Virtue Is the Best Cure

Zheng Jian, Contributor, Dora Li, Contributing Translator

In ancient China, there was a cook for the royal court who went back to his hometown with a large sum of money after retirement. His hometown was in a small county, so he opened a restaurant. Business was very good there.

One year, a plague spread throughout the land. Because this county was close to the capital, the royal court sent a special team to help treat the plague. Yet they found that none of their treatments worked. They carefully studied the plague to find out what herbs could be used to treat it, but all their attempts failed. The plague grew more severe, and many people died every day. People were frightened and panicked. Even the rich were left helpless, having the money but not the cure in their hands. The officials in the royal court forgot about their ambitions for wealth and power and grew increasingly worried about whether they would survive.

Seeing the plague become so terrible, the cook closed his restaurant, cut off all connection with the outside world, and stayed in his luxurious house every day. His walls were sealed so tightly that even a fly couldn’t slip through. However, the plague eventually found him. He started feeling weak and dizzy. He kept throwing up and had blood in his stool. Feeling that his days were numbered, he climbed to the top of his house and looked down at the desolate streets of the once-bustling town. A few homeless people walking past collapsed on the ground, joining the corpses that littered the city. Feeling suddenly saddened by the sight, the cook’s compassion awakened and tears came to his eyes.

“Alas, so much for fame. I was a well-known royal cook, but still I’m helpless against this plague. Who can protect themselves from such disasters?” The cook thought, “Since I’m going to die anyway, why hold on to my gold and silver? It is better to give money and grain to the poor and let them have clothes to wear. No one knows how long this plague will last. If people die of the plague, better to let them have a full stomach when they go to see their ancestors in the afterlife.”

This single sincere thought had a powerful effect. The cook’s fear of the plague abruptly vanished as his mind filled with righteous thoughts. He immediately felt stronger and made the choice to open his restaurant doors. He had his servants cook porridge and soup for the poor while handing out clothes to the needy. Others were tasked with burying the corpses that littered the streets.

Many of the rich families who saw this followed the cook’s lead, gradually lessening the fear of the epidemic. The deserted streets grew vibrant again, and the cook noticed his health improving a month later. He then had a dream that a Taoist on a crane flew to him and said, “Great virtue is a great panacea. While you were helping others with the plague, divine herbs were made in Heaven to combat the disease. Come and receive these magical pills.” When the cook reached out his hands in the dream, he suddenly woke up with a real box of divine herbs in his hands. He prayed in the direction of the Taoist over and over again in thanks.

The next day, he had people set up several large cauldrons of water and he dumped the herbs in each of them. Then he asked people to drink the brew. Instantly, their health was restored. The cook personally sent some divine herbs to the royal court in the capital, thus stopping the serious plague before it could spread further. Due to the cook’s benevolence, the illness completely vanished. The Emperor heard about the origins of the divine herbs and cleansed himself before going to meditate as repentance. Later on, he wrote the following words: “Virtue is the best cure.” These words have existed in Chinese history up to today.

Photo courtesy of National Palace Museum Open Data.

1 comment

Thanks for sharing this story. I totally agree with “virtue is the best cure”. I think it’s not only applying to the plague situation, it actually effects on everything: your luck and your fate…

Kate C July 01, 2023

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