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In Volume 76 of the Book of the Former Han(1), there is a story about Zhang Chang(2), a distinguished scholar and a governor for Emperor Xuan of the Western Han Dynasty, that illustrates this idiom.
After implementing many policies that reduced crime and rebellion in the Shandong region, Zhang Chang was made governor of the Metropolitan District, and he participated in all the state councils.
Emperor Xuan was very fond of Zhang, not only because he had succeeded in bringing peace to citizens in many areas, but also because his advice was often based on his vast knowledge of history.
Zhang Chang had a friend named Yang Yun who was very arrogant and often made negative comments about the emperor’s rule. One day, Yang severely criticized Emperor Xuan and was sentenced to death.
In those times, relatives and friends of convicted people were also affected, more or less, and sometimes lost their positions.
One day, Zhang Chang asked one of his assistants, Xu Shun, to investigate a robbery. Thinking Zhang might soon lose his position, Xu refused to do the task and returned home to sleep.
Xu Shun told others: “I’ve worked for Governor Zhang for years. Now he’s in trouble. Within five days, he will no longer be the governor of the district. Why should I listen to him?”
Hearing this, Zhang Chang was so angry and hurt that he killed Xu Shun. Many debated whether the punishment was too heavy for the crime.
Xu Shun’s relatives appealed to Emperor Xuan and asked that Zhang Chang be sentenced to death for killing Xu Shun. The emperor had no choice but to punish Zhang and, so, dismissed him from office.
A few months after Zhang stepped down, the district was again in chaos. No one knew how to bring peace back to the area. Emperor Xuan sent a messenger to Zhang Chang asking him to return and be reinstated.
On the way to the palace, Zhang wrote a letter to the emperor clarifying the incident. He described how he had always been very kind to Xu Shun and had promoted him, yet Xu turned his back on him because he thought Zhang might be in trouble. He wrote how Xu also spread rumors about it.
Because Xu Shun had betrayed the person that was kind to him, or bit the hand that fed him, Zhang said he killed Xu as an example in order to stop that kind of behavior.
Zhang Chang put an end to the chaos and the district was at peace once again.
The words Zhang Chang used to describe Xu Shun’s behavior, “bite the hand that feeds you” became an idiom widely used later to describe ungrateful people.
- The “Book of the Former Han,”also known as “History of the Former Han,” is a classical Chinese history, which covers the Western Han from 202 B.C.–A.D. 9. It was finished in A.D. 111, mainly by the Ban family of scholars. Another classic Chinese historical text about the Han Dynasty is “The Book of the Later Han,” which was written by Fan Ye and covers the Eastern Han period from A.D. 25–220.
- Zhang Chang was a distinguished scholar, and a governor and advisor for Emperor Xuan of Han. It was not recorded when he was born, but he died in 48 B.C.