The Chinese Emperors' Edicts of Repentance

The virtuous rulers in Chinese history--from Yu of the Xia Dynasty, Tang of the Shang Dynasty, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, Emperor De Zong of the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Shizu of the Qing Dynasty to Emperor Shengzu of the Qing Dynasty--would reflect upon themselves each time a major disaster occurred, be it natural or man-made: Have I done something wrong? Why would Heaven be enraged? Then these rulers would cleanse their bodies, go on a vegetarian diet, and worship Heaven and Earth. Some rulers would even issue an edict of repentance to the whole empire to confess and repent for their mistakes and to pledge to Heaven and their subjects to rectify their mistakes. In the edicts of repentance, these virtuous Chinese rulers also asked their subjects for their supervision and advice so as to obtain forgiveness from Heaven and to spare their subjects from Heaven's rage.

It is fairly common for a man of conscience to own up to his mistakes and repent. However, it was not easy for ancient emperors who had ascended to their thrones by a "mandate of Heaven" to reflect upon themselves and repent of their mistakes. It was even more commendable for an ancient emperor to issue an edict of repentance to openly confess his mistakes to his entire empire. Why would a Chinese emperor, believed to be a "son of Heaven," want to openly admit and repent for his mistakes? The explanation lies in Chinese culture and tradition.

In ancient China, it was believed that Heaven is the ultimate ruler of heaven and earth and a human king on earth is sent down to earth by Heaven to rule over people. Hence, an emperor was also known as a "son of Heaven." The Classic of History (also commonly known as Shangshu) says, "Heaven is not partial to anyone and will assist those people who are virtuous. People's loyalty changes and only kindness will win them over." Whether a king would obtain protection from Heaven depended on the king's personal virtue, for Heaven will only watch over a virtuous king. Once a king is no longer virtuous, his rule will diminish and his empire will be doomed. In Chinese history, all the immoral emperors were eventually forsaken by Heaven. It follows that an emperor must cultivate his morality if he wishes to secure his empire. Natural and man-made disasters are believed to be manifestations of Heaven's will; hence, ancient Chinese rulers regarded them as "signs of warning from Heaven."

The first Chinese rulers to reflect upon themselves and admit their mistakes were Yu of the Xia Dynasty and Tang of the Shang Dynasty. According to Chinese history, Yu once saw a criminal and began to weep in sadness. When asked why he was so sad, Yu replied, "In the times of Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun, the people followed Yao and Shun as though they were of one heart. Now I am the emperor, but the people follow their own hearts. That's what pains me." Shun was an emperor at the end of the uncivilized period in Chinese history. When he saw that his people failed to follow his examples, he felt very guilty and thought he had failed as a ruler. He blamed the crime on himself.

After King Cheng Tang of the Shang Dynasty overthrew Jia, the last ruler of the Xia Dynasty, he issued an edict of repentance that was later known as "The edict of Cheng Tang" in which he reflected on his mistakes. Cheng Tang wrote, "I, as an emperor, must bear all sins. I dare not forgive myself, for it is up to Heaven. I am responsible for millions of my people's sins and the consequences of the sins must not be borne by the millions of my people." Afterwards, the Shang Dynasty suffered from drought and the consequent shortage of harvests for years. A royal court official in charge of religious rites suggested offering a human sacrifice to Heaven to beg for rain. Emperor Cheng Tang refused. He cut off his long hair, trimmed his nails and prayed for rain in the forest. He blamed the drought and famine on himself. He said, "My people must not pay for my sins. If my people have sinned, I must be responsible for them. There is no need to take their lives on account of my sins." His people rejoiced and it began to rain.

The people were moved when Emperor Yao and Emperor Cheng Tang reflected upon themselves. In fact, the two rulers set good examples for the emperors to come.

According to Chinese history, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty was known for his military campaigns, territorial expansion, and his obsession with immortality and luxurious palaces. Emperor Wu's large expenditures had exhausted the national treasury and left his people poor. Poverty turned his people into bandits and thieves that ran rampant all over his empire. Late in his reign, Emperor Wu began to regret his policy mistakes. During the Zheng He Era of his reign, the Emperor rejected a proposal by Sang Hongyang to support military expansion in the west by expanding agriculture in Luntai, Xinjiang. He criticized himself in public and apologized to the whole nation for his past military policy mistakes, a gesture known to history as the Repentance Edict of Luntai. Tian Qianqiu, the prime minister he appointed, was in favor of resting the troops and the people and promoting agriculture, and upon his recommendation, several agricultural experts were made important members of the administration. Wars and territorial expansion generally ceased. These policies and ideals were supported by the subsequent Emperor Zhao and Emperor Xuan.

Emperor De of the Tang Dynasty also issued a repentance edict. Shortly after Emperor De ascended to the throne, he tried to limit the power of regional military governors, or Jiedushi, who challenged the central administration of the Tang empire. However, these fiefs revolted, and Emperor De was forced to flee the capital of Chang An in 783 A.D.. The rebel army pursued the emperor all the way to Tian Cheng. In the following spring of 784 A.D., Emperor Wu changed his era name to Xing Yuan and issued an edict of repentance in which he blamed everything on himself. He wrote, "I didn't realize Heaven above me reproached me or the people below me resented me. [...] I have shamed my ancestors and disappointed my people. I feel pained thinking of my mistakes. Everything is my fault." The edict touched the people and soldiers. The situation soon changed and the rebellion ended.

According to research conducted by a scholar named Xiao Han, based on The 25 Official Dynastic Histories, 79 Chinese emperors issued an edict of repentance. In the face of natural and man-made disasters, these Chinese rulers self-criticized, repented for, and rectified their mistakes. By shouldering their responsibilities, these emperors found a way to avoid further disasters. Their actions have demonstrated the conscience of virtuous rulers in ancient China. Their subjects were very lucky. But more importantly, their actions manifested one of the essential elements of traditional Chinese political culture.

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