One Is Blessed to be Told of One’s Mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes, but only the virtuous ones are capable of listening to others' opinions and criticisms with an open mind. Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD), known for his broadmindedness and wisdom, was such a virtuous and wise leader, which is rarely seen throughout history. The following are a few stories from history books about the emperor that show he was willing and even delighted to have his errors pointed out by his officials.
Emperor Taizong once resented Mu Yu, a court official responsible for the imperial gardens, and ordered his execution. Hearing the news the crown prince hurried to his father to plead and reason with him not to behead the man. Very pleased, Emperor Taizong said, "First I had Wei Zheng, who used to come to me every morning and evening, offering his frank opinions. After Wei died, Liu Ji, Cen Wenben, Ma Zhou, and Chu Suiliang have continued that tradition. My son has been around me a great deal and saw that I like to hear different opinions, so today he came to advise me to be prudent. With practice, advising has become natural!"
Emperor Taizong once turned to his officials and said, "Today, I want to hear others talk about my errors. You may go ahead." Everyone seemed to be saying the same thing: "Your Majesty has achieved peace with grand virtue, and there has been nothing you've done wrong." The only one that acted differently was Liu Ji, an official from the executive branch of the imperial government. Liu stepped forward and said, "Recently there were people who submitted memorials to Your Majesty that were not in keeping with the imperial edicts. Sometimes Your Majesty would fly into a rage and try to get to the bottom of it right then and there. At the time, no one dared to utter a word, but this is perhaps not the result anyone wanted to see." "You are absolutely right. I will change," said the emperor.
Emperor Taizong despised corrupt officials and planned to take harsh measures against them. He arranged bribes to be sent to government officials at various levels as a test. There was one official who accepted the gift. Afterwards, the emperor ordered him executed. Pei Ju, the official in charge of civil administration, reasoned, "Bribe takers should be executed for sure, but Your Majesty lured him into it then brought him to justice. This is what people call, 'Deceiving someone into committing a crime.' This is not a method that accords with virtue and justice." At those words, the emperor turned to the group and said, "Pei Ju has the courage to articulate his argument right in front of the imperial court, instead of nodding agreement to everything I say or do. If everything were dealt with this way, nothing would be impossible to be settled, right?"
When Emperor Taizong first ascended to the throne, he liked to go on hunting trips. Sun Fujia, an official from the justice division, advised the emperor not to go, on the grounds that it was not a good example for later generations. The emperor said, "You could point out my error, and I could amend it. This way there is hope for the nation!"
In the first year of the Zhenguan Era (627 AD), Gao Feng, an official for drafting imperial documents, cited five cases in which the emperor had not used the right people, did not cherish financial and human resources, and so on. Emperor Taizong couldn't have been more pleased to see this and promoted Gao. Later, on more than one occasion, Gao submitted memorials to the emperor, highlighting improper behaviors of the court, every word in them true and sincere. The emperor bestowed a piece of medicinal stalactite, saying “You offered me words of wisdom akin to medicine, I also give you medicine in return.”
Once a strange comet passed across the sky, an event that lasted more than a hundred days. Emperor Taizong asked his officials what such an omen might indicate. Yu Shinan, one of his ministers, stepped forward and cited the example of King Jing of Qi (547 – 490 BC), an excellent monarch who ruled the Qi State in the Spring-Autumn Period (800 – 300 BC). A similar phenomenon involving a comet occurred then but passed quietly under King Jing's virtuous rule. Yu advised Emperor Taizong that he should keep a clear head and refrain from being arrogant despite his achievements and the long period of peace, and that he could never be too prudent. Emperor Taizong responded, "Indeed, I led a rebellion at the age of 18 and had the nation at age 24. Before I turned 30, I ascended to the throne. I thought that no other monarchs had achieved what I have in terms of restoring order, so I became too proud and arrogant, looking down on everyone. The unusual phenomenon is probably an omen from Heaven. Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC) defeated the other six states, Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (604 – 617 AD) once seemed to own everything under the sun, but they both failed in the end because of their arrogance. How can I not draw a lesson from them?"
Court official Zhang Xingcheng was at one of the imperial dinners when he heard the emperor talk about people from Shandong Province and those from Guanzhong in central China. Zhang sensed that the emperor's tone was biased, so he said, "The Son of Heaven should treat the world as his home and should not differentiate between the east and west. Otherwise, he is showing to the public that he is narrow-minded." Emperor Taizong agreed wholeheartedly and handsomely rewarded Zhang. From then on, the emperor always sought Zhang's opinions before making any important decisions. Once, Emperor Taizong mentioned to his officials that many emperors and kings in history achieved peace only with the assistance of their generals, whereas he was not only a ruler, but also a general and a minister at the same time. Hearing that, Zhang quickly submitted a statement of opinion, pointing out that this was an act of competing for credit with his subjects. The emperor agreed.