Yi Yin the Wise Counselor


Yi Yin is one of those types that recur frequently in Chinese folklore-the wise counselor who gives his monarch honest advice and has the interests of the people at heart. That such figures are made popular culture heroes undoubtedly reflects the fact that most imperial officials over the centuries displayed anything but these virtues.

Legend gives Yi much of the credit for the establishment of the Shang dynasty (16th-11th centuries B. C. ). In his youth, it is said, he became outraged by the misrule and foul practices of the tyrant Jie of Xia. His solution was to help overthrow Jie and to make his own monarch, Prince Tang of Shang, ruler of all China.

Tradition of describe Yi as personally unprepossessing-short, swarthy and bearded, his pudgy frame distorted by a hump on his back- and totally uninterested in the clothes he wore. His wit and sagacity, however, seem to have outweighed his looks. One account says that he brought himself to the attention of Tang by first disguising himself as a salve in the household of a noble whose daughter was about to marry Tang. Yi was sent along to court as part of the dowry. He gradually won Tangís respect and was raised to the position of court minister.

In another version, Yi was a peasant who has wise things to say on matters of state. Tang heard of him and wanted to make him a advisor. Five times he went to Yi before the latter would consent. Tangís charioteer, a fellow named Peng, was said to be highly incensed: " What airs this peasant puts on ! If you want him, just summon him. Why should you go to him time after time?" Whereupon Tang replied "You donít understand. In going to Yi Iím like a sick man seeking the assistance of a good doctor. And not for myself, but to save the people of the country."

This is all very much in the mode of tales surrounding changes in dynasty. Founders of new dynasties -in this case Yi and Tang -are invariably endowed with every upright virtue, while the last representatives of falling dynasties, such as Jie, are represented as evil tyrants. Tang is said to have asked Yi what he should do to strengthen his rule. Yiís reply:" Cultivate you moral character and resolve to work for the benefit of the people. Enlist in your service men of virtue and ability. Rule your domain with humanity and justice."

Yi rendered Tang great service in his campaign to conquer Xia. Once Tang, impatient to launch an attack, was persuaded by Yi to hold off while the sounded out Xiaís strength. On Yiís advice Tang deliberately withheld tribute payments to Jie of Xia. Jie Promptly flew into a rage and summoned the armies of his vassal dukes and princes. When reports indicated that the troops were duly assembling for punitive expedition against Tang, Yi told his master: "We canít attack now, while Jie is still powerful. Better wait."

The next year Tang again procrastinated over the tribute. And Jie once more called up his vassals. But this time many were reluctant to obey. " Now is the time, "said Yi. " Jieís command are no longer effective."

The Shang armies gained a series of victories, first conquering a number of Jieís vassal states and then bearing down on the Xia capital. They were only five li from its forces when Yi suddenly called a halt. The bewildered Tang asked why. His advisor calmly replied that armyís morale needed bolstering. " but my army has won every battle it has fought !" protested Tang. " True," replied Yi, " but up to now we have fought smaller states. This time we are dealing with the monarch of a big state, and this battle will decide the fate of a dynasty. We cannot afford to be careless.

So Yi assembled the army and Tang addressed them. He dwelt on the iniquities of Jie and declared that his own rebellion against the tyrant accorded with the will of Heaven and the people. This speech, known to history as " Tangís pledge, " bolstered the spirits of the troops. In the ensuing battle Jie the tyrant was finally defeat.

Tang went on to found the Shang dynasty and appointed Yi his prime minister. After Tangís death Yi continued to advise his sons and successor, Wai Bing and Zhong Ren. Upon the death of the latter, Tangís grandson Tai Jia ascended the throne, and the aging Yi came to serve his fourth monarch.

One of his first " service" was to send the young Tai Jia into exile. Yi at this time held the high position of Ah Heng, or guardian and instructor of the monarch. He was a strict teacher, but Tai Jia was engrossed in his own his own amusements and showed little concern for affairs of state. Things went from bad to worse, until Yi declared himself regent and sent Tai Jia to a place called Tongguan ( southwest of todayís Yanshi county seat in Henan province ). Tangís tomb was situated there, and Yi considered it an appropriate spot for the boy to reflect on his wayward behavior.

Yiís motives were of course misunderstood. Court officials whispered among themselves that Yi intended to usurp the throne. Yi disregarded their suspicions in the firm conviction that he was acting in the public interest.

Back at Tongguan, Tai Jia was overcome with shame at his past behavior and decided to turn over a new leaf. After three years Yi was satisfied that the young king had really mended his ways, so on a propitious day he himself went to Tongguan with the royal crown and robes. Tai Jia was returned to the thrown and became an able and enlightened ruler. So pleased was Yi with his monarchís reformation that he wrote an article entitled " The Exemplary Conduct of Tai Jia." The story of the incident is known as " Yi Yin Exiles Tai Jia."

Yi Yin lived to a venerable old age. Tai Jia himself having died, his son Wo Ding buried the old prime minister with the rites usually reserved for an emperor.



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