In China there is a tale about a certain man named Feng, who had no work and no prospects, and so he went to the palace of Duke Mengchang. He had a friend who was working there, and he hoped to use the connection to also gain employment.
The friend mentioned Feng to the Duke, who asked, “What is he good at?”
The friend replied candidly, ‘He’s not particularly good at anything.”
“But does he have any skills?” persisted the Duke.
“None that I know of,” said the friend.
The Duke was amused, and said, “Well, give him food and a place to sleep. Perhaps he will be useful for something someday.”
Some time later, the Duke decided to collect the longstanding debts of a small village far off on the edge of his domain. It was a poor region, hard to reach, and officials had neglected the area for some years. “But the villagers owe me money,” thought the Duke. “It is time to collect it.”
The Duke made inquiries in the palace for someone who could make the journey and collect what was owed, and the only volunteer was Feng.
“Very well,” said the Duke. “Here are the documents detailing their debts. Take guards with you and gather what is owed.”
“Just as you say, your Grace,” said Feng. “And with the money I collect on your behalf, what should I buy for your excellency?”
The duke hesitated. He could not immediately think of what he might want from the far-off region, and so he said, “Just look around the palace to see what I need and do not have, and buy that.”
Accordingly Feng made preparations to travel, looked carefully around the palace, and then set off.
When he arrived in the small village, the people there were dismayed. They had very little, and now they were forced to squeeze and scrape to pay the demands of the Duke. Feng was able to collect some of the debts, but not all, and he saw how worried and unhappy the people were. Therefore, when he had finished going through the accounts, he spoke to the assembled villagers, saying, “And now, I am authorised by the Duke to return the money to you.”
Astonished, the villagers received again the money they had just paid. To their further amazement, Feng made a pile of the debt papers and set them on fire, saying, “By order of the Duke!”
When the people saw their debts vanishing in smoke, they all cheered and chanted praised to the name of the Duke.
Feng returned to the palace, and the Duke asked him, “Were you able to collect the money?” “Some,” said Feng, ” but not all.” “And what did you buy me with the money?” asked the Duke.
“Your Grace,” said Feng, “you instructed me to look around the palace and buy what you need but do not have. Here you have abundant treasure, many strong horses and every luxury. The only thing you really need is righteousness. So I spent your money on that.”
“What?” said the Duke. “What do you mean by that?”
“The people of that village are poor,” said Feng. “But instead of treating them as a father would treat his children, you wanted to extract money from them.” Then Feng explained what he had done, and said, “I used your money to buy righteousness.”
The Duke was not pleased by this, but he let the matter drop. Later, though, he came to see Feng’s wisdom. When power struggles suddenly made his position very perilous, the Duke had to gather his family around him and flee. On the advice of Feng, he went to the same small, far-off village, and there he was joyfully welcomed as a father returning home to his family.
“Now,” thought the Duke, as he rode past the cheering villagers, “thanks to Feng I have learned something about righteousness.”