Zichan (子產) was the courtesy name of Gongsun Qiao (公孫僑), who was renowned for the brilliance of his leadership as the chief minister of the state of Zheng (鄭) from ca. 544 BCE until his death in ca. 521 BCE.
As chief minister, Zichan managed to expand the territory of Zheng even though it was bordered by the much larger and more powerful states of Chu (楚) and Jin (晉). At the same time, he was successful in carrying out a series of legal, political, economic, and social reforms that strengthened the state and solidified the rule of law.
One of the most important reforms Zichan implemented was to the land ownership system so that farmers would be protected from having their property seized or occupied illegally by the aristocratic families. He also introduced a new penal code to prevent random murders of the common people by their supposed betters among the nobility.
To improve management of the state, Zichan implemented a household registration system that boost agricultural productivity through the more efficient utilization of manpower and land resources.
A strong supporter of the rights of the common people, Zichan also encouraged officials and members of the gentry to listen to their criticisms and suggestions at informal local assemblies that sprung up throughout the state. He firmly rebuffed any suggestions that they be closed because they were leading to dissent against the government, pointing out that it was better to resolve issues at the source rather than to allow them to turn into a raging torrent.
Confucius was a great admirer of Zichan, and is said to have wept when he heard of his death. However, particularly when it came to the role of the law, their philosophies were quite different, with Zichan favoring a much harsher approach than Confucius. Indeed, some historians regard him as an early proponent of what would be later called the Legalist school (法家) of thought which was later adopted as the foundation of the repressive Qin dynasty (秦朝) established by the autocratic Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) in 221 BCE.
Confucius said of Zichan: “He had four essential qualities of a leader: in his personal conduct he was gracious; in serving his superiors he was respectful; in caring for the common people he was generous; in employing them for public service he was just.”
Confucius said: “Whenever a government edict needed to be written, Bi Chen prepared the first draft, Shi Shu reviewed and revised it, Ziyu, the head of protocol, edited it, and Zichan of Dongli gave it a final polish.”
Someone asked about Zichan. Confucius said: “He was a generous man.” “And what about Zixi?” “Don’t even mention his name!” “And what about Guan Zhong?” “What a man! He seized over three hundred households in Pian from the head of the Bo family. But even though he was reduced to eating coarse food until the end of his days, the poor man could never bring himself to utter a single word of complaint against him.”