Admiring and Praising a Magnificent Emperor
Emperor Taizong (598 – 649 AD) of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD), named Li Shimin at birth, was born into a noble family. One interpretation of the name "Shimin" [in Chinese, "Shi" means "the world," "min" means "the people"] is to "save the world and let people be safe and secure." He envisioned great goals as a young man. He was intelligent and courageous. Because he was brave throughout his life and never lost his enthusiastic vigor, he became the founder of the glorious Great Tang Dynasty and established a great empire, which was at the time respected and visited by all races and nations. He was the type of hero that history has rarely seen.
1. Raising an Army, Fighting the Corrupt and Conquering the Nation
As a youth, Li Shimin practiced martial arts and studied literature. When he was 18, he served under his father Li Yuan in Taiyuan during the uprising against Emperor Yang (569 – 618 AD) of the Sui Dynasty. They published an official condemnation of Emperor Yang that exposed his character. They let it be known that he listened to slander and took advice without knowing the truth, including when it came to killing loyal and good officials. Li Shimin required strict discipline from his army. His troops conquered the Xihe region and captured the corrupt deputy to the Xihe commander, Gao Deru. Li Shimin told the people, "My purpose for going to war was to save people from this life of misery and to get rid of corrupt officials!" Then he ordered the execution of Gao Deru. His first battle thus ended with a glorious victory.
Later, on the warpath to conquer Huoyi in the south, Li Yuan’s army ran out of supplies. Also, he was told that Eastern Tujue (the Turkic people) was planning an attack on Taiyuan while the main army was away. Li Yuan decided to retreat to Taiyuan to plan his next move. However, after carefully evaluating the situation, Li Shimin explained that the Huoyi defense forces were weak, therefore the army should conquer Huoyi first then continue the offensive to conquer Xianyang. This proactive tactic would give them a strategic advantage. Alas, Li Yuan didn't agree to this plan.
When he realized that the troops had begun to retreat, Li Shimin was deeply worried. He cried loudly and Li Yuan heard this cry inside the army tent. He emerged from the tent and asked Li Shimin for an explanation. Li Shimin said, "We are now launching a righteous war. If we charge forward, we will win every battle. But, if we retreat, the troops will break the ranks. If the enemy attacks from behind, we will be defeated and our troops killed. Therefore, I felt much grief and couldn't help crying." Upon hearing this, Li Yuan enlightened and ordered the retreating troops to return.
The supplies arrived shortly after. Li Yuan and Li Shimin attacked Huoyi and conquered it in one battle. Then they marched straight on Chang 'an. The general of Chang’an opened the gates to surrender. In the year 618 AD, Li Yuan declared himself emperor in Chang'an and established the Tang Dynasty. Li Shimin was granted the title of King of Qin.
When the Tang Dynasty was first established, many different forces occupied a divided China and it was a peak period of warfare between the various factions. Li Shimin, now just over 20 years old, took on the heavy task of suppressing each faction in order to unify the nation.
In every battle, Li Shimin was always on the front lines with the soldiers. He ate and rested with the generals and soldiers, sharing their happiness and despair. Once, when he was on patrol with 500 soldiers, they were surrounded by the enemy's army. General Dan Xiongxin charged towards Li Shimin with a long lance. General Yuchi Jingde intercepted him on horseback and pierced Dan Xiongxin off the horse, helping Li Shimin to break out of the enemy attack.
Another time when the army was pursuing the troops of Song Jingang, a rebel leader, Li Shimin had not eaten for two days and he had not removed his armor for three days. The officers and soldiers were also very tired and hungry. Although there was only one lamb, Li Shimin shared it with all the officers and soldiers, endearing him to everyone. For that they fought the enemy with all their abilities. Morale was very high among Li Shimin's troops and they won every battle. It took only around ten years to unify the nation.
Li Shimin established an institute of learning in the western part of the Qin Palace. He invited scholars to this institute. The most well known among those who accepted the invitation were eighteen scholars, including Fang Xuanling and Du Ruhui. Scholars were split into three shifts. Whenever he was free, Li Shimin went to the institution and held discussions with the scholars about history late into the night. This institute was highly respected in society. Anyone invited to serve in this institute was said to "have mounted Ying Zhou." [According to Chinese legend, Ying Zhou is a mountain in the heavens.)
2. Openly Inviting Criticisms and Appointing Officials Based on Their Talents
In 627 AD, Li Yuan abdicated and Li Shimin became emperor and was called Emperor Taizong.
Emperor Taizong treated all the supporters of the original Crown Prince with compassion. This was the reason why many of his former enemies became loyal and capable officials of the empire, among them Wei Zheng. Wei submitted more than 200 admonishments to Emperor Taizong, of which most were adopted. Wei Zheng's death was very upsetting to Emperor Taizong. He said, "With a bronze mirror, one can see whether one is properly attired. With history as a mirror, one can understand the rise and fall of a nation. With men as a mirror, one can see whether one is right or wrong. Now I've lost my faithful mirror with the death of Wei Zheng."
Emperor Taizong was wise and very resourceful. However, he was not an opportunist, nor did he play tricks when it came to governing. He always listened to criticisms and suggestions. He said, "Straightforward criticisms may sound harsh, but they are helpful in governing the nation." Once, he asked his officials to criticize him. General Zhangsun Wuji and others only complemented him. Emperor Taizong was unhappy with this and criticized, "I asked you as to what mistakes I made! But, you just flatter me. I'd like to discuss openly the strong points and shortcomings of everyone, so you can let go of your willingness to only flatter." Then Emperor Taizong told all officials their strengths and weaknesses.
Some people worried that criticizing the emperor would make him lose face. Emperor Taizong said, "If people dare not speak out, their anger will be held inside and I will never know the true situation. This is what really worries me. If I am at fault, you can openly point it out. I will not chastise you. It is tragic if one doesn't know one’s faults!" The officials then no longer held any doubt about the Emperor's true intention and submitted in writing the successes and failures of the policies.
General Chang He was not good at writing. So he asked one of his poor guests, Ma Zhou, who stayed at his home, to write for him. Ma made more than twenty suggestions, all of which were meant to eliminate injustices. Emperor Taizong did not believe that this was truly written by Chang He, who was a military officer. So he asked Chang He in person. After Chang He revealed the truth, Emperor Taizong said sternly, "This was not written by you. You should have put Ma Zhou's name on it which is the reasonable approach. I am sincerely calling for suggestions and criticisms, and you should also treat this the same way." Emperor Taizong urged to have an audience with Ma Zhou multiple times. After a conversation with Ma, he appointed the latter as an official in the edict review ministry. Ma later became a very famous official.
Although Emperor Taizong opened the door widely in his search for good officials, he didn't lower his standards for talent. Instead, he looked closely at people's moral values and talents.
He also appointed the right people to the right positions so that everyone's strong points could be fully utilized. Let's take Fang Xueling and Du Ruhui, who were both very famous, as examples. They were not good at dealing with individual cases and trivial matters, but were very good at making national strategy and policies. Therefore, they were appointed as prime ministers. Dai Zhou was the opposite; he wasn't the academic type, but he was very upright, so he was appointed as a judge in the supreme court. He turned out to be very efficient and capable. Emperor Taizong thought very highly of him.
To appoint local officials, the Emperor expended a lot of effort. The names and other basic information of all state governors were written on a big screen in his bedroom. This record was updated whenever new information was received about accomplishments and failures. This allowed the Emperor to have detailed information for assessment. He also offered very good opportunities to scholars through the Imperial Examination System. Whenever he saw the newly selected scholars who had just passed the examination, he said gladly, "All the capable people are now serving the country."
3. Benefiting the People and Living a Simple and Disciplined Life
Emperor Taizong proposed the theory, "The people are the root of the state." He introduced many initiatives to develop the economy, such as promoting the "Equal Land Scheme" (people were given an equal amount of land to farm), encouraging and rewarding people to cultivate marginal lands, adopting new tax codes to ease the people's burden, encouraging people to have more children, improve productivity, develop irrigation systems and dredge rivers and trenches.
A certain official worried that easing people's burdens would reduce the nation's revenue. Therefore the official suggested "The nation needs revenue now. If we only think about benefiting the people, the nation will not be able to launch big projects."
Upon hearing this, Emperor Taizong told the officials, "To establish a nation, we must first gain the trust of the people. If we want the nation to be prosperous, we must allow people to become prosperous first. If people are unsatisfied, the nation will have serious problems. Anything else is not as important."
He also ensured that a new legal system was enacted to clarify the reward and punishment system, which strengthened the rule of law.
The nation soon became very prosperous. Farmers reaped successive bumper harvests and the price of food decreased. People began to live and work in peace and prosperity and the nation became very strong.
Emperor Taizong also set a good example for his officials in terms of austerity. The first palace he lived in was built in the Sui Dynasty and was beginning to deteriorate. He had enacted a rule that officials could not live in an overly luxurious and extravagant manner. Therefore, all officials lived a modest lifestyle. The land was governed by honest officials who were not corrupt. One such official was Dai Zhou who also worked in the Ministry of Revenue. Because of his simple life style, there was no place in his home to pay tribute to him after his death. Wei Zeng lived similarly. He had not owned a decent house during his life.
Emperor Taizong also paid much attention to self-cultivation. His poetic and literary talents were outstanding. However, as he didn't want to pursue fame and was very modest, he forbade people from publishing collections of his poems and essays. He said, "If my works are good enough, history will tell. They will be passed on for a hundred generations. If they are not good, what's the point of collecting and publishing them? Emperor Liang Wu, Emperor Chen Hou and Emperor Yang of Sui had all published their literary works, but none of them was able to save their dynasties. So what is the use of publishing them? What's most dangerous for an emperor is the lack of good policy and morality. What good do these collections do for the nation!"
People in the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912 AD) collected his poems and essays and published them in the "Complete Poetry of the Tang" and the "Complete Prose Works of the Tang." Seven volumes of his prose works, five odes, and one volume with 69 poems was collected.
4. Nationalities Live in Harmony, Great Tang Dynasty Reaches Great Height
Due to Emperor Taizong's efforts, the Han nationality and minorities lived together harmoniously. He appointed officials from minority groups. He also allowed minorities to live in Chang'an permanently. More than 10,000 Turkic families moved to Chang'an at the time. In 630 AD, the chieftains of all the minorities in Northwest China jointly requested that Emperor Taizong adopt the title "Heavenly Khan." Emperor Taizong accepted this suggestion and used a stamp reading ""Heavenly Khan" to sign all documents that pertained to the minorities in the Northwest.
Once, the retired emperor Li Yuan and Emperor Taizong invited the officials to a banquet to celebrate the end of the year. Li Yuan asked Khan Jieli to dance to liven up the atmosphere, and then asked Feng Zhidai, the chieftain of the Man ethnic group in the south, to compose and recite poems. Everyone was in a very enthusiastic mood. Li Yuan said with much pleasure, "All the nationalities have become one family. We have never seen this in history!"
Later, Emperor Taizong asked his officials, "How can we solve the conflicts between different nationalities?" No answers were satisfactory, so he came up a summary of five suggestions. The last suggestion was, "To love and protect minorities just like you do those of Han nationality."
During Taizong's time, the Tang Dynasty became the most politically, economically and culturally advanced country in the world, owning vast territories. A most magnificent and colorful "Prosperity of Zhenguan" unfolded and was recorded in China's history. Zhengguan is the name of the era ruled by Emperor Taizong.
Emperor Taizong adopted clear national policies to deal with internal affairs, cared for people, appointed talented officials and assured that no injustice was carried out. When dealing with external affairs, he won people’s hearts with virtue and good moral concepts. Both diplomacy and military force were used. This made China the strongest country worldwide, envied by neighboring countries. Many countries adopted the majority of Tang policies, among them ancient Japan. Many diplomats, students, artists and monks from Asia and Africa came to Chang'an. The capital of Tang became the capital of the world. The cultural and religious development was at its greatest height and splendor. Because of Tang Dynasty's leading position in the world, and as Chinese diplomats and businessmen traveled to other Asian countries, foreigners began to refer to the Chinese people as "sons of Tang." Even in current times, some Westerners still call Chinese people as "the people of Tang."
During war time, Li Shimin recruited the strongest and most courageous heroes and capable generals for his army, while in peaceful times he managed to recruit the most outstanding scholars and experts to the palace. During his reign he was a role model for all of his officials. He established a thriving and prosperous society and brilliant culture. People are forever missing and longing for that heavenly dynasty, still vivid in their memory. Emperor Taizong's sense of justice, compassion, modest personality and broad mind were respected and admired by all.