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Flattery and Personal Bias Could be Very Harmful

At the time of the Warring States Period, there lived in the state of Qi a man called Zou Ji, who was six feet tall and very handsome. One day he put on beautiful clothes and hat, and looked at himself in the mirror with satisfaction. He asked his wife, “Between me and Mr. Xu from the north part of the town, who is more handsome?” His wife looked at him with love and said, “Of course, you are by far the more handsome!” Zou Ji could not believe what he heard, as Mr. Xu was widely known in this country for his outstanding looks. He then asked his concubine, “What do you think?” His concubine stood behind him and said in a small voice, “How can Mr. Xu be compared with you, sir?” Two days later, a guest came to stay, and Zou Ji asked him the same question. The guest also said with assurance, “Why, Mr. Xu is not as handsome as you.” A few days later, Mr. Xu himself called on Zou Ji. The two men talked and laughed at leisure. Zou Ji secretly studied his rival, and decided that by all measures, Mr. Xu was superior. He was deeply puzzled. Why did his wife, his concubine and his guest all think that he was the more handsome of the two? It dawned on him that his wife preferred him because she loved him, his concubine praised him because she feared him and his guest thought him the better because he had a favor to ask of him.

With this realization, Zou Ji sought a meeting with King Wei of Qi. He spoke candidly, “I do know for a fact that I am not as handsome as Mr. Xu, but my wife says I am more handsome because she loves me, my concubine regards me as the better looking because she is afraid of me, and my guest flatters me because he has a request for me. They all deceived me. Now in the state of Qi, with its one hundred and twenty townships, all your lady attendants adore you, all your ministers and advisers fear you, and everyone in this country wants something from you. My king, your conceit far exceeds mine.”

King Wei of Qi nodded, “You are right.” He issued an edict: those who could speak out about his errors at the court would receive a top reward; those who could write a petition to caution him would receive a medium prize; those who openly criticized king at the market place would receive a small reward as well. In the first year after the edict ministers and wise men raced to voice their criticism. Then dissension became infrequent. The state of Qi quickly rose in power and strength. Neighboring countries sent envoys to Qi to express admiration. Qi won not by military force but by opening its court.

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