The importance of credibility has to be seen to be believed
One morning circa 350 BCE, citizens of the capital of Qin State—then based in Xianyang, Shaanxi province—gathered at the south gate of a market, murmuring at a 10-meter tall block of wood that had been erected overnight.
Beside the wood was an announcement from an official, stating that anyone who could carry the block to the city’s north gate would be awarded 10 pieces of gold. The crowd couldn’t believe such a simple task could receive so rich a reward. They all hesitated to make a move. Soon, the reward was raised to 50 pieces of gold, a sum high enough to finally tempt one man to step forward, load the wood onto his back, and march to the north gate. As the crowd watched, the man, to his own evident astonishment, was immediately presented with the 50 gold pieces as promised.
The point was: There was no catch. The whole exercise was to measure and establish the idea of “credibility” among the public, to prepare them for a new law in the Warring State Period (475 BCE – 221 BCE), masterminded by renowned Qin statesman Shang Yang (商鞅). Shang was responsible for many of the reforms that ultimately led the Qin to transform a disparate collection of warring states into China’s first unified empire. The tale of the wood is called 立木取信 (lìmù qǔxìn, “erect wood to win trust”), and is now one of China’s most famous historical fables.
On the Character: 信 is a story from our issue, “Cloud Country.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.