He was a high-ranking court official of the Qing Dynasty, who is better remembered for a famous family dish. But his life, his achievements and his fight against corruption hold many lessons that are as relevant today as they were in the times he lived in
He is better remembered for a famous family dish. But his fight against corruption hold many lessons that are as relevant today as they were in the times he lived in.
The rice, salt and silk are not for you, or my son-inlaw. You should keep them for when there is a famine and they should be given to the poor and the starving.” Ding Baozhen, a high-ranking court official of the Qing Dynasty
This year marks the 130th anniversary of the death of Ding Baozhen, or Ding Gongbao, a high-ranking court official of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
People remember him for the arrest and eventual execution of An Dehai, the much patronized eunuch of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi in 1869.
People also remember him for his famous family dish Gongbao chicken (often spelled Kungpao chicken), which over the years has become one of the most sought-after food items in Chinese restaurants of the world.
In April this year, I, his great-grandson (he is my grandmother Ding Suzhen’s father) , and six other members of the Chen family, visited Ding’s birthplace in Zhijin county of Guizhou province.
I attended memorial meetings and research sessions at the provincial, regional and county levels, which remembered and paid tributes to Ding for his accomplishments and services to the people.
Ding Baozhen served as governor of Shandong province and then governor-general of Sichuan and Guizhou provinces.
In 1869, An Dehai, who was much hated by both court officials and the common people for his arrogance, domineering behaviour and corruption, left the imperial palace to visit Shandong province to collect bribes.
Ding, an honest and upright official, had long hated this man and wanted to get rid of him.
So, when An arrived in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province, after collecting a large amount of money while traveling to the city, Ding had him arrested and jailed.
He then had it proclaimed that An had violated imperial rules that a eunuch should not leave the imperial city.
When the Empress Dowager got to know about this, she sent a special envoy to Jinan with an imperial edict ordering Ding to send An back to Beijing in order, of course, to save his life.
But having made up his mind to get rid of An, Ding ordered that An to be executed and when the Empress Dowager’s special envoy arrived at his office he told him that it was too late.
This much remembered incident was later described as “accepting the imperial edict at the front gate but executing the man in the backyard”.
However, Ding did one thing which earned him the Empress Dowager’s gratitude. After An’s execution, Ding ordered his body be displayed in the city center for three days.
For years, both court officials and the common people believed that An Dehai was not really a eunuch but the Empress Dowager’s lover.
But when the body was displayed people got to see that An was really a eunuch and the rumor died.
Looking back on Ding Baozhen’s work, one can see that many of his ideas still have relevance. His ideas can be broken down into four parts:
1 A pioneer who focused on development: When he was governor of Shandong province, Ding started a machinery factory in Jinan to produce firearms, guns and gun powder. He also setup a school to train young people in maths, physics, astronomy, irrigation and geography.
He also set up a printing house and recruited learned people to edit and print teaching materials for students.
Some of these materials can still be found in the state archives and national libraries.
He also invited famous scholars to be teachers and he often attended lectures to acquire knowledge.
In this way he helped to train a pool of talented young people who could focus on developing the nation.
2 Formulation of policies and worked on ideas about reform and opening up: In the latter half of the 19th century, there were some bureaucrats who were advocating the so-called Westernization movement to introduce capitalist production methods in order to preserve the rule of the Qing Dynasty.
They relied on a small number of Western technocrats and tried to copy modern technology from the West.
But Ding advocated the training of talented young people, so they could learn modern scientific techniques and gain knowledge from the West while promoting the country’s own productive power.
One of Ding’s accomplishments was the taming of the Yellow River in Shandong province, and later — when he was governor of Sichuan province — the reconstruction of the Dujiangyan irrigation system in Chengdu.
This system is now seen as one of the most scientific and important irrigation systems in the world.
As the Qing government did not allocate sufficient funds for the taming of the Yellow River, Ding used his own already scanty savings and his wife’s jewelry to fund the project and also persuaded local squires to make contributions.
In Chengdu, Ding exerted great efforts to complete the Dujiangyan irrigation project started by the Li Brothers over 2,200 years ago and made the Chengdu plain a “rich and prosperous land of fish and rice”.
Almost every day during the construction period Ding would appear at the site and stand on the bank of the river to direct the work even at the risk of being swept away by the torrents.
After Ding’s death, the local people built a temple at the site to remember him.
The temple was destroyed in the 2006 earthquake but a life-size statue of him was erected there after that.
3 Administration of the salt industry in Sichuan province: Before he became governor of the province, salt production was in the hands of a small group of businessmen who, obsessed with the desire to maximize profits, ganged up with corrupt government officials to control the salt market, extorted money from ordinary people and evaded taxes.
As soon as he became governor of the province, Ding took measures to change the situation.
He did this in three ways: putting corrupt officials in prison, punishing unscrupulous merchants and cracking down on speculation and smuggling.
To record his experiences, he organized a number of government officials and scholars to compile a document called the Salt Administration Law for Sichuan Province, the first of its kind in the country.
This document is still in use today.
4 Fighting corruption and promoting honest and clean government: The arrest and eventual execution of the corrupt official An Dehai is a remarkable example of fighting corruption.
Then, during the project to harness the Yellow River, Ding recovered embezzled money from corrupt officials at different levels and thus saved large amounts for the already depleted national treasury.
One thing about Ding which is remembered even today by the people of Guizhou province is that when Ding died in 1886 he was heavily in debt and he and his family were unable to repay it.
In his last words to the Empress Dowager he wrote: “I am unable to repay the debt in my present life. I can only repay it in my next life as a beast of burden.”
Ding’s theory and practice of strengthening the country’s military power is also something we can learn from today.
In the mid-18th century, the Qing government was facing both domestic troubles and foreign invaders, particularly Japanese imperialists.
Ding then suggested that the government strengthen its coastal defenses.
He spent a large amount of money from the provincial treasury to build a coastal force and a string of outposts along the 2,000 li (1,000 km) long coast — comprising Yantai, Weihai and Dengzhou (today’s Penglai).
When he was governor of Guizhou province, in 1885, the year before he died, the British and French imperialists were planning to invade Tibet and Yunnan.
Ding then sent troops there to deter them and forced them to give up their ambitions.
As for the kind of a person Ding Baochen was, let me recount what my father told me about what happened when Ding got his daughter married to my grandfather.
At that time Ding was the governor of Sichuan province.
He sent a convoy of eight boats from Chongqing to Yangzhou, which was our hometown.
Of the eight boats, three were loaded with bags of Sichuan rice, two with the famous Zigong rock salt, one with rolls of Sichuan silk, one with juicy Sichuan oranges and the last one carried my grandmother along with two beautiful Sichuan girls and other servants.
Ding then had one of the servants take a letter to my great-grandfather in which he wrote: “The rice, salt and silk are not for you, or my son-in-law.
“You should keep them for when there is a famine and they should be given to the poor and the starving.
“The oranges are for my dear daughter who likes them very much and will miss them.
“What is most important, is that the two girls are to serve my daughter as chamber maids and here I want to make it known that your son should never make any of them his concubine.”
Although during those days it was customary for men to have concubines, my grandfather obeyed his father-in-law’s instructions and remained faithful to his wife.
Eventually, he got one of the girls married to a minor government official and the other to a well-to-do merchant.