Stories from History: Emperor Tai Zong of the Tang Dynasty, a Monarch of Great Virtue

Print

[Series Note –The rule of Zhen Guan refers to the enlightened administration of Emperor Tai Zong of the Tang Dynasty, whose reign lasted from 627 to 649 A.D. The rule of Zhen Guan has been praised by many generations of Chinese people as being the peak of Chinese culture, economics and literature. The administration of the virtuous Emperor Tai Zong contributed much to the rule of Zhen Guan, as illustrated by many historical records, such as the ones that follow.]

Emperor Tai Zong once asked his imperial court subjects, “I was confused after I read The Biography of Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty. Emperor Yang praised the two sage kings, Yao and Shun, and he condemned the two tyrant kings, Jie of the Xia Dynasty and Zhou of the Shang Dynasty. Apparently he could tell right from wrong, but how did he end up being a tyrant?” His counsellor Wei Zheng replied, “Even if a ruler is a saint to begin with, he must remain humble and be receptive to feedback so that wise men will be willing to present their ideas and brave men will be willing to sacrifice their lives to realise his visions. Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty was arrogant and shut himself off from feedback because he knew he was very smart and talented. He talked like a sage king but he behaved like a tyrant. Yet he did not even realise it because he refused to listen to feedback, which led to his ruin.” Emperor Tai Zong said, “Emperor Sui’s time was but two decades before us. (Sui was the dynasty before Tang Dynasty.) We must learn from his lesson.”

One day, Emperor Tai Zong said to his imperial court subjects, “A man sees himself in front of a mirror. An emperor sees his flaws when his loyal subjects present their honest opinions to him. If an emperor refuses to be receptive to his subjects’ feedback and believes that he is always right, his subjects will exploit his loophole by flattering the emperor. In this way the emperor will eventually lose his reign and his country, and his subjects will also be ruined! Yu Shiji, one of Emperor Sui’s imperial subjects, tried to secure his wealth and power by flattering Emperor Yang. In the end, both of them were killed. You must remember this important lesson. Whenever I make a mistake, you must put a mirror in front of me and point out my mistakes.”

Emperor Tai Zong said, “Each time I go to the imperial court for a imperial meeting, I think for a long time before I open my mouth. I am very conscious of the consequences of my speech upon my subjects, so I try to be terse and reticent.” The imperial court subject responsible for recording the emperor’s speech said, “My job is to record Your Majesty’s speech. Even when you say something wrong, I will record it. If Your Majesty says something wrong, it will not only have a negative effect on your people, but also become a laughing matter for future generations.” Emperor Tai Zong was very pleased with the official’s responsible attitude, so he rewarded him with two hundred yards of fabric.

Emperor Tai Zong also told his imperial subjects, “Many people believe that the emperor is fearless because he is above everyone, but I don’t believe so. I fear god’s judgement. I fear my subjects will emulate my bad speech and behaviour so I have to be cautious at all times. I also fear that I might violate the mandate of heaven [1] and the expectations of my people.”

Emperor Tai Zong also said, “I respect only the rules of Yao, Shun, King Wen of the Zhou Dynasty, and Confucius. They are as essential to me as the wings are essential to the birds and the water to the fish. I cannot live without the wisdom they have left behind at any time.”

References:
Comprehensive Mirror To Aid In Government (or Zi Zhi Tong Jian, a comprehensive history by Sima Quang in the Song Dynasty), Vol 192 and 193.

Note:
[1] The Mandate of Heaven: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandate_of_heaven

* * *

You are welcome to print and circulate all articles published on Clearharmony and their content, but please quote the source.