Stories from History: Emperor Tai Zong of the Tang Dynasty, A Monarch of Great Virtue (Part II)

Li Youdao

PureInsight | July 21, 2003

[Editor's Note –"The rule of Zhen Guan" is also known as "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 countless generations of Chinese people as the peak of Chinese culture, economics and literature in Chinese history. The administration of the virtuous Emperor Tai Zong contributed much to the rule of Zhen Guan, as is illustrated by many historical records, such the ones that follow.]

Emperor Tai Zong of the Tang Dynasty

[] Li Shimin was Prince of the Qin Estate before he became Emperor Tai Zong of the Tang Dynasty. After Li Shimin became Emperor, some of his court officials complained because they hadn't been promoted after several years of service to the Prince. Emperor Tai Zong replied, "Only a just and altruistic emperor can win the respect of his people. The people of this country provide for us, so I must select men of virtue and wisdom for all of the government positions. It wouldn't be acceptable if I promoted my own subordinates based on how long they have served."

One time, Emperor Tai Zong was very concerned about a tendency to accept bribes occurring among some government officials, so he sent undercover agents to test the suspected government officials by offering bribes. One government official took a bolt of silk from an undercover agent as a bribe. Emperor Tai Zong was furious and decided to execute the official. Pei Ju, the Minister of Civil Personnel (Shang Shu in Chinese), advised Emperor Tai Zong against the execution. He said, "As a government official, accepting bribes is indeed a capital crime. However, Your Majesty exposed him using undercover agents, this was a less than righteous act, which does not comply with the ancient teaching of 'reasoning with people via virtue, and correcting them with manners.'" Upon hearing Pei Ju's advice, Emperor Tai Zong was very pleased and told all royal court officials, "Pei Ju does not always obey my orders. He dares to contradict me with reason. If every government official treated his work like Pei Ju, I would not have to worry about the government's administration."

One time, Emperor Tai Zong received a petition from a civilian urging him to purge corrupt royal court officials. Emperor Tai Zong asked, "How do I identify a corrupt official?" The man answered, "Your Majesty can pretend to be muddleheaded on a certain issue as a test. Those who argue with reason are righteous officials and those who obey you even when you are unreasonable are the corrupted ones." Emperor Tai Zong said, "An emperor is the source of a giant river and his officials constitute the giant river. If the source is contaminated, the river will be too. If I cheat my officials, how can I ask them to be honest? I wish to govern this land with the utmost sincerity; therefore, I often feel ashamed for those emperors who dealt with officials by using power and underhanded schemes. With that in mind, you'll understand why I do not wish employ your strategy, although it is clever."

One day, Emperor Tia Zong asked two of his court officials, Fang Xuanling and Xiao Yu, "How was Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty?" Fang Xuanling and Xiao Yu said, "Emperor Wen was diligent in controlling the government administration. He often discussed administration affairs with court officials above the fifth ranks. At mealtimes, he asked the guards, instead of beautiful palace maids, to bring him meals. Although he cannot be described as a benevolent emperor, he was still a diligent emperor." Emperor Tai Zong said, "You only saw one side of Emperor Wen. Emperor Wen had a lot of questions about government administration, and that's why he spent so much time with court officials trying to understand 'everything.' Because Emperor Wen had a lot of questions about the administration, he made decisions that were not well thought out. Because Emperor Wen always thought he was missing some of the details, he was always suspicious of his officials. Emperor Wen insisted on making his own decisions regarding everything and refused to rely on the collective wisdom of his officials."

"Given the vast size of China and vast number of administration affairs, Emperor Wen would exhaust himself before he could manage the country successfully! Emperor Wen's court officials saw his flaw, so they waited for Emperor Wen to make every decision for them. Even when they knew there were errors in some of Emperor Wen's decisions, they dared not to object and speak their mind. Therefore, the Sui Dynasty lasted for only two generations. I run this country in the opposite way. I recruit all the talented people in the world and give them government positions. I ask them to administer the country and I listen to their reports. They get rewards if they do a good job and punished if they fail their duties. Naturally, every government official will strive his best. This is the way I run the country, and this is why I do not worry about my inability to govern this country well."

Volume 192 and volume 193 of Zi Zhi Tong Jian, a 294-volume chronicle by Sima Guang, covering a period of 1,362 years down to the Epoch of the Five Dynasties.

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