A Virtuous Emperor During the Zhenguan Period
During the Zhenguan Period in China (627 – 649 AD), Emperor Taizong, Li Shimin, was able to select the virtuous people as ministers and assigned posts to people to fully utilize their talents. He opened up the communication channels and humbly accepted criticism. He put an emphasis on farming, low taxes, and low government expenses. He also established an effective process for selecting government officials through an examination system, leading to a stable society.
In the traditional feudal society, the central government consisted of three branches and six ministries. However, the government structure during the Zhenguan Period had elements of modern day governments in terms of the division of responsibilities. It consisted of three major branches: 1) the legislative branch, headed by the prime minister, with a committee helping him to develop every piece of legislation for the emperor; 2) a judicial branch, responsible for studying each proposed legislative act and giving recommendations to the emperor; and 3) the executive branch, responsible for carrying out the laws signed by the emperor.
The formation of a decree began with discussions among the prime ministers in the legislative branch. After they reached an agreement, they passed the resolution to the emperor. After the emperor approves, the legislative branch issues an edict on behalf of the emperor. Before the edict was announced, it must be reviewed by the judicial branch. The judicial branch had the power to reject the edict, and under the law at the time, the edict could not be announced. Only edicts approved by the judicial branch can become official law, to be implemented by the executive branch. The famous minister Wei Zheng, headed the judicial branch.
This is very much like the “separation of powers” system in modern democratic nations. What became a concept in the western world during the 17[sup]th[/sup] century was already being practiced over one thousand years ago. This shows how advanced the degree of civilization was during the Zhenguan Period. What is even more commendable is that Emperor Taizong ordered that a direct order from the emperor himself also needed approval from the judicial branch. Hence, there was always a system of checks and balances that prevented the emperor from misusing his power.
Emperor Taizong was serious about governing by law. He once said, "The laws are not set up by the emperor’s family. They are for everyone to obey, myself included." He insisted on treating everyone equally under the law. Emperor Taizong led by example, following the laws and protecting the social stability during his reign. Whether it was the royal family or ordinary people, they were truly equal in the face of the law. When enforcing the law, Emperor Taizong considered the amount of punishment. He said, "A dead man does not have a second chance, so special care must be exercised in ordering the death sentence." The effective legal system resulted in a low crime rate and an even lower death penalty rate. In 630 AD, there were only 29 people sentenced to the death penalty. In 632 AD, the number of death row prisoners increased to 290. At the end of the year, Emperor Taizong allowed them to return home to prepare their families and return for the death sentence the following autumn (sentences used to be carried out in the autumn). In September of the following year, all 290 prisoners returned. During the Zhenguan Period, China had transparent politics and the officials all performed their duties responsibly. People lived peaceful and stable lives. Justice, instead of injustice, was the common theme. As a result, people had little dissatisfaction and people did not need to resort to extreme measures. Thus, the crime rate was very low
The Zhenguan Period was also the only feudal society that did not discriminate against businesses. Instead, special opportunities were provided for business development, which further exemplifies Emperor Taizong’s foresight. Under his policies, business development accelerated at a rapid pace. More than half of the business centers in the world were located in China at the time: along the coast were major cities, Jiaozhou, Guangzhou, Mingzhou, and Fuzhou, and inland cities such as Hongzhou (Nanchang in Jiangxi Province), Yangzhou, Yizhou (Chengdu), Shazhou (Dunhuang in Gansu Province), and Liangzhou (Wuwei in Gansu Province). In particular, the capital, Chang’an, and provisional capital, Luoyang, were major international cities at the time.
The Tang dynasty was open to foreign trade over both land and sea. The well-known "Silk Road" was established at that time. It was the main business route connecting the west to the east. The vast amount of goods being transferred across the Silk Road turned it into the golden passage of the world.
There were hundreds of emperors and kings in Chinese history. Emperor Tang Taizong, Li Shimin, was one of the most brilliant. He had outstanding wisdom and magnanimity. The virtuous Emperor Taizong was a spectacular chapter in Chinese history.