Bao Gong, or Lord Bao, was famous as an honest and upright official in Chinese history. He was unafraid of officials and not susceptible to flattery. He has been greatly esteemed and respected by Chinese people for nearly a thousand years.
Lord Bao, named Bao Zheng (999–1062), was born in a village in today’s Feidong county, Anhui province. With high hopes from his strict peasant father, Bao Zheng began learning to read when he was five, and by age thirteen he had read the Four Books and the Five Classics of Confucianism. Attracted by Confucian ideas of governance and the stories of virtuous officials in history, he determined to follow suit. He passed the imperial examination and was qualified as a jinshi (presented scholar) at twenty-eight. According to the system at the time, he could have secured an official position; however, as a filial son, he deferred his official career in order to care for his elderly parents until he was thirty-six.
Bao Zheng started his official career as a county magistrate. No sooner had he assumed office than he settled a mysterious case. His fame spread far and wide and two years later he was promoted to prefect and soon after that he was transferred to the imperial court on account of his uprightness.
Upon taking office as a remonstrance official, Bao Zheng selected three petitions by the famous Tang courtier Wei Zheng (580–643), an imperial admonisher, and copied them in small regular script. He presented the copies to Emperor Renzong (r. 1022–1063) of the Song, hoping the emperor could learn from them. The comments on various state affairs made in these petitions allowed the emperor to avoid mistakes when making decisions. Bao Zheng set a motto for himself: “I will be loyal and faithful, and will not be fearful of dignitaries, regardless of giving offensive animosity.”
As a remonstrance official, Bao Zheng was brave enough to remonstrate against anything he thought wrong, even the decisions made by the emperor. In the second year of Emperor Renzong’s reign, there was a great flood. After the waters receded, the emperor not only held grand ceremonies to worship the heaven and earth, but also issued an amnesty to all criminals. In addition, he promoted all civil and military officials by one grade. Bao Zheng objected that criminals were punished for their crimes which could not be mitigated by a retreating flood; officials should be promoted for their performance, otherwise no one would work hard for the state.
He also impeached many courtiers resulting in their dismissal by the emperor. Bao Zheng enjoyed a considerable reputation among the common people. His loyalty also earned the trust of the emperor who valued him despite his repeated opposition. In 1057, Bao Zheng was appointed prefect of Kaifeng, capital of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127).
The position of Kaifeng prefect was an important role, but it was a difficult position to hold onto. Throughout the more than one hundred years of the Northern Song dynasty as many as 180 officials were appointed prefect of Kaifeng, but the average term for each was little more than six months. During his term of office, Bao Zheng, an impartial and stern official, offended many members of the imperial family. As he had done nothing wrong, no one could dismiss him. Many of the cases he adjudicated in Kaifeng later formed the basis of dramas.
In the history of Chinese opera, no other official compares to Bao Zheng. Stories about him have frequently appeared on stage through the ages. This has formed a special opera—the Opera of Lord Bao.
In China’s feudal society people relied on honest and upright officials to work on behalf of their interests. Operas about upright officials meet a psychological need of the people. Bao Zheng has been deified on stage as a demigod who is not only impartial and stern with incomparable wisdom and supernatural functions, but able to gain access to gods in heaven and ghosts in hell.