Wei Zheng, one of the most celebrated Chinese officials of the Tang Dynasty, defied his Emperor by slaying a sinful dragon. In his sleep.
The Dragon King of Jinghe River secretly dared to change the amount and time of the rainfall, violating a heavenly law and incurring the wrath of Heaven. But the Dragon King visited Emperor Tang Taizong in his dreams and pleaded for mercy. In his dream, the Emperor agreed to spare the Dragon King.
Wei Zheng had been appointed by the Heavens as the official beheader of wayward dragons. Tang Taizong tried to prevent Wei from executing this particular dragon by calling him to court to play chess. But Wei fell asleep during the match, and as he slept, his soul went to execute the Dragon King all the same, according to Heavenly Law.
The incident, while unusual, was typical of the relationship between Taizong and Wei Zheng. The 17 years they were together were marked by similar occasions: The two would disagree, Wei would win, and the final outcome would be the best one for the Emperor and the kingdom.
Wei Zheng’s role as a loyal and stalwart adviser to Emperor Taizong has been remembered through Chinese history, and is an example of the Confucian principle of the ruler and his subjects: The Emperor wise, careful, and considered; the adviser respectful but never hesitating to air concerns for the benefit of all.
During his career as an imperial official, Wei Zheng advised the Emperor on more than 200 affairs of state, and wrote hundreds of thousands of characters of memoranda to the throne. He ceaselessly expressed his views and, as long as he thought himself in the right, he wouldn’t back down.
Eventually, the Emperor could not bear Wei Zheng’s argumentativeness. He asked his brother-in-law, loud enough so that Wei could hear:
“Do you see that whenever I go against Wei Zheng’s advice, he doesn’t accept it? What’s going on here?” Wei Zheng, without being asked, piped up:
“It is only when Your Majesty does not do things correctly that I admonish. If Your Majesty does not listen to my advice, and I immediately obey Your Majesty, and that matter is handled wrongly, would that not be contrary to the original intention of my remonstrance?”
Taizong asked why Wei could not simply stay quiet during court, and then present his disagreement afterward. Wei said:
“During ancient times, Shun [a legendary leader] warned his ministers not to obey him in public and speak otherwise in private, as this does not show a subject’s loyalty toward his monarch, but instead craft and fawning. Therefore, I do not agree with Your Majesty’s remarks.”
The statement was sharp, direct, decisive — and every word of it was reasonable. His Highness simply nodded in thought.