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Ximen Bao was an engineer and a rationalist who lived during the warring states period in China. He served as a magistrate for the Marquis Wen, who ruled the territory of Wei from 445 BC-396 BC. During that time, the province of Ye (in what is now Hebei) began to decline and falter. The Marquis sent Ximen Bao to find out what was wrong.
Ximen Bao visited the main town of Ye on the river Zhang. He was dismayed to find the fertile countryside depopulated. Whole families were fleeing productive farms and leaving the rich land fallow. The peasants feared the capricious god of the river, who could cause flooding and death (or alternately draught and starvation), but they feared the crushing taxes imposed upon them by the regional governor even more. Most of all, they feared a local witch who selected a maidens from the area as a “brides” for the river. Chosen girls were dressed in finery and tightly bound to sumptuously decorated floating platforms–which were then sunk. These human sacrifice extravaganzas were the purported cause of the high taxes as well. The governor levied annual taxes for the ceremony and then kept a majority of the proceeds for himself and his cronies. People who complained discovered that their daughters were chosen as brides.
Upon finding this out, Ximen Bao arrived at one of the marriage “celebrations” with a troop of Wei soldiers. As the ceremony started, he proclaimed the girl unworthy of the river god. He commanded the witch to go down to the river bed and ask the river god whether the previous brides had been satisfactory. When she began to equivocate, the soldiers threw her into the river (where she quickly sank beneath the current). When the witch didn’t return, Ximen asked the governor’s cronies to see what was taking her so long. The soldiers then threw them in the river to drown as well.
Ximen Bao sarcastically suggested that the witch and the officials were having lunch with the river god. He was about to send the regional governor to fetch them, when the governor fell to his knees and begged forgiveness for the scheme. Ximen Bao stripped the governor of position and holdings (and then probably tortured him to death–as was customary at the time). He used the proscribed wealth to build a series of dams and irrigation canals to bring the unruly river under control. Ximen Bao is still revered for being the first Chinese official to tame a river by means of civil engineering, cunning administration, and, above all, the ability to see that religion was a con trick.
In China, famous generals, courtiers, and scholars have a tendency to undergo apotheosis: their lives and deeds become integrated into religion and folklore as they gradually come to be venerated as gods and immortals (in the way Yuchi Jingde became a door god). Today Ximen Bao is venerated in China not as a supernatural being but rather as something much more rare and useful–an honest and clear-headed official.