How Tang Emperor Taizong Bore the Blame Himself and Swallowed a Locust

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The ancient Chinese believed in the unity of heaven and man and that man's rise and fall reflects the changes in the cosmos. In the dynasties of the past, the official historians always set aside one chapter in their history books to describe how the changes of the cosmos corresponded to the rise and fall of their dynasties. The historians did this in order to alert people and to urge the kings and emperors to respect heaven, which would bring benefits to the people.

Disasters originate from man-made calamities. The virtuous monarchs in ancient times often took natural disasters as gods' warnings to them. They then looked within and found the faults in themselves, making it clear that they were responsible. Following the disasters, they did good deeds and took good advice from others. They made the responsible people accountable and punished them, and always showed benevolence. With this kind of rule, disasters faded and disappeared and people lived in harmony and prosperity.

The Tang Emperor Taizong (Li Shi-min)

In June of the second year of Zhen Guan (or Chen Kuan) in the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 628), there was a severe drought in Chang-an, the capital of Tang, and its neighbouring regions. Locusts were plaguing these areas and devouring the crops. They were seen even in the royal gardens. One day Emperor Taizong picked up a locust while visiting the garden. In all seriousness he vowed, "Grain is what common people live on, but you have eaten all the grain. It is my people whom you are hurting! Even if it is the fault of the common people and you are dispatched by gods to punish them, it is not really their fault but mine, because, as an emperor, I have not done my duty well. If you are really spiritual, you should direct the calamity to fall on me instead of the people." Having said that, Emperor Taizong was about to swallow the locust to show his determination to wipe out the plague. Worried that the emperor might get sick, his page tried to stop him from swallowing the locust. The Emperor responded, "I'm just hoping the gods will shift the disaster from the people to me. How can I allow calamity to go on out of fear of getting sick?" Then he quickly swallowed the insect. Emperor Taizong's determination to suffer for his people moved the gods. Soon after, the locusts gradually disappeared. In the following decades that Emperor Taizong ruled, locusts no longer plagued the country.

Selected from The Seventeenth Part of the Old History of the Tang Dynasty: Five Primary Elements.

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