Adapted from Clearwisdom.net
Emperor Taizong of Tang (唐太宗 ) ( 598 – 649 AD), personal name Li Shimin, was the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty. One of the few truly outstanding emperors in Chinese history, his rule – known as the Zhenguan Era ( 627 – 649 AD) – was a golden age of peace and prosperity.
There are many admirable stories about Emperor Taizong and his ministers, and here are some of them.
Emperor Taizong was well-known for being receptive to advice and criticism.
Accepting Remonstrations From Subordinates
Emperor Taizong understood the importance of having good advisors who were willing to point out his mistakes.
As such, he implemented a system to recruit the most virtuous and talented government officials. Because of his virtue and his trust in his subjects, he was able to recruit an excellent cabinet of ministers.
Emperor Taizong was well-known for being receptive to advice and criticism. He sometimes had difficulty keeping his temper when his advisors’ criticism was too harsh. However, he always regarded the country’s interests as the most important, and always corrected himself once he realised his own faults.
One of Emperor Taizong’s royal advisors was Wang Gui (王珪), an upright and straightforward person. Before Emperor Taizong ascended to the throne, Wang Gui had previously been under exile for being involved in a palace coup.
Wei Zheng never compromised his integrity. Even when Emperor Taizong was offended by his criticisms, Wei Zheng never relented.
But Taizong recognised Wang Gui’s talent, and when he became emperor he pardoned Wang Gui and made him a royal advisor.
Wang Gui routinely gave Emperor Taizong advice and corrected his mistakes, and Emperor Taizong accepted his remonstrations readily. However, not all the remonstrations were easy to stomach.
One time, Emperor Taizong lost his temper badly and scolded Zu Xiaosun, a royal court music director, because he did not like Zu’s method of teaching the palace musicians.
Wang Gui and another advisor Wen Yanbo (温彦博) felt Zu was not at fault, and therefore advised Emperor Taizong:
“Zu Xiaosun is proficient in music and he also tried his best at teaching. Besides, Zu Xiaosun is a refined scholar, yet Your Majesty asked him to teach music to maids, and even scolded him. We are concerned that people in the country will feel intimidated by this.”
Upon hearing this, Emperor Taizong became even angrier. “You are my trusted officials and should exhibit loyalty and honesty. Why are you siding with a lower person and deceiving your emperor?”
Wen Yanbo hurriedly knelt down in apology, but Wang Gui refused to kneel. He said, “I should have been executed for my offense, but Your Majesty pardoned me and placed me in an important position, asking me to serve faithfully.
“The words I spoke earlier weren’t for me. Yet I am surprised that Your Majesty suspects me of treason. It is Your Majesty who has let me down, and not the other way round.”
Emperor Taizong was speechless.
The next day, Emperor Taizong said to his advisor Fang Xuanling: “Since ancient times, emperors have had difficulties in accepting remonstrations. King Xuan of the Zhou Dynasty was an emperor of virtue, yet he killed the innocent Shubo.
“I have been hoping to follow the example of the sages, but I am far below their standards. Yesterday, I scolded Wang Gui and Wen Yanbo, and I now regret it. I hope this incident won’t stop you from providing upright remonstrations!”
As a prince, Emperor Taizong enjoyed hunting on horseback. But his obsession with hunting persisted even after becoming emperor, and he would spend many days on hunting trips with his entourage.
A monarch who grows up in a palace cannot know everything and will certainly make mistakes.
Many officials tried to persuade him to stop pursuing such a time-consuming interest. But Emperor Taizong felt that his entourage was honing their battlefield skills by practicing riding and archery, so he didn’t listen.
One day, Emperor Taizong set off for another hunt. Just as he was about to mount his horse, a court official named Sun Fujia dashed forward and stopped Emperor Taizong from leaving.
Sun warned Emperor Taizong: “Riding and hunting on horseback are things that young, profligate, good-for-nothing sons of the wealthy do for pleasure.
“When you hunted occasionally as the prince, the impact was not as significant. But now that you are the emperor, how can you indulge in this pastime so often?
“Your obsession is neither beneficial to the country nor a good model for later generations.”
But Emperor Taizong did not listen. “Although we are now at peace, our military should always remain prepared. What’s so bad about going hunting, keeping fit and practicing fighting skills?
“Also, I have arranged a light entourage to accompany me so I won’t bother the people. Say no more!”
But Sun continued to stand in the emperor’s way. He said seriously, “If Your Majesty does not listen to my humble advice and insists on going out of the palace, you can let the horse trample over my body. As long as I am breathing, I will not sit idly and watch Your Majesty do anything improper as the Son of Heaven!”
ëI was hoping that the disaster could be shifted to me. Why would I be afraid of getting sick?í Emperor Taizong then gulped down the locusts. From then on, during his reign, there was never another plague of locusts.
Angered by Sun’s stubbornness, Emperor Taizong shouted, “I am the Son of Heaven! Can I not enjoy just a little freedom? Must I do everything according to your likes?” He then ordered the soldiers to publicly decapitate Sun.
The soldiers dragged Sun outside, but even in the face of death Sun showed no fear. “I would rather be killed for providing honest remonstrations than live to watch Your Majesty repeat his mistake!”
Sun’s fearless spirit and great loyalty moved Emperor Taizong. He got off his horse and said to Sun, “You are willing to risk your life to remonstrate and have persistently demonstrated your loyalty. How can I ignore your advice and go hunting?”
Emperor Taizong immediately dismissed the hunting team, praised Sun and promoted him to the rank of a fifth grade court official.
Emperor Taizong and Prime Minister Wei Zheng’s Symbiotic Relationship
Emperor Taizong and his Prime Minister, Wei Zheng were one of the most admirable pair of monarch and advisors in Chinese history.
Wei Zheng was probably the best advisor in Emperor Taizong’s royal cabinet, and was known for providing Emperor Taizong with honest feedback and constructive criticism.
Wei Zheng served Emperor Taizong for 17 years before he passed away. According to historical records, Wei Zheng never compromised his integrity. Even when Emperor Taizong was offended by his criticisms, Wei Zheng never relented.
Eventually, Emperor Taizong always calmed down and listened to his comments with an open mind. Emperor Taizong chose to listen to reason and Wei Zheng chose to be honest. To this day, their interactions still serve as a model for today’s politicians.
Wei Zheng did not just give his opinion on administrative issues. He also tried to direct Emperor Taizong’s private life in the right direction.
Emperor Taizong was once addicted to hunting and playing with hunting hawks. One day, Emperor Taizong was playing with a baby hawk when he spotted Wei Zheng walking towards him. He immediately hid the baby hawk in his sleeve.
But Wei Zheng had already noticed that the Emperor was spending too much time playing with his pets, so he decided to teach the Emperor a lesson. He purposely extended the length of the conversation.
When Wei Zheng finally left, Emperor Taizong immediately took the baby hawk out of his sleeve. But it was too late – the baby hawk had already died of suffocation!
Having learned his lesson, Emperor Taizong no longer wasted his time on hunting hawks.
Emperor Taizong often consulted the wise Wei Zheng on various issues. While Emperor Taizong was an open-minded person, he sometimes could not tolerate Wei Zheng’s blunt remarks.
One day, Emperor Taizong returned from a cabinet meeting in a fury. He angrily told Empress Changsun, “Sooner or later I will kill that upstart Wei Zheng! He always contradicts me and embarrasses me in front of everyone!”
Upon hearing this, Empress Changsun left the room. She soon returned dressed in formal robes.
She congratulated Emperor Taizong and explained, “A subject is willing to present his honest opinion only when the emperor is wise and open-minded.
“I would like to congratulate Your Majesty for having a cabinet member who is not afraid to contradict you, because it is proof of your open-mindedness!”
After hearing the Empress’s words, Emperor Taizong calmed down. He began to recall Wei Zhong’s integrity and moral character, and his heart was filled with respect for him.
Emperor Taizong once commented, “A lot of people think Wei Zheng is a direct and tactless man, but I think those are his very charms.”
Wei Zheng was a very stern man and did not like to joke. As a result, Emperor Taizong enjoyed teasing him.
Emperor Taizong had heard that Wei Zheng was partial to pickled celery, so he decided to tease him about it.
He invited Wei Zheng to a banquet and included pickled celery as one of the dishes. True enough, Wei Zheng’s eyes sparkled when he saw the pickled celery and he finished it right away.
Emperor Taizong grinned and said to him, “You once told me you don’t have any attachments. Now I have found your attachment to pickled celery!”
Wei Zheng replied, “If Your Majesty does not have a bigger ambition than exploring trivial matters about your subjects, I have no choice but to develop an attachment to pickled celery for your satisfaction.”
Wei Zheng answered in a very respectful and humble manner, but he implied that he had much greater expectations of Emperor Taizong.
After hearing this, Emperor Taizong sighed. He had come to realise Wei Zheng’s expectations of him, and was touched by Wei Zheng’s loyalty and dedication to the country.
When Wei Zheng passed away, Emperor Taizong burst into tears at his funeral. He said to his cabinet, “Put a slab of copper as a mirror before me, and I can straighten my robe. Put history as a mirror before me, and I can identify the alarming signs of rise and fall in a dynasty. Have a man as a mirror who reflects my flaws, and I can rectify my mistakes.
“I constantly keep these three mirrors to prevent me from making mistakes. Now that Wei Zheng has passed away, I have lost a mirror!”
Educating the Crown Prince
In ancient China, raising the crown prince to be a good successor was very important, as it impacted the country’s future. Emperor Taizong took this very seriously.
Crown Prince Li Zhi (李治) was a kind and righteous person, but he lacked courage and determination. Emperor Taizong made careful plans to educate Li Zhi so he would be able to keep his good traits and improve on his weaknesses.
Taizong used an unorthodox method to educate his son. He abandoned the policy of teaching by the books, and instead taught him by sharing about things they encountered in their daily lives.
When they were eating a meal, Taizong said, “The food we eat comes from a year of hard work by the farmers.
“When you eat a meal, think of the great difficulties they endured in plowing, sowing, and harvesting. Fill your heart with empathy to the farmers and restrain your desires.
“In that case, Heaven will see that you have the wisdom to be thankful for your good fortune, and it will bestow even more good fortune on you.”
When Emperor Taizong saw the prince riding on a boat, he said, “Water can carry a boat, but it can also capsize it.
“The common people are like water, and the monarch is like the boat. If the monarch treats the people with kindness and virtue, the people will love the monarch.
“But if the monarch is tyrannical and inattentive to their needs, the people will treat him as an enemy and betray him. You cannot afford to be careless in this matter.”
One day, Emperor Taizong found the crown prince lying under the cool shade of a tree, He said, “A tree often doesn’t grow perfectly straight, but a carpenter can turn it into a straight log strong enough to support a building.
“A monarch who grows up in a palace cannot know everything and will certainly make mistakes. Only by modestly listening to the advice of his ministers can he correct and straighten himself up and become a worthy emperor.”
Under Taizong’s careful guidance, the crown prince became a fine monarch in his own right. He followed the teachings of his father, heeded the wishes of his people, and remained committed to maintaining a chaste style of governance.
In many areas of politics, economics, culture and other aspects, he built upon his father’s accomplishments and achieved even greater successes than his father.
His accomplishments confirm that Emperor Taizong had chosen and educated a worthy successor. Emperor Taizong was not only an outstanding political leader and strategist, he was also a master in training, teaching and working with virtuous people.
The Virtue of Emperor Taizong
In the second year of Emperor Taizong’s rule, there was a plague of locusts near the capital city Chang An.
While inspecting crops grown in the imperial gardens, Emperor Taizong saw some locusts.
He picked up a locust and said, “People depend on the crops to live, but you consume them and cause famine. If the people have done anything wrong, I should be responsible for it.
“If you understand this, then stop harming the masses of people. You can feed on my heart.” With these words, he moved to swallow the locusts.
When the court officials saw this, they immediately said, “Please don’t do this. You may get sick.”
Emperor Taizong replied, “I was hoping that the disaster could be shifted to me. Why would I be afraid of getting sick?” He then gulped down the locusts.
From then on, during his reign, there was never another plague of locusts.
In the fifth year of his rule, Emperor Taizong was informed by the Rites Division that the crown prince was due for the Adult Ceremony soon, and that the most auspicious time was in the second month of the lunar calendar.
The Rites Division requested the emperor increase the number of soldiers as guards of honour for the occasion.
Emperor Taizong responded, “Farming is busy right now, and your suggestion might harm farming work.” He then issued a decree to postpone the ceremony to October.
The crown prince’s teacher tried to convince Emperor Taizong otherwise, suggesting that according to the principle of mutual generation and mutual inhibition in the Yin and Yang theory, the second month was the best time for the Adult Ceremony.
But Emperor Taizong replied, “I do not rigidly adhere to the Yin and Yang theory in doing things. If one does everything according to the Yin and Yang theory, then he would not care much about reasoning and righteousness. How can we only pursue our own good fortune and ask for blessings from heaven?
“If one acts righteously, he will naturally be blessed with good fortune. Farming season is very important and it must not be put at risk.” He then rejected the suggestion.