering the edict arrived at the prison that Bing Ji oversaw, Bing refused to receive the eunuch, stating that innocent people should not be executed, let alone such a baby. The eunuch said, “This is the Emperor’s edict. How dare you disobey it (a capital offense)? Are you looking to end your life? You’re such a fool!” Bing Ji replied, “I’m not a person without wisdom. My actions are to protect the Emperor’s reputation and the Emperor’s great-grandson’s life, as well as many innocent lives. If I had any selfishness on such an urgent situation, a big mistake would be irreparable.
The eunuch hurried back to the palace to report to Emperor Wu. Hearing Bing Ji’s words, the emperor realized his error and declared a general pardon. The prisoners in Bing Ji’s prison all survived.
Years later, the 17-year-old Bingyi, assumed the throne and became Emperor Xuan. However, Bing Ji never once mentioned what he had done for Emperor Xuan, although his family repeatedly prompted him to do so. "You have saved His Majesty's life and done him great service. If you informed His Majesty in person, you will surely get a big promotion. Anyone else would be proud of taking this credit. Why are you keeping your lips sealed?" Bing Ji replied with a smile, "It is my duty as a subject. It was an honor to have the opportunity to repay the grace of the emperor. I wouldn't be a gentleman if I exchanged it for wealth or power. I am well above such a thought."
Eventually Emperor Xuan heard from others what Bing Ji had done for him. He was so deeply touched that he was sleepless until he made Bing Ji the Marquis of Boyang.
Meanwhile, Bing Ji became very ill, which worried Emperor Xuan. A royal subject named Xia Housheng knew that heaven always rewarded good deeds, so he told the emperor, "I have heard that heaven will reward those who have done many good deeds and even their offspring. Bing Ji has not been rewarded for his great deeds, so it stands to reason that he will recover from his illness. Your Majesty does not need to worry too much." Shortly afterwards, Bing Ji indeed made a full recovery and accepted the title of Marquis of Boyang. He also became the prime minister and was rated one of the most moral prime ministers in Chinese history.
Saving a life brings one infinite virtue. Hence, it is only natural that Emperor Xuan wanted to repay Bing Ji for saving his life. Although the reward seems to have come from the emperor, it actually was bestowed by heaven. Because Bing Ji's act of charity and kindness comported with the heavenly law, heaven rewarded him with honor and good fortune.