Ji An was an interesting government official of the 2nd century BCE, who served the Han emperors of China. He descended from a prominent family in Puyang (within Henan Province, China) that had enough influence to have Ji An appointed as a guardsman for the imperial family during the reign of Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE). In particular, he was fortunate enough to be assigned as a mounted guard for the emperor’s heir. When this successor—Emperor Wu—took power in 141 BCE, Ji An was viewed favorably enough to be appointed as the emperor’s master of guests. This was only one of many titles and positions that Ji An obtained during his life. He would go on to become a governor of several regions, a palace counselor, a master of titles chief commandant or commandant of the nobles, and the right prefect. Yet, these titles are not from where Ji An’s fame and legacy arise. Instead, his renown came from his clean lifestyle and personal integrity, which was unfortunately combined with a relentless habit of criticizing and nagging at those who were less virtuous than him. Indeed, Ji An’s frequent critiques of his colleagues was one of the reasons why he was moved around so much in government—he had to be moved so that fellow ministers and the emperor could take a break from his judgmental presence.
Personally, Ji An preferred Daoist philosophies of government, which put him at odds with the Confucian scholars who were steadily gaining influence in Emperor Wu’s court. Furthermore, he disapproved of wars of expansion, whereas Emperor Wu was conquering lands in all directions. As a result of these philosophical divides, Ji An could always find something to criticize. And chastise he did, taking great pride in his ability to speak truth to power. Even the emperor was not immune from Ji An’s frequent lectures. Such behavior could have led the talkative official to execution, but he showed such personal virtue, courage and impeccable integrity that the emperor could never bring himself to punish the man to any great degree. Emperor Wu and the officials, however, agreed that it would not be a bad idea for Ji An to be sent away from the capital every now and then, tasking him to fill a role abroad as a governor or prefect.
One of the members of the emperor’s court, Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), perfectly described the tiring and trying effect that Ji An had on his colleagues in government, stating, “Ji An was by nature very haughty and ill-mannered. He could not tolerate the faults of others and would denounce people to their faces. Those who took his fancy he treated well, but those who didn’t he could not even bear to see. For this reason most men gave him a wide berth” (Sima Qian, Shi JI 120).
As the years progressed and Ji An’s Confucian rivals continued to gain favor, Emperor Wu began to become more and more annoyed with the holier-than-thou official. According to the aforementioned Sima Qian present in the imperial court, Emperor Wu became so frustrated with the judgmental official that by the year 121 BCE, the ruler exclaimed to his courtiers, “Listening to Ji An’s words, I find that they are getting more outrageous every day!” (Shi Ji 120). Not too long after this outburst, Ji An was forced to retire from government and return home to Puyang. Yet, time and distance soon rekindled Emperor Wu’s affection for the curious critic, and he kept the retired official in his thoughts while he contemplated the vacant government positions in his empire. Emperor Wu eventually recalled the man from retirement to serve as the governor of Huaiyang. Ji An is thought to have died in 112 BCE, still in office at Haiyang, and once more in the emperor’s good graces. Emperor Wu judged Ji An’s life favorably and saw to it that members of the deceased official’s family were given good government positions and titles.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Figures in front of a Mountainous landscape, painted anonymously around the time of the Ming Dynasty (c. 1368-1644), [Public Domain] via the Smithsonian Institute and Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.