Cultural China: The promise of honesty

Honesty has always been a traditional virtue in China. Despite the passage of time, honesty has been passed down as a mainstream value and embodied in countless tales throughout China's history.

A famous Chinese idiom, "a promise is worth a thousand ounces of gold," tells such a story. In the early Western Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-25 A.D.), a general named Ji Bu was known for being courageous and honest.

Legend has it that whenever Ji Bu made a promise, he would spare no effort to fulfill it. Such a virtue of honesty earned him a good reputation, and there was a saying widely spread: it is better to have a promise from Ji Bu than to get hundreds of ounces of gold.

The saying was distilled to the idiom. Later generations hence often use this idiom to describe a person as honest as Ji Bu.

Honesty is priceless. Honesty also innovates.

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Li Daquan, a successful merchant in Shanxi Province, northern China, was visited by a friend who came up with a novel idea.

In ancient China, the currency consisted mainly of precious metals such as gold, silver, and copper, so carrying a large quantity of cash was not only a heavy burden but could also put the owner in danger as robberies quite often happened along the way.

His friend proposed that a draft be issued to replace the real cash. This draft was no mere promise to pay -- it was a declaration that an amount of coin corresponding to the specified amount and type of currency on the note had been deposited and could be redeemed elsewhere.

Li readily agreed and kept his word. The story soon got around, and Li's honesty brought him a flood of customers and a thriving business.

Li later set up China's first draft bank, Rishengchang, which is deemed the predecessor of Chinese banking industry. His banking business eventually expanded into 35 branches across the country.

Rishengchang has been preserved and turned into a museum now - not only as a monument to Chinese banking but also to the entrepreneurial spirit of Shanxi merchants.

In today's China, the ethos of honesty is still well respected.

China selects national ethical role models every year. It manifests in a government award for people known for their honesty and trustworthiness. Their stories are broadcast across the country to set good examples and promote the virtue of honesty.

"Every time I learn about their stories, I'm deeply moved and vow to follow suit and be an honest person," said Pan Sixue, a resident in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi. 

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