End of a prime minister
“I'm the one who filed the injunction against you.”
--Obadiah Stane, ‘Iron Man’ (2008)
Chapter 155 – End of a prime minister
Having gained the undivided attention of the assembled officials, Minister Jun then recounted the myriad of Tong Xuan’s crimes. Each accusation was supported, each allegation affirmed by a dispassionate Lord Fang La who calmly brought out secret books, ledgers and confidential letters as evidence.
At first the charges were the common misdeeds of misappropriation, corruption… then it grew to accusations of malicious interventions, clandestine sabotage and selective persecutions... and then, stories of secret killings and arranged ‘accidents’…
Each revelation, each exposed secret astonished and enraged the officials. Those who were against Tong Xuan felt vindicated, those who were on the fence were stirred into rancor; and those who had supported him previously now lent their voices to the chorus of dissent against him.
Tong Xuan had long lost his will to fight back, his complexion was the colour of ash as he listened the clamour against him. He knew his fate was already sealed, but his attention was on his nephew Fang La. The prime minister’s eyes shook as he gazed on the cold, cold face of his nephew who completely ignored him.
Tong Xuan felt as if he was in the eye of a storm as he walked over to his nephew, oblivious to the cacophony of furor all around him. The royal court had long moved on from discussing the veracity of his crimes and were now shouting at each other, eager to announce themselves as the first to indict the very soon-to-be-former prime minister.
“Why?” he whispered hoarsely.
“You know why,” the younger man answered.
It was if a bolt of lightning had spiked Tong Xuan’s brain. His own nephew, enamoured with his concubine!
“For a woman?” Tong Xuan asked in shock.
Fang La refused to answer. His uncle would never know that Fang La had been persuaded to betray him with the advice from Qiong Ying. She had long known rumours of Fang La’s interest in the youngest concubine of Tong Xuan, and thus suggested to Huang Ming to use a honey trap as a lure.
“Why wouldn’t he just ask his uncle for her?” Huang Ming had said sceptically.
“Fang La is an intelligent man. With the multiple reverses we have inflicted on his uncle, he knows the writing is on the wall. When his uncle falls, he would bring his entire family down with him,” Qiong Ying explained.
“Ah, so you’re saying he will betray his uncle to save himself. And the concubine.”
Therefore Qiong Ying was allowed to fortuitously encounter Fang La in the capital. She carefully engineered further meetings between them, ostensibly as simple acquaintances from the time they had met in Tianxin City.
Being dissatisfied with the way he had been treated by his uncle, overshadowed by Nangong Xie and his heart crushed by his inability to hold the person of his desires; it was easy for Qiong Ying to steer the morose young man into this course of action.
Tong Xuan would not know this, and Fang La had no reason to enlighten him.
“Uncle, you brought this on yourself,” Fang La said instead. “Your transgressions have grown too large and you refuse to see that the tides have turned against us. You were going to lead our clan into ruin.”
Tong Xuan stared at his nephew in disbelief. Then he laughed.
It began as a low snicker of bitter amusement. It rose and became more powerful. Finally it became a roaring, bellowing sound.
The officials in the royal stopped their wrangling and stared at the spectacle of their former prime minister convulsing and shaking with uncontrollable laughter.
It continued for several moments before the prime minister was spent. The laughter then gave way to quiet sobbing.
“You fool…” Tong Xuan said sorrowfully. “You have been played like a puppet. You know nothing, you will not get what you want.”
Fang La looked at his uncle questioningly, but the older man did not elaborate.
“Take him away,” the King of Wu ordered, his voice cutting through the thick atmosphere.
Tong Xuan did not resist and allowed himself to be dragged off to await his ultimate fate.
When Huang Ming heard what had happened, he merely nodded. His provocation of Nangong Xie, the death of Wang Hong by Sunli, the rescue of Minister Jun by Huang Lang and finally the subversion of Fang La by Qiong Ying finally paid off.
Huang Ming did not feel robbed by not witnessing the culmination of all the subterfuge.
It seemed almost anti-climatic, but Huang Ming knew that there were many instances of powerful figures being brought low with a even simple misspoken word. That it took so much effort to encircle and take down Tong Xuan was testament to the former prime minister’s strength.
In the end, only the result mattered.
A few days later Huang Ming was once more summoned to the king’s inner sanctum.
“We have much to thank you for,” the king said, “But we still require your advice. Now that Tong Xuan and Gao Fang are both gone, the court and the army need new leaders.”
Huang Ming knew the king was afraid of placing so much power in the hands of others.
“Minister Jun has returned, you can trust him,” Huang Ming suggested.
The King of Wu nodded, but Huang Ming saw the wariness in his eyes. Huang Ming understood immediately: Minister Jun had hidden himself so well that even the king was deceived. The king was still suspicious.
“Perhaps you do not need a single right-hand man,” Huang Ming said, not wanting to drag the upright minister into unnecessary trouble.
“What do you mean?”
Huang Ming then explained the concept of a cabinet meeting.
He said: “Elevate the leaders of each ministry and department so that they are able to advise you on the major policies, but only you alone can give the approval. There is no need for you to be bogged down by the smallest of details, give them an objective and allow them broad strokes to accomplish them.”
“How is it any different than the way it is now?” the king asked dubiously.
“Previously, you had a prime minister. All your officials had to first report to him, and only after that would he allow them to bring up their matters in court. Thus Tong Xuan had unchallenged powers, for he stood in the way between you and your ministers. In the new system, they are all answerable only to you. There is no need for them to ingratiate themselves to a gatekeeper,” Huang Ming explained.
The King of Wu nodded. “What about the military?” he then asked.
“You’re the king,” Huang Ming said bluntly. “You should show off your prestige and exercise your authority by allowing the highest of decisions to be decided only by you. This includes the matters of appointments, hiring and firing. Let no general remain in a single location for too long, lest they grow into warlords with their own power base.”
The King of Wu chuckled. “What of your father then? Maybe I should make him marshal and return to the capital,” the King of Wu mused aloud.
It was a test and Huang Ming knew it. A short-sighted person could seek favours but would forever be looked upon with suspicion by the king. Yet, a stark refusal could cause the king to think that his father was reluctant to return because he was building up his own power base.
“My father is already aged. If need be, you can recall my father to the capital in an advisory role. My mother would be much the happier to see him in the comforts of retirement,” Huang Ming replied.
“Your father does not strike me as a restful person,” the king said.
Huang Ming smiled. “Do you know the ages of Tong Xuan and Gao Fang?” he asked casually.
“Old. We only know that they are old,” the King of Wu chuckled bitterly.
“Do you know why there are so many corrupt officials and generals throughout history?”
The King of Wu was startled, not expecting Huang Ming to directly prick at the heart of his worries.
Huang Ming answered his own question: “It is because they seek wealth and security in their old age. You should formulate a generous policy of pension benefits and rewards so that they actually look forward to giving up their authority and responsibilities when they get old. Why would they risk endangering their legacy and blacken their reputation if they have something to look forward to?”
The king was enlightened. “It appears we have many things to ponder,” he murmured.
“You should separate the military. You have the Imperial Guard but they are your personal retinue in the capital. You do not have any eyes and ears of your own throughout the country, and this allowed Gao Fang and Tong Xuan to lie to you without consequence.”
“You mean, we should have recruit informants?”
Huang Ming shook his head. “No, that would only allow unscrupulous slanders. Publicly appoint special officials and give them the authority to conduct inspections and act on the the grievances of the people against the corrupt. Though one cannot eliminate all evils entirely, the common folk would be grateful for someone who could hear their complaints. These officials should not be part of the bureaucracy, but someone they can relate to.”
“Well, what sort of people do you have in mind?”
Thereupon Huang Ming brought up the case of Tian Zhu, the young former bandit that had submitted to him. The tattooed young man was then summoned and presented to the king.
The king was pleased by Tian Zhu’s heroic appearance and immediately appointed him to be one of the special officials that Huang Ming had proposed. With tears in his eyes, Tian Zhu accepted the position and became the first of many fearless inspectors who would roam the country to seek redress for the downtrodden folk. The former bandit would later become the stuff of legends, but that would be a tale for another storyteller…
‘That is one promise done,’ Huang Ming thought, referring to the time when he had first met Tian Zhu.
The King of Wu then looked at Huang Ming critically. “And you, what do you want? Have you reconsidered marrying the princess?”
“My two fiancées were instrumental in the case against Tong Xuan and it would be a disservice to them if I was to wed someone else instead,” Huang Ming said diplomatically.
The King of Wu laughed at his glib tongue. “But surely you cannot go unrewarded.”
“Well, when I think of something I will let you know,” Huang Ming said instead. There were quite a few suggestions in his mind, such as forming a research and development ministry so that he could subtly affect technological changes in the country. But see how distrustful the king was, Huang Ming held his tongue instead.
As the saying goes: “The hunting dog becomes food as well after it can no longer hunt; a good bow is dismantled when it is peacetime; an advisor dies after he helps his lord secures the kingdom”. Such was the fate of many loyal and outspoken subordinates who tragically earned their ruler’s suspicions.
The king nodded at Huang Ming’s reticence. “One last thing. What do you think we should do with Fang La?”
Huang Ming searched the king’s face and saw the hint of disgust within.
“Has he asked for a reward?” Huang Ming inquired.
The king shook his head.
“Then it is enough for you to spare him. Though he had rendered a great service, you should put him at a distance. He betrayed his own flesh and blood, he can never be someone you can truly put your trust in,” Huang Ming said.
“Good, that is what we wanted to hear,” the king said in satisfaction.
Thereafter Huang Ming was allowed to leave, but the king was not alone for long.
“What do you think?” he asked his newest Commander of the Imperial Guard.
General Yin Yanzhao saluted humbly. “He is very clever and reserved, it is difficult to believe he is still just a young man.”
“You have not seen his flippant self, we do miss it. He even refused to name his reward,” the king sighed. “ Unlike that Fang La,” he added with disdain.
“We said Fang La did not ask for anything, but that was a lie. That man had the temerity of asking for his uncle’s concubine! It is unheard of!” the King of Wu seethed and shook his sleeves in disgust.
“It seems there is no redeeming that family,” General Yin observed.
The King of Wu narrowed his eyes. “He should have done the honourable thing and fall on his own sword after betraying his own uncle, we would have spared his family then. As it stands, we have seen no saving grace in their clan. Yet it is true that he helped to bring down Tong Xuan.”
“Sire, I have a suggestion. Perhaps you can make them witness Tong Xuan’s end, and have them denounce him in public. That way you can spare their lives and be assured that they will never rise again, for they will be vilified and ridiculed as selfish and self-serving,” General Yin said.
“Very good, we shall adopt your plan,” the king ordered. “Now there is only the matter of Huang Ming.”
“You could promote him,” General Yin said. “He is a very talented person and his advice would be very insightful.”
“Mmm. It does place us in an awkward position. He is meritorious, and yet we are at a loss as to where to place him. Do you have a suggestion?”
“As a matter of fact, yes sire, I do…”
Tong Xuan’s faults were many but in the end he was only officially charged with the crime of treason, and the punishment thereto was death.
On the day of his sentencing, he was brought out to be hung publicly. The common folk turned out in droves to see the fallen prime minister, showering him with rotten produce and hurled insults. Those who were harmed by his greed clenched their teeth and their fists shook as their wish for vengeance was being fulfilled before their eyes.
Adding to the misery of Tong Xuan were his own clan members, given front row seats to witness his demise. Surrounded by a rabid crowd, his own family had no choice but to join in their condemnations of the former prime minister as he was led up the platform. Among them were Fang La, giddy with the prospects finally achieving his heart’s desire after the death of his uncle…
When the noose was draped around Tong Xuan’s neck, the crowd hushed to await the moment of sentencing.
Suddenly a woman’s wail broke the suspense.
“My lord! My lord!”
A young female broke free from the crowd and rushed up the platform to give the prime minister an embrace. The executioners and guards saw that she was only a young girl and thus did not stop her.
“Silly girl, you should have stayed quiet,” Tong Xuan said tenderly.
“I am a mere concubine, but I know what loyalty is! My lord, let me join you in death!” the young woman declared with tears running down her cheeks. She turned to give the prime minister’s family a desolate, reproachful glare that shamed them to their very core.
Then she jumped from the platform headfirst.
The crowd was shocked by her suicide, one could almost feel sympathy for Tong Xuan. Tong Xuan saw this and sneered at how easily the common folk had swayed.
“What are you waiting for?” he snarled at his executioners.
They pulled the lever and soon Prime Minister Tong Xuan was no more.
And so the Prime Minister of Wu became yet another precautionary tale of someone who overreached his station as so often found in history, another infamous character in history who was disloyal to his king and selfishly placed his country in peril. Of note was the devotion of the prime minister’s young concubine, a story that soon became the basis of tragic dramas and folk stories.
What of Fang La, the nephew who had betrayed his uncle?
History had no further mentions of him, though some stories would say that a few of the prime minister’s family went home later that day and hung themselves out of shame.
A disloyal minister,
His greed was boundless.
He was most sinister,
His sins heavy and countless.
The king was weak and lacking,
But when a young hero rose,
He seized him to be his backing,
And so the minister was opposed.
Three helpers the minister had,
Men whose characters were bad.
The scholar was driven into exile,
The warrior killed, the nobleman beguiled.
A chain of plots was conceived,
By cunning his helpers deprived,
The king’s honour was retrieved,
And thus the kingdom was revived.
END PART III: THE ENCIRCLEMENT OF TONG XUAN