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

Li Youdao

PureInsight | July 28, 2003

[Series 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 many generations of Chinese people as being the peak of Chinese culture, economics and literature. The administration of the virtuous Emperor Tai Zong contributed much to the rule of Zhen Guan, as illustrated by many historical records.]

[] General Zhangsun Shunde, a military leader during the reign of the Emperor Taizong took a bribe of silk. When Emperor Taizong learned of this, he said, "Shunde is such a capable person. If he would act purely to benefit the nation, I would share with him everything the state has to offer. Why is he so attached to accumulating material wealth?" Because Shunde did a lot of good things for the empire, Taizong did not punish him. Instead, Taizong made him a gift of a large quantity of silk. Junior Official Hu Ying from the Department of Justice said, "Shunde took bribes, which is against the law. He is not eligible for amnesty. Why reward his crime by giving him more silk?" Taizong said, "If he still has a conscience, he should feel more ashamed for being rewarded than for being punished for his crime. If, instead, he does not have the decency to feel shame, he is no different than an animal. I would not bother to kill him."

In Taizong's era, the Kokturk armies often invaded the territory of the Tang Empire. One year, their land was beset with heavy snowstorms, which caused the death of many sheep and horses. The Kokturk people were on the verge of starving to death, and their livestock were short of feed. Many Chinese imperial officials suggested that Taizong take this opportunity to attack the Kokturks. Taizong said, "We just signed a treaty of alliance with them. If we betray them, it is bad faith; if we take advantage of their disaster for our own interests, it is not kind; if we attack them in their time of great need, it is not a justifiable action. Even if every Kokturk tribe decides to break away from their ruler and all of their livestock die, I will not attack them. I have to wait until they commit any sins before I will conduct any military action against them."

Taizong told his officials, "The emperor depends on the nation, and the nation depends on the people. If the people have to be forced to serve the emperor, it is just like one who eats oneself–one dies after he is full. Though the emperor becomes rich, his country will fall. Therefore, an emperor should pay attention to his own conduct rather than worrying so much about external affairs. If an emperor is extravagant and spends too much money, the taxes on the people will be high. As a result, the people will suffer and the country will be in danger. Ultimately, the emperor may not be able to maintain his position. I often think about this, so I will not indulge my desires."

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