Feng Xuan Buys ‘Righteousness’ for Lord Mengchang-冯谖为孟尝君买“义”


In the Warring States period, the Seven Warring States coexisted, and wars were frequently waged between them. The turbulent situation provided opportunities for eloquent and talented individuals with political acumen to play an active role. They lobbied among the various states, advocating their political proposals and governing strategies, and thus the “scholar” class emerged on the political stage. The various feudal states deeply understood the importance of talent to the rise and fall of a country. Therefore, they all paid tribute to the talented individuals, recruited talents widely, and fostered a culture of nurturing scholars. Among them, the most famous were the Four Princes of the Warring States, among whom Lord Mengchang of Qi was one.

Originally named Tian Wen, Lord Mengchang was the son of Tian Ying, the prime minister of Qi, who was also the younger brother of King Xuan of Qi. Tian Ying had many sons, and Mengchang was born out of wedlock, without much status. However, he showed outstanding talent from a young age and quickly stood out among Tian Ying’s many sons. As he grew up, he gradually took charge of family affairs and became famous for his hospitality to scholars and his generosity in charity, attracting over three thousand followers.

At that time, there was a man named Feng Xuan in Qi who was impoverished and unable to sustain himself. So he asked someone to plead with Lord Mengchang to allow him to become one of his followers. Lord Mengchang asked, “What special skills does Feng Xuan have?” The reply was, “He doesn’t have any special skills.” Lord Mengchang then asked, “What talents does he possess?” The answer was, “He doesn’t have any particular talent.” Finally, Lord Mengchang smiled and accepted Feng Xuan.

Lord Mengchang’s followers were divided into three categories based on their abilities: the top-tier followers had fish in their meals and were provided with a carriage when going out; the middle-tier followers had fish in their meals but were not provided with a carriage; the lower-tier followers had coarse meals and were left to fend for themselves when going out.

The servants, seeing that Lord Mengchang did not value Feng Xuan, assigned him the treatment of a lower-tier follower. After eating rough meals for a few days, Feng Xuan became dissatisfied with his treatment. Leaning against a pillar, he struck his sword and sang, “Long sword, let’s go back; we can’t even eat fish here!” This incident was reported to Lord Mengchang. Lord Mengchang ordered, “Treat him as a middle-tier follower and provide him with fish.” Not long after, Feng Xuan, leaning against a pillar again, struck his sword and sang, “Long sword, we can’t even ride a carriage when going out!” People laughed at him, and the news was reported to Lord Mengchang. Lord Mengchang said, “Treat him as a top-tier follower and provide him with a carriage.” Feng Xuan, riding in the carriage and carrying his precious sword, went to visit his friends, proudly saying, “Lord Mengchang values me highly.” Not long after, Feng Xuan became dissatisfied again and struck his sword, saying, “Long sword, let’s go back; staying here cannot support my family.” People thought he was too greedy, and Lord Mengchang heard about it. He asked if Feng Xuan had anyone in his family. Someone told him that Feng Xuan still had an elderly mother. So Lord Mengchang sent someone to bring gifts to Feng Xuan’s mother, ensuring she lived comfortably. Feng Xuan was deeply moved and never complained again.

At this time, Lord Mengchang was the prime minister of Qi, enjoying a salary of ten thousand households in Xuedi. However, he had many followers, and he was very generous to them. Soon his salary would not be enough to support these followers. In order to increase his income, he sent people to Xuedi to lend money and collect interest. However, a year later, many of the interest payments had not been collected, and Lord Mengchang was about to be unable to support these followers. So he wanted to select someone among his followers who was good at accounting to go to Xuedi to collect debts. Someone recommended Feng Xuan to Lord Mengchang, saying that Feng Xuan seemed like a persuasive person and had no other skills, so he should be sent to collect interest. Feng Xuan gladly accepted when he heard he was going to collect interest. He prepared the contracts and before departing, asked Lord Mengchang if he should buy anything with the money after collecting the interest. Lord Mengchang said, “Buy whatever is lacking at home.”

Feng Xuan drove to Xuedi, sent officials to summon the debtors, verified the contracts, and paid the interest. After receiving a hundred thousand coins in interest, there was still a lot of interest that hadn’t been collected. Feng Xuan then went through each household that hadn’t paid interest one by one. For those who were capable of paying interest, he set a repayment deadline, and for those who were truly unable to repay, he pretended to act on Lord Mengchang’s orders and burned the debt contracts on the spot, saying they no longer needed to repay. The people were extremely grateful and cheered “Long live!”

After completing the task, Feng Xuan hurried back to the Qi capital. When Lord Mengchang heard that Feng Xuan had burned the contracts, he was very angry and asked why he did it. Feng Xuan said, “Before leaving, you said to buy whatever was lacking at home. I saw that the mansion had plenty of gold, silver, treasures, fine horses, luxurious carriages, and beautiful women, but what was lacking was ‘benevolence and righteousness,’ so I used those contracts to buy ‘benevolence and righteousness.’” Lord Mengchang didn’t understand and asked, “What do you mean?”

Feng Xuan explained, “Now all you have is this small piece of Xuedi, where the people are your subjects. You don’t treat them kindly but instead lend them money like a merchant, extracting interest. I think this approach is inappropriate. So I pretended to act on your behalf and burned the contracts, giving the debt to the people as a reward. The people were very grateful and shouted ‘Long live.’ This is the ‘benevolence and righteousness’ I bought for you.” Lord Mengchang was not pleased to hear this, but since it had already happened, he had no choice but to let Feng Xuan rest.

A year later, King Min of Qi, influenced by slanderous words, wanted to remove Lord Mengchang from his position as prime minister. So he said to Lord Mengchang, “You were a minister of the former king, and I dare not use you.” Lord Mengchang had no choice but to return to his fiefdom of Xuedi. When he was still hundreds of miles away from Xuedi, the people of Xuedi, young and old, were already waiting by the road to welcome him. When Lord Mengchang saw this scene, he finally understood the intention behind Feng Xuan’s burning of the contracts. Turning back to Feng Xuan, he said, “Now I see the ‘benevolence and righteousness’ you bought for me.”

Feng Xuan felt that Lord Mengchang’s political position in Qi was not stable enough, which was why he was often blamed. So he said to Lord Meng