Emperor Taizong of Tang (唐太宗 ) birth name Li Shimin; (598–649 AD) was one of the greatest military strategists of Chinese history. He was the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty ― known to be the Golden era of Imperial Chinese antiquity. As a wise merciful ruler Emperor Taizong was beloved by the people who, under his rulership, enjoyed a glorious period of enduring peace and prosperity.
Emperor Taizong embodied the Confucian ideal of a compassionate, strong, competent moral ruler who heeded the advice of wise and skilled officials. He said, “With bronze as a mirror one can correct one’s appearance; with history as a mirror, one can understand the rise and fall of a state; with good men as a mirror, one can distinguish right from wrong.”
Emperor Taizong of Tang’s virtue
A destructive plague of locusts broke out near the capital city of Chang’an in the second year of Emperor Taizong’s reign, and it spread quickly. Emperor Taizong saw some of the pests while inspecting crops grown in the gardens of the palace.
He picked up a locust and said, “People depend on the crops to live, but you consume them and cause famine. If the people have done anything wrong, I should be responsible for it. If you understand this, then stop harming the masses of people. You can feed on my heart.” With these words, he prepared to swallow the locust.
The court officials who saw this were shocked and said, “Please don’t do this. You may get sick.”
Emperor Taizong replied, “I was hoping that the disaster could be shifted to me. Why would I be afraid of getting sick?” To his officers’ alarm, the emperor proceeded to swallow the locust. From that day on and throughout his reign there was never a plague of locusts.
The Rites Division told the emperor in his fifth year that the Crown Prince was due for the Adult Ceremony shortly and that the most fortunate period for the ceremony was in the second lunar month. The Rites Division asked the emperor to raise the number of honor guards.
Taizong said, “Farming is busy right now, and your suggestion might harm farming work.” The event was subsequently postponed until October, according to his proclamation.
In desperation, the crown prince’s tutor tried to convince Taizong that the second month was the best time for the Adult Ceremony based on the Yin and Yang concept of mutual generation and inhibition.
Taizong replied, “I do not rigidly adhere to the Yin and Yang theory in doing things. If one does everything according to the Yin and Yang theory, then he would not care much about reasoning and righteousness. How can we only pursue our own good fortune and ask for blessings from heaven?”
“If one acts righteously, he will naturally be blessed with good fortune. Farming season is very important and it must not be put at risk,” he said.
Taking advisors’ criticism to heart
Emperor Taizong of Tang established a system of recruiting honest and forthright government employees who would regularly advise him and point out his faults. Sometimes the criticism was hard to take, but he always saw the value in his advisors’ words in the end.
Once Emperor Taizong lost his composure and rebuked Zu Xiaosun, a royal court music director, since his way of instructing the court musicians was not to the Emperor’s taste.
Wang Gui (王珪), an honorable and direct counselor to Emperor Taizong was one of the emperor’s most trusted and outspoken advisers. He and another advisor, Wen Yanbo, knew Zu was a talented musician and did his best at instructing as the King requested. They suggested that Emperor Taizong expected too much and chastised the Emperor for unjustly punishing Zu, adding, “we don’t want people to think you are autocratic.”
When Emperor Taizong heard this, he grew enraged and reprimanded them for siding with Zu and betraying their Emperor by lowering him. Wen Yanbo immediately repented for being offensive, but Wang Gui declared that he had no intention of apologizing.
“Your Majesty has asked me to serve faithfully. The words that I spoke earlier today weren’t for myself; yet you accuse me of betrayal. It is Your Majesty who has let me down, and not the other way around.” The emperor fell silent.
The next day, Taizong told his advisors about two Zhou dynasty monarchs who refused to heed their councilors’ advice, leading to severe blunders. Then he said, “Since ancient times, emperors have had difficulties in accepting remonstration. I have been hoping to follow the previous saints, but regret that I can’t achieve the standard of the ancients. I sincerely regret that I scolded Wang Gui and Wen Yanbo yesterday. I hope this incident won’t stop you from providing further upright remonstrations!”
Another advisor insisted on correcting the Emperor’s indulgent habit of hunting on horseback. Emperor Taizong justified the time-consuming activity to his advisors as good practice of important skills.
Sun Fujia, a court official at the time, tried to physically prevent the next hunt. He stood in front of the emperor’s horse and scolded him, “Riding and hunting on horseback are things that young, extravagant, useless sons of the wealthy do for pleasure…Your obsession is neither beneficial to the country nor a good model for your heirs.”
The emperor refused to listen, so Sun Fujia told him that the horse could trample over him before he would allow his Majesty to do anything improper. The emperor was infuriated and ordered Sun to be decapitated. Still the advisor said he would rather be killed than watch the emperor make a mistake.
Emperor Taizong was moved by Sun’s courage to uphold righteousness. He canceled the hunt, praised Sun Fujia for his loyalty and promoted the court official.
Raising the crown prince to be virtuous
Raising the crown prince to be a suitable successor was crucial in ancient China since it impacted the country’s fate and necessitated studying for future crown princes. Emperor Taizong of Tang was known to place a high value on education through the introduction of public schools and took education very seriously.
Crown Prince Li Zhi (李治) was the 9th son of the Emperor. He was a good son but he lacked bravery and drive. Emperor Taizong carefully planned Li Zhi’s education to preserve his strengths and improve his inadequacies. Taizong taught him in an unusual way. He stopped educating him by the book and instead taught him by sharing everyday experiences.
When they were eating a meal, Taizong said, “The food we eat comes from a year of hard work by the farmers.“When you eat a meal, think of the great difficulties they endured in plowing, sowing, and harvesting. Fill your heart with empathy to the farmers and restrain your desires. Heaven will see that you have the wisdom to be thankful for your good fortune, and it will bestow even more good fortune on you.”
When he saw the prince sailing, Taizong said, “water can carry a boat, but it can also capsize it. The common people are like water, and the monarch is like the boat. If the monarch treats the people with kindness and virtue, the people will love the monarch.”
Li Zhi eventually succeeded Taizong and became Emperor Gaozong of Tang. Gaozong preserved his authority and drafted the Tang Legal Code in 624 CE, which was adopted by subsequent dynasties. He also reorganized the aristocracy, preventing peasant farmers from being overtaxed, and redistributing landholdings.