Several Stories about Tang Tai Zong

Youdao Li

PureInsight | May 28, 2001

How to Manage the Officials

After Tang Tai Zong (second emperor of the Tang Dynasty; his unofficial name was Shimin Li) succeeded to the throne, some of the old officials who had worked for him for several years complained that they had not been promoted. Tai Zong told them: 'The trust of an emperor by his subjects depends on his unselfishness. The common people supply our clothes and food. Setting official positions and selecting worthy persons to be officials are all for the common people. How can I promote my old followers without considering carefully whether they are worthy and virtuous or not?'

One time, Tai Zong was worried about the possibility of some of his officials' taking bribes, so he secretly sent some people who pretended to offer bribes to test them. One of his officials accepted a bolt of thin silk and so Tai Zong decided to sentence him to death. Ju Bei, a dignitary the empire, however, offered this advice: 'As an official, he should be sentenced to death for accepting a bribe. But, My Majesty, have you thought about your own behavior? You sent people to bribe him and make him break the law. Our ancestors have told us: 'Govern the country by virtue, and rule the people by truth'. What you have done is not in accordance with this.' Tai Zong was very pleased to hear that, and told all of his officials that: ' As a dignitary of the empire, Ju Bei has persevered in the truth, instead of unconditionally obeying my order without thinking about whether it is right or not. If we can do everything like this, there is no need to worry about whether the empire is built well.'

Once, someone offered to point out the treacherous court officials in his government. Tai Zong asked him: 'Who are the treacherous officials?' That person said: ' I don't know, but I know how to find them. My Majesty, you can pretend to be angry. The officials that persevere in their own opinions are loyal officials while those that absolutely obey your order with a scared heart are the treacherous court officials.' Tai Zong said: ' Thank you for your advice. But I cannot do that. The Emperor is like the headwaters of a river, and officials are like the streams from the river. It is impossible to purify the steams while the headwaters are polluted. If I myself cheat others, how can I ask my officials to be loyal? I govern the empire by honesty and justice. I always feel shame for the past emperors that treated their officials without trust and honesty.'

One day, Tai Zong asked Xuanling Fang and Yu Xiao (both were famous officials of the empire): 'How does Jian Yang (first emperor of Sui dynasty) compare with me?' Xuanling Fang and Yu Xiao said: 'Jian Yang devoted himself to the state's business. He was always discussing the affairs of state with middle-level and high-level officials. Even at mealtime he was still working; guards brought him his meals. He was not a very kind person, but he was a diligent emperor.' Tai Zong said: ' You have not grasped the whole situation. Jian Yang was not a very wise man but he always wanted to manage everything. Because he was not wise enough, there were always some situations that he could not comprehend. And since he wanted to manage everything, Jian did not trust his officials and decided every affair by himself instead of depending on his officials. The empire is so large, how could he deal with everything all by himself? His officials knew his characteristics; they just waited for his decisions instead of volunteering their own opinions even if they had good ideas. So his empire only lasted for 36 years and was destroyed when his son took over. I am quite different from him. I find all the people with ability in my empire and give them official positions. Let them deal with the affairs of state. I just examine their achievements, and reward the good ones and punish the bad ones. Everyone devotes himself to the affairs of the state. I don't need to worry about the empire.'


Once Tai Zong talked with his officials about how to stop robbing and stealing. Somebody suggested that a harsh law be established. Tai Zong said: 'The reasons for people stealing or robbing are the heavy taxes, too strenuous public service requirements, official malfeasance, and suffering hunger and cold, all of which make people forget their sense of honor. So I suggest saving money, lowering taxes, and selecting disinterested officials. These will make people know they need not worry about hunger and cold; the thieves and robbers will then disappear soon. There is no need for a rigorous law.' Several years later, the empire became peaceful. Citizens treated each other as if all were their family, there was no need to shut the door at night, and travelers could safely sleep in the fields.

Some people were found to be cheating during the process for the selection of officials. Tai Zong decided to sentence them to death according to an order that he had just declared. Wei Dai, an officer of the defense department, said: ' They should be exiled according to the law.' Tai Zong said angrily: ' You want to stand by the law and make me lose my credibility?' Wei said: ' My Majesty, you declared your order according to your temporarily happy or angry mood, while the law is declared for all of the people to stand by. My Majesty, you were very angry because you had been cheated, and decided to sentence them to death. You also know that what you have done does not stand by the law. If you can judge the whole situation from the view of the law, I think, you can jump out of your selfish anger and obtain the trust of the empire.' Tai Zong said happily: ' Since you can interpret the law like this, there is no need for me to worry about it.' After that, Wei gave advice to the emperor several times, Tai Zong took all of his advice, and there were no unjust charges from then on in the empire.

One day, Tai Zong asked Gui Wang, ' Why are recent governors not as good as the ancient ones?' Wang said: ' In the Han Dynasty, people advocated Confucianism, and the folkways were pure; recently, people despise Confucianism and emphasize the effect of the law, so the country grows weaker and weaker.' Tai Zong agreed with him.

A Benevolent Emperor

General Shunde Zhangsun accepted a bribe of thin silk. Tai Zong knew it and said: ' Shunde has contributed a lot to the empire. I can share the whole wealth of the empire with him, but why he is so interested in wealth?' Tai Zong did not punish him; on the contrary, he gave him ten bolts of thin silk. Yan Hu, an official, said: 'Shunde broke the law. Why is he not only absolved, but also rewarded?' Tai Zong said: ' If he is still human, when he receives the thin silk, he will be much more ashamed than if he is punished. If he does not feel shame, he is no different than an animal. Does it help to kill an animal?'

Tujue troops often attacked the border of the Tang Dynasty. One year, it snowed heavily in the Tujue Kingdom (ancient Turkey), many sheep and horses died, and the citizens of that land suffered famine. Many officials suggested to Tai Zong that they should attack them. Tai Zong said: ' We would not be keeping faith, since we just formed an alliance with them, if we broke the treaty so soon; we would not be benevolent if we tried to gain benefit from a kingdom that is suffering disaster; and it is not just military activity to hit your enemy when he is down. Even if all the tribes of the Tujue Kingdom betrayed their king and all the tame animals died out, I would not attack them. I would punish them only if they committed sin against us.'

Once Tai Zong told his officials: 'The emperor depends on his empire, and his empire depends on the people. An emperor who forces his people to be his personal slaves is doing the same as cutting his own flesh to fill his stomach. When he is full, he is dead -- the emperor becomes rich and his empire is destroyed. So to be an emperor, one should always look inside oneself. The more appetite an emperor has, the heavier the taxes paid by his people, the harder his people's lives are, and the more the empire is endangered. How could the emperor keep his position in these circumstances? I always think about this, so I always resist my temptations.'

A Wise Politician

One day Tai Zong said to some officials: 'I have read some profound articles written by Sui Yang Di.' (A tyrant who craved luxuries. His unofficial name was Guang Yang. His father was Jian Yang, the first emperor of the Sui Dynasty.) 'Why can he judge right from wrong in his articles but not in dealing with the affairs of state?' Zheng Wei answered: 'Even if the emperor is a saint, he should accept others' suggestions without vanity. In this way, wise persons can share their stratagems; brave persons can give their all. Sui Yang Di relied on his own ability and considered himself always right. What he said was like the words of a saint, what he did was like deeds committed by a devil. Furthermore, he had no self-knowledge, so the only possible result was for the empire to be destroyed.' Tai Zong said: ' All of this happened not long ago, we need to remember these lessons.'

One day, Tai Zong told his officials: ' By looking at a mirror people can evaluate their appearance. By looking at his loyal officials an emperor can evaluate his own faults. If the emperor always considers himself right and refuses suggestions from his officials and, at the same time, his officials flatter their emperor to make him happy, the emperor will lose his empire, and his officials will not stay alive either. Just like Shiji Yu, an official of Sui Yang Di, flattered Sui Yang Di in order to protect his own wealth. When Sui Yang Di was killed, he could not live any longer either. You should remember this lesson and point out my mistakes.'

Tai Zong said: ' Every time I contact my officials, before speaking a word, I always think about it for some time in order to avoid saying the wrong thing. So I seldom speak.' The official in charge of recording said: ' My duty is to record every word you say. So, My Majesty, if you make some mistakes, I will record them. Thus your mistakes will not only harm today's empire, but will also be laughed at by posterity.' Hearing this, Tai Zong was very happy, and awarded this official 200 bolts of silk.

Tai Zong told his officials: ' Somebody said the emperor is afraid nothing. I am not like what they said. I fear the judgment of the gods and am anxious about the respect of my officials. Even if I cautiously and conscientiously perform my responsibilities, I am still afraid that what I do may not be according to the desires of the gods and my subjects.' Tai Zong kept on, saying that: ' What I hold precious are the methods to govern the country according to what Rao, Shun, (great ancient Chinese kings) Zhou Gong (great ancient Chinese official) and Confucius taught. Their methods to me are like wings to birds and water to fish. Without them I cannot live for even a minute.'

(Translated from

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