Staying Safe During a Plague: The Story of Yu Gun Caring for His Ill Brother

April 29, 2020 Updated: April 29, 2020

Amid a deadly epidemic in his hometown, when people were either abandoning their afflicted homes or desperately fleeing town to escape from infection, Yu Gun was the only one who did not follow suit. Instead, he was determined to stay behind to care for his plague-stricken elder brother.

It would be several months before the epidemic gradually began to ease. Against all odds, not only was Yu Gun spared—still safe and sound—but his brother had also miraculously recovered.

This is one among many stories of protection from disease that have played out throughout Chinese history. They are timeless stories that are worth exploring.

Yu Gun was a well-educated young man who lived in Henan Province in central China during a devastating outbreak in 275–280, over 1,700 years ago. Not only was he well-versed in the Chinese classics, but he was also highly regarded by everyone for his good character, especially his piety to his parents and siblings.

Compelled by his filial duty to his elder brother, despite the dire circumstances, Yu Gun’s decision to stay behind was clear. 

The illness had suddenly emerged in the Henan area during the reign of Emperor Wu in the Western Jin Dynasty. It swept through the region and escalated into an epidemic, taking the lives of numerous people. Among them were two of Yu Gun’s older brothers. His second elder brother was also infected and in critical condition. 

To save the rest of their children, Yu Gun’s parents prepared a coffin for their ill son and made ready to take Yu Gun and his younger brothers away to safety. 

But Yu Gun was unwilling to go, as his elder brother would then have no one to look after him. 

‘I Am Not Afraid of the Disease’

When his father and elder brother urged him to escape with the family, Yu Gun replied, “I am not afraid of the disease.”

He stayed behind and tended his brother with great care. Many nights he hardly rested or slept at all. Sometimes he would look at the coffin and shed silent tears, but he never wavered in his decision to be there for his brother.

Yu Gun cared for his brother tirelessly for over 100 days before the epidemic gradually waned, and their family and the other townspeople were able to return. 

Back home, they were astonished and relieved to find that both Yu Gun and his brother were healthy and safe. 

The town’s elders remarked: “This lad is truly extraordinary! He was able to hold fast to duty that others could not fulfill, and do what others could not do.”

“Indeed, only after frigid weather can one truly see how the pine and cypress are better than other trees at withstanding the cold. And it seems that a plague cannot infect a good person,” they added.

The winter image of the pine and cypress was in reference to these two evergreens that are often paired in traditional Chinese culture to convey the idea that only through a severe and rigorous ordeal can a person’s true character be seen.

Jade Cave Fairyland
Depicting hidden pathways leading to tiered pavilions among pine and cypress trees. “Jade Cave Fairyland” by Qiu Ying. Hanging scroll with ink and color on silk, 66.5 inches by 25.8 inches. The Palace Museum, Beijing. (Public Domain)

Genuine Safeguard Against the Plague

The account of Yu Gun’s life is documented in a collection of stories about historical figures titled “Filial Piety Biographies” contained in the “Book of Jin,” an official text covering the history of the Jin Dynasty from 265 to 420. 

Yu Gun’s account includes several other stories in praise of his filial piety, kindheartedness, honest character, and attention to propriety.

Filial piety is arguably the most important among the various essential moral virtues in traditional Chinese culture, as the saying “Filial piety is at the root of all goodness” shows.

Confucius very much valued family relationships because a stable and harmonious family is a basic building block of a stable and harmonious society. The Confucian ideal of a man of virtue extends from filial piety to one’s parents to respect toward one’s elder brother, to loyalty to one’s monarch, and faithfulness and trustworthiness between male friends.

According to traditional Chinese belief, Yu Gun’s filial devotion may well have been the essential quality that helped him stay healthy and safe amid the severe epidemic. 

History repeatedly attests to this theme, such as conveyed in two representative passages from “Songfeng Shuoyi,” or “Songfeng on Epidemic Diseases,” a book by the famous Qing Dynasty doctor Liu Kui, who was also called Songfeng.

“Evil will not encroach on the good, and filial piety can deter Heaven. Such is the genuine effective safeguard against the plague,” Songfeng wrote.

“One who fulfills his filial obligation to his elders—this is the reason Heaven protects such a person,” Songfeng also noted.