King Zhao of Yan Seeks Talent-燕昭王求贤

During the Western Zhou to the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, Yan was a vassal state in northern China. King Kuai of Yan was its thirty-eighth monarch. In the third year of his reign, he made a shocking decision, which was to relinquish the position of the Yan monarch to Zizhi, the Chancellor. He also took back the official seals of important officials and entrusted them to Zizhi, allowing him to make appointments as he pleased. This gave Zizhi control over the military and political affairs of Yan, but Crown Prince Ping and the old nobility were greatly discontented.

In 314 BCE, the general and Crown Prince Ping of Yan revolted against Zizhi, plunging the state into chaos. Seizing the opportunity, the state of Qi invaded Yan under the pretext of quelling the rebellion, killing King Kuai and Zizhi. Yan faced the danger of being annihilated. However, Qi’s actions not only sparked resistance among the people of Yan but also attracted joint opposition from various vassal states in the Central Plains. Faced with this situation, Qi withdrew its troops from Yan. Crown Prince Ping ascended the throne, becoming the renowned King Zhao of Yan.

After restoring order, Yan, weakened by internal strife and Qi’s attacks, presented a scene of devastation: the land lay fallow, and the people suffered in poverty and hardship. King Zhao ascended the throne at the nadir of Yan’s fortunes, determined to revitalize the state and avenge Qi’s betrayal and regicide. He understood that to strengthen Yan, talent was paramount. But how could he attract talent to his side like rivers flowing into the sea? He pondered this question day and night.

Eventually, someone suggested to King Zhao to seek advice from Guo Kui, a wise old minister. King Zhao personally visited Guo Kui’s home and earnestly sought his counsel, saying, “The state of Yan is weakened, and I know that without the help of many talented individuals, we cannot revitalize Yan and redress the shame of our former monarchs. Please advise me on what to do.”

Guo Kui replied, “Treating the talented as teachers can accomplish imperial ambitions; befriending the talented can achieve the grand path of kingship. If you can employ the talented as your ministers, you can dominate the vassal states. But if you treat the talented as servants, it is a sign of impending doom for the state. As a monarch, if you can treat the talented with respect, regard yourself as their disciple, and willingly humble yourself to learn from them, those with talent will surely flock to you.”

King Zhao asked, “How should I begin?” Guo Kui pondered for a moment and then said, “Allow me to tell you a story. In ancient times, there was a monarch who loved fine horses dearly and spared no expense in acquiring them. However, after three years of searching, he still could not find a thousand-mile horse. One day, a courtier heard of a true thousand-mile horse in a distant land. He volunteered to go and purchase it with a thousand pieces of gold. The monarch agreed eagerly. The courtier traveled for three months and, upon reaching his destination, discovered that the horse had already died. But since he had come all this way, he could not return empty-handed. So, he bought the horse’s head for five hundred pieces of gold and brought it back to report. When the monarch saw the horse’s head, he was furious and scolded him, saying, ‘I wanted a living horse, but you bring me the head of a dead one, and you even wasted five hundred pieces of gold!’ The courtier calmly replied, ‘Everyone in the world knows that if you are willing to pay five hundred gold pieces for the head of a dead horse, wouldn’t they eagerly bring you good horses?’ The monarch was speechless, half-believing and half-doubting. But within a year, three thousand-mile horses were brought to him.”

After telling the story, Guo Kui paused for a moment and then continued, “Your Majesty wants to attract talent. You can treat me as the head of the dead horse. When people see that even I, an ordinary person, am respected, won’t they rush to offer their talents to you?”

King Zhao was deeply inspired. Upon returning, he immediately ordered the construction of a house for Guo Kui and held a grand ceremony to welcome him. He also appointed Guo Kui as his teacher and sought his advice with great respect. King Zhao also built a high platform, upon which he placed thousands of pieces of gold, to reward the talented individuals who came to join him, thus attracting talents from all over.

Word spread, and talented individuals from all over rushed to Yan, believing in King Zhao’s sincerity in seeking talents. Among them, the most outstanding and contributive figure to Yan was Le Yi. Le Yi was a descendant of the renowned general Le Yang, well-versed in the art of war, and possessed extensive knowledge. Having served in the state of Zhao and later fled to the state of Wei to escape internal strife, he heard of King Zhao’s recruitment of talents and decided to offer his services to Yan. Coincidentally, Le Yi was chosen to represent Wei on an envoy mission to Yan and received a respectful reception from King Zhao. Touched by this, Le Yi decided to stay and serve Yan. King Zhao appointed him as a high-ranking officer, granting him control over military and political affairs.

Le Yi reformed internal governance, reorganized the military, and assisted King Zhao in governing Yan with all his might. At the same time, King Zhao mourned the deceased, comforted the living, and sent congratulations to expectant couples, sharing the joys and sorrows with the people. The people of Yan united in their determination to seek revenge against Qi. Under King Zhao’s leadership and with the assistance of Le Yi and others, Yan struggled for twenty-eight years. Eventually, Yan gradually became prosperous and accumulated considerable strength. The spirit of hard work and determination was fostered among the people. Yan’s national strength grew day by day, while Qi, beset by internal troubles and external threats, became weaker. King Zhao believed that Yan was now ready to attack Qi, and thus decided to mobilize his forces.

In 284 BCE, King Zhao appointed Le Yi as the chief general and led a coalition army with the states of Qin, Chu, Han, Zhao, and Wei to attack Qi. King Min of Qi mustered all his forces to hastily confront the invaders, but due to years of war and low morale among his troops, he was unable to resist the powerful coalition. Qi suffered a crushing defeat, and King Min fled in disgrace. The Yan army pursued the retreating forces, defeated them repeatedly, captured over seventy cities of Qi, seized Linzi, the capital of Qi, and burned down the palaces and temples of Qi. Only the cities of Ju and Jimo remained in Qi’s hands. Victorious, King Zhao personally visited the battlefield to reward the soldiers and appointed Le Yi as the Marquis of Changguo.

Having defeated Qi, King Zhao then sent Yan general Qin Kai to attack the Donghu in the northeast, forcing them to retreat over a thousand miles and expanding Yan’s territory to the northeast to Liaodong. Meanwhile, Yan also advanced southward, occupying many territories of the Zhongshan state. Under King Zhao