History: Emperor Tang Taizong’s Leniency Based Principles

(1) Emperor Tang Taizong Emphasized Leniency

In the Zhenguan Era, Year One of the early Tang Dynasty (618-917), a plot against the emperor was discovered in Qingzhou, and local officials arrested many people. The local prison was full. Being uneasy with the situation, Emperor Taizong dispatched investigator Xue Renshi to take a closer look.

As soon as Xue arrived at the prison, he ordered the warden to remove the prisoners’ shackles, and provide them with adequate food and bathing facilities. At the end of his trip, only a handful of prisoners were still being punished for their crimes.

Sun Fujia, a high-ranking Imperial Court official, questioned Xue Renshi’s result, thinking that Xue exonerated too many prisoners. Xue defended his actions, “Following the emperor’s order, in handling criminal cases, we should base our decisions on compassion and leniency. How could I make judgment in compliance with orders from higher officials and yet punish people despite their innocence? As long as I make a judgment based on justice and moral principles, even if I offend the emperor’s family and relatives, and they kill me for that, I would have no regrets.”

Emperor Taizong wanted to give Sun Fujia the benefit of the doubt, so he sent another official to investigate Xue Renshi’s handling of the case. All evidence showed that the pardoned prisoners were indeed innocent. After reading the report, Emperor Taizong knew he could trust Xue Renshi even more.

(2) Compassionate Ruling and Moral Teachings Make Zhenguan the Pinnacle Era in Chinese History

Chinese culture is based on principles from Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. These beliefs and teachings peaked during the Tang Dynasty. The common core principle of the three schools is rectification of the human heart. The effect of these principles on society far exceeds that of law and order.

Emperor Taizong believed in compassion and leniency by the authorities, and he was open to different opinions. Under his rule, the law was simple and lenient, but his rules for official conduct were tough and clear. The accomplishments of the Tang Dynasty are unsurpassed in Chinese history. In Year Four of the Zhenguan Era, only twenty-nine criminals were condemned. It was a hard time, as China had just ended a bloody war, and the people and government both faced economic hardship. Despite that, society was in good order, thanks to the emperor’s emphasis on moral teaching. People learned to restrict their own conduct according to these principles. Faced with natural disasters, people pulled together and prevailed. In the following years, the nation returned to prosperity. The social order improved, people left their doors unlocked, and would not pick up anything in the street that did not belong to them. In the latter years of the Zhenguan Era, if people forgot to bring food on the road, they could eat in a stranger’s home. This was a time envied by people for thousands of years. Historians called Emperor Taizong’s time the Model Society of Zhenguan.

(3) Tang Taizong’s Reform of Extreme Punishment

From the outset, Emperor Taizong devoted much of his effort to reforming harsh punishment. According to the Song Dynasty history book “Zi Zhi Tong Jian,” “The Emperor ordered Zhangsun Wuji, the Chief Justice, and other officials to work with scholars and judges to reduce the severity of the laws. They removed 50 types of crimes from a ‘death by hanging’ sentence. They proposed to replace the regular death sentence to ‘cutting-off the right big toe.’ But the Emperor still felt it was too cruel and told them, ‘Body-harming punishment has been obsolete for a long time. You should find some alternatives.’ Finally, Official Pei Hongxian proposed to substitute these sentences with hard labor, 1500 km away from home for three years. The emperor approved it.”

Later the emperor found that an official was falsifying their family lineage in a personal profile. He ordered them to come forward to confess. In the past, anyone found be committing such fraud would be condemned to death. The emperor was furious, and he ordered that the man be killed.

Dai Zhou objected in his report, “According to our new law, this man should be sent to exile.” The emperor was not pleased, “If you follow the law, I will lose my credibility!” Dai Zhou argued, “Your order to condemn the man was due to your personal anger. But the law is the foundation for the country to earn people’s trust. Your majesty was offended by the fraud, so you ordered that the man be killed. But we know this is not right, especially when the new law was just enacted. We should all follow the law. I call this ‘endure the small anger, uphold the big principle.’” The emperor was impressed and said, “What do I have to worry about, now that I have someone like you to execute the law?”

Dai Zhou was outspoken and consistent in his work. He was not afraid of opposing the emperor in upholding the law. Even the emperor listened to him. So at the time, injustices were very rare.

Emperor Taizong emphasized leniency, and he was able to overcome his personal feelings and respect the law. From this perspective, it is clear that Taizong was an emperor of great compassion.

(Story from Qing Dynasty book Book of Social Harmony by Zhou Siren)

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