In ancient China, people believed that natural disasters were punishments for not following the rules of Heaven. A ruler would often reflect on and take responsibility for his mistakes in governance. He would pray to Heaven to punish himself personally instead of his subjects. In extreme cases, they were willing to sacrifice their lives to spare their people from suffering.
One low-level official in ancient China did what an emperor would normally do when catastrophe struck. Liang Fu was an administrator to the governor of the Guanghan area in the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). He was honest and capable in dealing with matters big and small. It was said that the people of Guanghan had great respect for him.
One year, Guanghan suffered a severe drought. The seedlings in the fields were dying. For several days, the governor stood under the blazing sun to pray for rain. Yet the sky was still blue, and there was no sign of rain.
Liang Fu prayed to Heaven and said, “It was my fault for not advising the governor properly, thus resulting in this drought. Now the governor is sincerely reflecting on and reproaching himself. I would like to assume the responsibility for praying for the people. If my sincerity cannot move the gods and spirits, then I will offer up my own body to be punished.”
Liang Fu gave orders for a big pile of firewood to be set and sat on it. He planned to set himself on fire as a sacrifice around noontime if rain did not come. As noon approached, clouds gathered and thunder could be heard. Rain poured down in Guanghan, and the drought was over. People believed that Liang Fu’s sincere love for the people of Guanghan had moved Heaven.
Throughout most of Chinese history, the concept of “man and nature must be in balance” and the five cardinal virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness were observed and practiced by all, from commoners to royalty. It was said, “When a good king can reproach himself, the land prospers; when a king puts the blame on others, the country declines.”
In the early Shang dynasty (1600 BC – 1046 BC), there was a seven-year drought. Many people prayed and performed rituals for rain without success. The high priest of the kingdom said the only way out was to use a human sacrifice.
Emperor Shangtang ordered a platform built with firewood underneath. He cut off his hair and bathed himself before praying to Heaven, “If I have committed sins, do not punish the people; if my people committed sins, it was my fault. Do not hurt my people because I do not possess the ability to govern.” He calmly sat on the platform and ordered the fire to be set. It was said that the rain started to fall immediately and put out the fire.