Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Have martyrs ever been important in Confucian history?

Several Confucian Literati have come to be known as martyrs. They died because those in power would not countenance their calls for greater justice in the imperial regime. One such figure was Yang Ji Sheng (1516-55C.E.). So strong was his conviction that the imperial system would respond to good-faith Confucian criticism that he risked all to denounce a corrupt official at court. Yang meticulously crafted his case against Yen Sung and his son, fasting for three days before presenting his charges. Yen Sung managed to poison the emperor’s mind against Yang, implicating him falsely in a conspiracy. Yang languished in prison for three years while fellow Literati attempted to defend him at court. All appeals lost, the heroic Yang refused to take a sedative before being tortured in prison. Before he was executed, he composed a short poem, in true Literati style. In it he expressed the hope that he would live on in spirit, still loyal to the emperor and grateful for his life of service. What is essential to note here is this martyr’s dedication to advancing society through selfless commitment to justice in public administration, an outstanding feature of the Confucian spirituality of service.


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