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

Li Youdao

PureInsight | July 28, 2003

[Series note – Tang Taizong, the second Emperor of the Tang Dynasty, is widely considered to be the greatest emperor in Chinese history. The period of his reign (624-649) is called the "Zhen Guan Years," which was one of the most prosperous periods of time in Chinese history. He is known as an emperor with great virtues. Here are some personal stories about Taizong that illustrate his character.]

[] Tang Taizong once held a discussion with his officials on how to stop people from stealing. One of them suggested passing harsh laws. But Taizong said, "The reason people steal is because of the heavy national tax and compulsory servitude, in addition to the corruption of officials and poverty. Therefore, thieves do not feel ashamed of stealing. If I cut down our budget, reduce taxes, avoid wasting money, appoint self-disciplined officials, then people will have enough food and clothing and will not steal anymore. Why do we need harsh laws?" A couple years later, The Tang Dynasty entered an era of peace. No one would pick up possessions that others had lost on the street; people did not lock their doors in the evening, and travelers could sleep outdoors safely.

Tang Taizong once decided to select officials from the people based on their qualifications. When he found that some people had lied about their qualifications, Taizong issued an order to execute them. Dai Zhou, the deputy director of the Military Department suggested that they should be exiled based on the Law of the Dynasty. Taizong became angry and asked Dai if he was trying to discredit the emperor by advising that the law rather than the Order of the Emperor should be followed. Dai Zhou said, "The orders from Emperors were issued based on their moods. An emperor can only gain merit through abiding by the law. Your Majesty hates fraud and therefore would execute them, while you know it would be wrong based on law. In order to maintain the trust of the people, Your Majesty should follow the law and forbear your private hatred." Taizong listened to him. He said, "If you can always enforce the law in this way, I will not worry about anything." Afterwards, Dai Zhou appealed to Taizong many times. Taizong always accepted his advice. Wrongful cases were prevented.

Taizong asked Wang Gui, "Why are the modern rulers not as good as those of the ancient times?" Wang Gui said, "The Han Dynasty respected Confucianism very much; people were simple and pure. Now Confucianism is not as respected as before. Instead, people have started to rely more and more on law enforcement. That is why the nation is declining." Taizong agreed.

Comprehensive Mirror To Aid In Government (Zi Zhi Tong Jian, a comprehensive history by Sima Guang in the Song Dynasty), Vol 129 and 130.

Translated from

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