Bi Gan (比干) was a prominent minister during the Shang dynasty. He was a member of the royal family, being the son of King Wen Ding, and the uncle to the last king of Shang, Di Xin. Though he is commonly known as Bi Gan, his actual surname is "Zi" (子).
He served as an advisor and minister to his nephew, Di Xin, King Zhou of Shang, in the Shang capital at Anyang. King Zhou was notorious for his vices, having indulged in the pleasure and company of beautiful women, millet wine and feasted to excess. King Zhou’s neglect of state affairs led to endless suffering of his people.
As the crops failed due to a lasting drought, famine was rampant in his kingdom but the king continued his indulgence in excesses. Many ministers tried to persuade the king to provide aid to relief the suffering of his people, but their advices were met only with death. King Zhou had all those who dared to speak out against him executed until all his ministers were silenced for fear of death.
A core ideal at the heart of Chinese politics is the duty of a loyal political advisor, who would continue to admonish his ruler and identify his faults, risking his own life in in the process.
The virtuous Bi Gan continued to warn King Zhou of his self-indulgent behaviour, spending three days and nights to persuade King Zhou to become a good and caring ruler. In doing so, Bi Gan incurred the wrath of the king, who became extremely angry at the persistence of his minister and uncle.
King Zhou asked Bi Gan where he got the strength to argue with him. Bi Gan replied that being virtuous gave him strength. Despite Bi Gan’s effort, King Zhou refused to change his wicked ways and decided to kill Bi Gan.
King Zhou ordered Bi Gan’s heart to be cut out to prove his loyalty and virtuousness, under the pretext that “a Sage’s heart had seven openings”.
As Bi Gan courageously faced his horrible death, his heavily pregnant wife fled to the forest. Here, she gave birth to a son, Lin Jian. Later, a Zhou ruler found the mother and child and conferred upon them the family name Lin (林), meaning forest. Chinese with this family name proudly claim descent from the virtouous minister, Bi Gan.
The legend of Bi Gan came to be known as 比干剖心and represents the philosophic discourse of the Warring States in Ancient China.
Di Xin was the last ruler of the Shang dynasty. During the succeeding Zhou dynasty, it was said that the Shang fell because their behaviour was displeasing to Heaven. The stench of their wine and their corrupt behaviour brought about their downfall.
Bi Gan was honoured by Confucius as "one of the three men of virtue" of the Shang, together with Weizi (微子) and Jizi (箕子). Confucius taught that, in order to meet with Heaven’s approval, a ruler’s actions must benefit his subjects. Since then, the Mandate of Heaven has been the cornerstone of Chinese government for thousands of years.
Bi Gan was later deified as Cai Shen, the god of fortune. It was greatly popularised by depiction in the famous Ming dynasty novel The Investiture of the Gods, describing his confrontation with Daji.
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Preserving the Lin Family Tradition.