During the Warring States period, there was a man by the name of Feng Xuan who lived in the Qi Kingdom. He was poor and had no viable prospects, so he went to the palace of the wealthy duke, Lord Mengchang. One of his friends worked there, so he was hoping to use that connection to find employment for himself.
His friend mentioned him to the duke, and the duke asked, “What is he good at?”
Feng Xuan’s friend replied candidly, “He’s not particularly good at anything.”
The duke still wanted to find a reason to hire him. “Does he have any skills?”
Again his friend was candid: “No particular skills either.”
The duke found the brutal honesty refreshing. He laughed. “Very well! Give him a place to sleep and something to eat.”
Thus, Feng Xuan became one of the duke’s “guests” — several thousand men who served the duke without clearly defined duties. His peers, seeing that the duke did not hold him in high regard, tended to look down on him. However, the duke treated him well. He got decent food, authorization to use one of the duke’s chariots, and a small stipend to support his elderly mother.
One day, the duke posted a sign for all to see, asking for a volunteer. There was a remote region in the duke’s territory called Xue. The people of Xue were in debt to the duke from years ago. The duke wanted someone who could keep track of numbers accurately to go there and collect the debts. Feng Xuan stepped forward and volunteered.
The duke, in his usual courteous manner, said to Feng Xuan: “I have been so busy with the exhausting and confusing affairs of the state that I haven’t had the time to work on this. Would you mind traveling to the Xue region as my representative, and collect the loan payments on my behalf?”
Feng Xuan formally accepted the task and began to prepare for the trip. He needed to take the loan documents as well as a few guards with him. When he was done with his preparations, he reported back to the duke. “Your Grace,” he bowed, “after I collect the money on your behalf, what would you like me to purchase and bring back for you?”
The duke could not think of anything, so he said, “Take a look around the palace. Whatever you see I need but do not have, that is what you should get for me.”
After a long trip, Feng Xuan arrived at the Xue region. He had the guards round up the villagers to go over the loan documents one by one. The villagers were quite poor, but they all knew the payments were long overdue, so they had no choice. Feng Xuan could tell it was difficult for them. He looked at them and saw anxious and worried expressions. Most of them had very little, and some had nothing at all.
Feng Xuan collected what he could and checked against the ledger. Then, he stood up and announced: “By order of the duke, I am authorized to return the loan payments back to you, effective immediately.”
The villagers were stunned as Feng Xuan gave them back the money that was paid only a moment ago. None of them had ever seen or heard of anything like this.
Then, they were even more surprised. Feng Xuan gathered up all the loan documents and set them on fire. This was better than the duke granting them an extension to pay back the loan. The burning pile meant the duke was actually writing off the loans, thus clearing the debts. They cheered loudly. As the fire burned, they chanted, “Long live the duke! Long live the duke!”
Feng Xuan returned to the palace and reported to the duke. The duke was a bit surprised and asked him: “Why are you back so soon? Were you able to collect on all the loans?”
“Your Grace, I was able to collect some of the money owed to you.”
“Good! What did you purchase for me?”
Feng Xuan said, “Your Grace, you asked me to look around and buy whatever you needed, and I did. I saw your palace full of precious treasures, your stables full of strong horses, and your harem full of beautiful concubines. The only thing you really needed was Yi, so I purchased that for you.”
“What do you mean… by purchasing Yi?” The duke knew Yi meant righteousness, but he could not see how such an intangible concept could be bought like some sort of goods.
Feng Xuan explained: “Your Grace, you are the lord of the small Xue region. Instead of treating the people there as a father would his children, you wanted to extract money from them. I saw how they struggled with extreme poverty, so I falsely claimed that I acted under your orders to return the money to them, and also burn up the loan documents. In response, they cheered and chanted your name. That is how I purchased Yi for you.”
The duke was not happy to hear this. Although he was very wealthy and did not really need the money, he was expecting to get something, but now he had nothing. Greatly annoyed, he waved Feng Xuan away: “Fine! Let us speak no more of this matter.”
A year later, the duke encountered great misfortune. The power struggle that was always present in the royal court of Qi went badly against him, and King Qi indicated he would withdraw his support for the duke. This meant the duke’s enemies were now free to attack him unopposed. Suddenly, his entire family was now in peril.
Knowing the situation was grave, Feng Xuan once again stepped forward to volunteer. Having no idea how to save his family, the duke was only too glad to let him take charge of the situation. Feng Xuan organized a small group of trusted guards, and made the appropriate arrangements. In secrecy, he escorted the duke and his family out of the palace, and they traveled toward the remote Xue region together. He sent a scout ahead, to let the villagers know they were coming.
A surprising sight greeted the duke when they were still many miles from Xue. The villagers all came out to welcome him. Men, women, the elderly, the young — there were hundreds of them. They lined the path to Xue and they all cheered the duke’s arrival.
As he moved through the welcoming crowds, the duke suddenly realized this was safe haven. The villagers had already set up a secure place where he and his family could stay. He knew they would protect him by not revealing his whereabouts to anyone — especially the spies of his enemies. Finally, after days of facing what he thought was certain doom, he could now breathe a sigh of relief.
He turned to Feng Xuan and said, “Sir, this Yi that you purchased for me — today, I see it with my own eyes.”
The Chinese concept of Yi is often translated as “righteousness,” and someone who embodies the principle may be described as a righteous person. However, as we can see in this story, Yi means more than that. It isn’t just about being righteous. It is also about doing the right thing, in the right way and for the right reasons.
The virtue of Yi requires no special knowledge, talent or skill. Feng Xuan certainly had none. He was seen, even by his friends, as someone who was not distinguished or remarkable in any way. Despite that, he turned out to be the one who made the greatest difference to the duke.
We can also possess the same virtue without any kind of special training. All it takes is an understanding of the concept of Yi, plus the decision to incorporate it as part of your code of honor.
The essence of Yi is gratitude, a mind-set that does not take kindness from anyone for granted. Even though the story does not say so, Yi was already present when Feng Xuan found himself well treated by the duke, despite his lack of qualifications. He would never forget this kindness, and he looked for an opportunity to repay the duke.
His opportunity came when he was charged with the task to collect old debts. Feng Xuan was resolved to do the best possible job — but not necessarily in the way that the duke expected. This is the second important aspect of Yi. Someone who truly understands the concept may not follow orders blindly, but will always act in the other person’s best interest. This requires thoughtful consideration.
Feng Xuan’s decision to cancel all debts in the land of Xue was in alignment with the above. At the time, it was not something that the duke understood or expected, but it proved to be the right course of action. Feng Xuan looked at the overall situation, took the long view, and planted a seed. Whether that seed would come to fruition or not was a secondary concern. The more important thing was that his decision created a positive outcome that was greater than any amount of money he could have collected.
Goodwill is central to the concept of Yi. A Tao cultivator who puts Yi into practice looks for ways to create a positive connection with everyone. This has a magical, magnifying effect in life — the politeness you give to others will be returned to you as appreciation, courtesy and respect; the smile you give to others will be reflected back at you as gladness, friendliness, and welcome. In general, every bit of goodness you project outward comes back many times greater.
The most important lesson about Yi is that it must be done without attachment. Initially, the duke treated Feng Xuan well because it was his standard practice, not because he was expecting something in return. Similarly, when Feng Xuan burned up all the loan documents, he did so because it was the right thing to do, not because he could predict how it would be repaid down the road. For all he knew, the duke might never need the land for Xue for anything.
This is the way for us to live our lives. We must combine gratitude, thoughtful consideration, and goodwill with no strings attached, so we can take action without any expectations. In doing so, we purchase Yi for ourselves, thereby creating positive karma.
Although the term “karma” was unknown in ancient China when the Tao Te Ching was written, the sages were well aware that good causes create good effects. Energy going out inevitably ends up as energy coming back. This is why chapter 81 of the Tao Te Ching states that the more you give, the more you receive. The more you benefit fellow human beings, the more you will benefit from the circular movements of the Tao.
We won’t know exactly how the benefits of Yi will return to us, but that doesn’t matter. It’s not about having a safe haven to escape our enemies, because that is not the real point of the story. What we know for sure is that in its own way, on its own schedule, Yi will make a difference for us, like it did for the duke. The goodness we create for everyone, the kindness we give to others… everything will come together for us somehow.
Perhaps even more important than the above is knowing that we have done things right, in the right way for the right reasons. It’s a great feeling of profound satisfaction, and it’s all from having lived in accordance with the wise counsel of the sages. This is the virtue of Yi — an often overlooked, yet incredibly powerful aspect of the Tao!