Credibility as Good as Golden Cash

Bronze eagle with snake, Warring States Era
(Bronze eagle with snake, Warring States Era. Anhui Museum, photo by Gary Todd)

Yang came to the State of Qin and presented himself to Duke Xiao. If the duke puts him in high office, said Yang, he can strengthen Qin and make it the mightiest state in China.

It was the 4th century BCE, and China was divided into quite a few feudal domains that contended with one another. The State of Qin, located on the remote western border of China then, was rather weak and backward. Duke Xiao, eager to improve the standing of his dominion, issued a widely circulated decree calling for talented men of China to come to serve him in the Qin State. Yang, a native of the Wei State in Central China, was among those who responded to the call, and he turned out be the one whom Duke Xiao liked the most. 

In his first audience with the duke, Yang talked about how one could reign majestically like a imperator. The duke didn't show much interest - he was not even close to be an imperator. In his second meeting with the duke, Yang presented ideas on how a humane king could influence his subjects with virtue and culture. Duke Xiao remained unimpressed. It was a time of war and chaos, and it didn't seem to be very practical to talk about morals. In his third interview, Yang focused on how a king could use power to enrich and empower his state. This time the duke was piqued. His body leaned as he listened, and he actually edged toward the speaker as the conversation went on.  

Yang proposed a wide range of drastic reforms. He would do much to strengthen farming in the country, providing peasants with incentives while discouraging the luxurious lifestyle of the nobles. He would also reward anyone, including commoners, who fought bravely for the state. There would be a meritorious system of twenty ranks to recognize those who were militarily accomplished, regardless of their family backgrounds. 

The duke liked the ideas but wondered if people would believe that such policies would be actually implemented. Yang indicated that he had a way to get started.

A wooden pole was stood up near the southern gate of the capital city, and an official announcement was posted next it, one in the name of the newly appointed minister Yang. Anyone who could move the post to the northern gate would be rewarded with 10 golden cash, it is said. Ten golden cash was a large amount money, enough to make someone rich. But this much money just for moving a piece of timber, about 7 feet in length, over a relatively short distance? 

Large crowds of people gathered around. They looked and talked, but none of them took up the challenge. The deal announced was too good to be true, so it must be some kind of a trick. Seeing that no one was taking the offer, guarding officials raised the prize to 50 golden cash. People became more excited but also more suspicious. Eventually, one foolhardy man decided to give it try, trick or not. He carried the pole from the southern gate to the northern gate. Upon his arrival at the destination, some officials there immediately paid him 50 golden cash as promised.

The story soon spread. People all knew now in the state there was this new minister who meant what he said and would keep his promise. Yang carried out his reforms over the years, to great success, and he himself was  ennobled and came to be known Shang Yang - Lord Yang of Shang. The process started with Shang Yang's reforms would eventually lead to the unification of China by the Qin State.