Several cadre leaders have been punished for breaking the law, and nearly all of them have said: There isn’t enough internal supervision and no one warned me; if there’d been someone there whispering in my ear, I wouldn’t have committed such grave crimes. The lesser problem is that there is no one there to warn people; the greater problem, which no one seems to be discussing and which breeds even worse mistakes, is the old saying that “a thousand yes-men cannot equal one honest advisor.”
—General Secretary Xi Jinping, in a statement made during the Hebei Provincial Party Standing Committee’s Small-Group Meeting on Democratic Life
“A thousand yes-men cannot equal one honest advisor,” a saying found in “The Biography of Lord Shang” in Sima Qian’s Historical Records, was the Warring States period advisor Zhao Liang’s admonishment to the Qin chief advisor Shang Yang. Zhao Liang was willing to join Shang Yang’s camp, but he had a prerequisite: “A whole day of honest and straightforward speech must not go punished.” That is to say, he could speak his mind honestly all day and not suffer any retaliation. Zhao Liang raised two examples from the previous generation, namely Wu Wang of the Zhou period, who did not lack honest advisors and so in the end succeeded in his great task, and King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty who surrounded himself with men who told him what he wanted to hear, and so in the end lost his kingdom and his life. Shang Yang accepted Zhao Liang’s requirement with pleasure, and indeed went a step further, saying: “Glib talk is merely pretty, straightforward talk is truthful, unpleasant talk is medicinal, sweet talk is sickening.” Among the later generations, those who best understood this wisdom were Li Shimin, who became Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, and the Tang official Wei Zheng.
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A Thousand Yes-Men Cannot Equal One Honest Advisor
A ChinaFile Translation
March 21, 2016