History Lessons

Cao Shen

Masterly inactivity

Just before his death, Xiao He, the prime minister of the Han Dynasty, urged Emperor Hui (210-188 BC), the ruling monarch, to appoint Cao Shen as his successor.

The emperor, who was the son of Han Gaozu, the founding father of the dynasty, was respectful of Xiao and followed his advice.

Cao and Xiao had long been friends, although their relationship had cooled when Cao realised that he could not match Xiao’s ability and would always remain in his shadow.

However, after Cao became the prime minister, he maintained Xiao’s systems and policies. Each time he was asked for his own opinion, he would graciously turn away.

But the emperor became unsettled by what he perceived as Cao’s patronising and passive approach. When he could tolerate it no more, he challenged Cao as to why he was not doing more. Cao, unfazed, simply asked the emperor to compare himself to his own father Gaozu.

Without hesitation, the ruler admitted that he was inferior to Gaozu.

Cao then asked who the emperor thought to be more capable: Xiao or hi­mself? The emperor responded that Cao couldn’t possibly compare to Xiao.

Cao replied: “His Majesty is right on both counts. After Gaozu and Prime Minister Xiao united the kingdom in the Warring States Period, they have left us a fine legacy of institutions and rules. All we need to do is to implement their system faithfully and dutifully.”

Cao’s answer calmed the emperor, who never questioned his prime minister’s judgement again. Thanks to the two, the kingdom enjoyed a period of stability and peace.

The lesson: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


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