Zou Ji Advises King Qi-邹忌谏齐王

Tian Qi Huan Gong, also known as Cai Huan Gong, was reluctant to seek medical treatment and eventually died from illness. In 356 BC, his son succeeded to the throne, becoming King Wei of Qi. King Wei of Qi was enamored with playing the zither and often indulged in playing it alone in the palace, neglecting state affairs. Seeing this, other vassal states repeatedly launched attacks as Qi suffered defeats. The armies of Han, Zhao, and Wei even reached the borders of Qi, but King Wei remained indifferent. Despite repeated admonitions to prioritize state affairs, King Wei remained obstinate, sometimes even executing the ministers who advised him. Over the years, Qi’s decline worsened.

Zou Ji served as an official in the court during the reign of Tian Qi Huan Gong. Witnessing King Wei neglecting state affairs due to his passion for playing the zither, Zou Ji claimed to be a master of the ancient zither and requested an audience with King Wei to play for him. Hearing the report, King Wei was delighted and immediately summoned Zou Ji.

As Zou Ji entered the inner palace, he heard King Wei playing the zither. After listening to the piece, he praised it profusely, commending the king’s skill. King Wei then asked Zou Ji wherein lay the excellence of his zither playing. Zou Ji replied, “Your Majesty’s finger technique is proficient, the sound of the large strings is solemn like a wise monarch, while the small strings are clear like loyal ministers. Every note is harmonious, flexible, and appropriate, just like the clear decrees of the state. With such melodious harmony, your zither playing is indeed excellent.”

Continuing, Zou Ji said, “Playing the zither is similar to governing a country; it requires concentration. The seven strings of the zither represent the relationship between ruler and subjects, with the king controlling the overall situation like the large strings, and the ministers assisting like the small strings. Playing the appropriate strings, akin to enacting appropriate policies, ensures harmony in both zither music and governance, enabling the country to prosper and the people to live in peace.”

King Wei praised, “You speak the truth. Since you are well-versed in music theory, you must also play the zither well. Please, play a piece for us.”

However, Zou Ji only adjusted the strings without playing. King Wei became impatient, urging him to play. After a while, when the strings were tuned, Zou Ji, without touching the zither, assumed a posture as if to play. King Wei grew furious, accusing him of deceiving the king. Zou Ji replied, “I am a zither master, specializing in zither playing for a living. Naturally, I study music theory and playing techniques. But Your Majesty is the king, neglecting state affairs, akin to my not playing the zither.”

King Wei suddenly realized his error and said, “You are right. I understand now!” Thus, King Wei appointed Zou Ji as the Prime Minister, ennobling him as the Marquis of Cheng and sought his counsel on governing the state.

As Prime Minister, Zou Ji was visited by Chunyu Kun, who advised him, “Unrestrained ministers are unfit for heavy responsibilities; untuned zithers cannot produce music.” Meaning, political governance, like a large vehicle or a tuned zither, requires laws, systems, and the concerted efforts of officials. Zou Ji accepted his advice, promulgating laws, supervising officials, punishing corrupt officials, and rectifying political misconduct, thereby upholding righteousness and ensuring good governance.

Zou Ji possessed both dignity and talent, assisting King Wei in governing the state effectively. Moreover, he was over eight feet tall and exceptionally handsome.

One morning, after dressing himself, Zou Ji looked at himself in the mirror and asked his wife, “Who is more beautiful, me or Xu Gong from the northern city?” His wife replied, “You are exceedingly beautiful, far surpassing Xu Gong!” Xu Gong from the northern city was renowned for his beauty in Qi. Zou Ji doubted he could be more beautiful than Xu Gong, so he asked his concubine, “Compared to Xu Gong, who is more beautiful?” His concubine also answered, “How could Xu Gong be compared to you?”

The next day, a visitor came to see Zou Ji. During their conversation, Zou Ji asked the visitor, “Compared to Xu Gong, who is more beautiful?” The visitor replied, “Xu Gong’s beauty cannot match yours.” Afterward, Xu Gong from the northern city visited Zou Ji, who carefully observed him and felt he was inferior in appearance. That night, he lay down but couldn’t sleep, pondering the matter until he realized, “My wife favors me, my concubine fears me, and visitors seek my favor; they all say I am more beautiful than Xu Gong.”

The following day, Zou Ji went to see King Wei and said, “I have determined that I am not as beautiful as Xu Gong. However, my wife favors me, my concubine fears me, and visitors seek my favor, all claiming I am more beautiful than Xu Gong. Therefore, Your Majesty’s deception is profound.”

King Wei nodded and decided to open up channels for criticism, issuing a decree: “Any official or commoner who dares to criticize me in person will receive a high reward. Those who offer advice in writing will be rewarded moderately. Those who discuss state affairs openly and let me know will be rewarded modestly.”

King Wei’s open-mindedness led to a transformation in Qi. Initially, many officials came forward to offer criticism, and there were always many people waiting to do so in front of the palace gates and within the courtyards. However, after several months, there were only occasional criticisms. After a year, even those who wished to criticize found little to do so.

Upon hearing of this, the four neighboring states of Yan, Zhao, Han, and Wei all came to Qi to pay their respects. This exemplified the notion that with enlightened domestic governance and political justice, one could achieve victory over enemy states without resorting to warfare.