Yang Pu: An Honest, Righteous, and Selfless Government Official
Yang Pu (1372 – 1446 AD), also known as Yang Hongji, was an accomplished scholar from Shishou County (in modern day Hubei Province) in the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD). He advanced to the high positions of Hanlin academic and later on, the prime minister. He was known as a moral, honest, and righteous man who was also very low-key. He was revered as one of the most virtuous prime ministers in Chinese history.
From 1402 to 1405 AD, during Emperor Yongle's reign, Yang Pu worked as an advisor to the crown prince and the chief judge of the civil service examination at the Ministry of Rites. Yang Pu had two younger brothers, Yang Hao and Yang Cheng. When Yang Pu became the chief judge of the civil service examination, his brothers believed that he would open a back door for them. Many candidates for the examination, including sons of the county magistrate and other county officials, approached Yang Pu's two brothers and fawned all over them. Yang Pu's brothers were asked to take a trip to the capital, paid for by the candidates, to understand that year’s exam questions.
When they arrived at Yang Pu's house in the capital city, they asked him to reveal some of the exam questions. Yang Pu was outraged and reproached his brothers for wasting time on cheating. He said, "If you don't have real talent and knowledge, you will bring disaster upon the nation and its people. Besides, revealing exam questions is a crime punishable by the execution of my entire clan. Are you trying to kill yourselves?" Yang Pu's younger brothers were overcome with embarrassment. Next Yang Pu inscribed a banner with the motto "Lofty spirit and character will forever reside." He told them to take it home with them and start cultivating their morality according to the motto.
Later, when the emissary of the crown prince was late in receiving Emperor Yongle, the Prince of Han took the opportunity to speak ill of the crown prince before the Emperor, who then sentenced the crown prince to prison for ten years. As an advisor of the crown prince, Yang Pu was also thrown into prison. Nevertheless, Yang Pu continued to study diligently to prepare himself to serve the people better after he was released.
Yang Pu was released after Emperor Hongxi assumed the throne in 1424 AD, and he was appointed to start a royal academy. After Emperor Xuande succeeded to the throne in 1425 AD, Yang Pu was promoted to be the grand secretary of the highest official rank.
Yang Pu's younger brothers died early under the influence of Yang Pu’s ten-year prison sentence. Their two sons kept trying for the civil service examination, but they still hadn't passed the county level exam by the time they were 30. Finally they went to their uncle, Yang Pu, in the capital city. Yang Pu was in tears because the sight of them reminded him that his two younger brothers had died young, leaving their families destitute. The two begged Yang Pu to find them a low-level position in the government. Yang Pu shook his head and told them that one either passes the civil service examination or gets a special post from the emperor himself. He explained to them that it was illegal to get in through relations and that it was something he would not permit. Yang Pu added that he would not even do it for his own son, Yang Dan. Yang Pu had five sons, but four had already died. Yang Dan was his second and only surviving son.
Disappointed, Yang Pu's two nephews started to weep. They named a few government officials who had opened a back door for their sons. Yang Pu told them patiently, "A man must rectify himself before he points out other people's misconduct. Besides, a man should learn from virtuous men. A man must think that only the best should qualify as a government official, otherwise such a man will harm the nation, damage his reputation, and lose his morality. He will also damage his family reputation and create karma for his family. You should stop thinking this way." He then wrote a motto on a banner that said "Public authority should never be used for personal profit." Yang Pu gave the banner and 1,000 taels of silver from his own salary to his nephews and told them to look after their mothers and make a living as farmers instead.
One day his only son, Yang Dan, visited him. Yang Pu asked him, "On your trip to the capital city, did you hear of any government official that was particularly virtuous and honest?" His son became flustered and said, "I was just about to complain about the magistrate in Jiangling County named Fan Li. I am the son of the important prime minister. All the magistrates I met during the trip were extremely polite to me except him. He was the only one who did not pay attention to me." After hearing his son's story, Yang Pu started to wonder if the magistrate of Jiangling County might be an honest official who did not spend the budget trying to impress important people. Yang Pu reproached his son and told him, "Fan Li treated you just like the son of a commoner. This is exactly what's great about his character. How could you speak ill of him? In my opinion, your thoughts were not righteous. You must never think of yourself as anyone important just because you are the son of the prime minister."
Yang Pu kept Fan Li's name in mind. He discovered that Fan was a very honest official and was widely respected by the residents of Jiangling County. Yang Pu promoted Fan Li twice to become a prefecture-level official.
One day the Dowager of Emperor Yongle remembered that Yang Pu had been sentenced to prison because of the crown prince and then lost four sons, so she gave Yang Dan a low-level position in the government. Yang Dan was overcome with zealotry and vanity. He often showed off his position by parading the streets with sons of government officials. The people on the streets had to give way to him and bow to him. When Yang Pu learned of his son's behavior, he reproached him severely and made a few rules for him to follow as a government official. Yang Pu told his son to never bully his people and to treat his people as well as he would treat his own parents. He wrote his son a motto on a banner, which said, "A good government official must work as diligently as a cow and must be willing to provide service to even a small child." Yang Pu ordered his son to hang the banner on his bedroom wall as a constant reminder. After that, Yang Dan became diligent at work and governed his speech and actions, which won him much praise from his people and from his supervisor.
When Emperor Zhengtong succeeded, he was still a young child. There were many political conflicts in the royal government, and eunuchs had the power. The royal court was divided into different factions. As the prime minister, Yang Pu decided to streamline the government to pacify the overall power struggle. He set an example by firing his own son, Yang Dan, and sending him home to work as a farmer instead. He told his son that this was a decision based on the interest of the nation. He wrote his son a motto on a banner, which said, "A good citizen will remember the family values and teachings."
In the sixth year of Emperor Zhengtong's reign, Yang Pu returned to his old home to sweep his ancestors' tombs. When he entered his house, he saw the four banners he had written hanging on the living room wall. Yang Pu worked in the government for fifty years. Despite his position of power in the government, Yang Pu conducted himself based on strict morals. He was a model to his fellow government officials and to his son and relatives.