Updated: Jan 24
Emperor Tang Taizong is considered one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history. During his reign (about 1400 years ago), China experienced unprecedented growth in terms of power, economy, and culture. Hence, people consider his reign as a golden age in China’s history. The key factor to Emperor Tang’s success was his outstanding moral character. He diligently cultivated virtues such humility, integrity, and broad-mindedness.
Emperor Tang’s Humility
His humility and willingness to seek criticism was one of his defining traits that contributed to his success. Even if Emperor Tang was wrongfully criticized, he still accepted the criticism with respect and said it was his fault. When others asked him why he didn't correct the criticizer, he said,
"If I make others feel bad for trying to criticize me, then people would be scared to advise me in the future."
Emperor Tang also urged the people around him to be humble and to seek others' criticisms. He told his ministers,
"If you can't accept criticism yourself, how can you criticize others?"
Emperor Tang wasn't perfect; he still got upset at hearing criticism sometimes, but he always corrected himself. He had a great advisor named Wei Zheng, who was known for providing the Emperor with straightforward and constructive feedback.
Wei Zheng himself said, “I’m not interested in telling you what you like to hear because what you like to hear may not be correct. I’m only interested in being a moral minister. That means as long as something is correct, I will say it whether you like it or not. If all your ministers were like this, then your chances of making mistakes would get smaller and smaller, and the country would become better and better.”
One time, Emperor Tang returned from a cabinet meeting and angrily told his wife, "Sooner or later I will kill that Wei Zheng! He always contradicts me and embarrasses me in front of everyone!"
Upon hearing this, the Empress said, "A subject is only willing to present his honest opinion when the Emperor is wise and open-minded. I would like to congratulate your majesty for having a cabinet member who is not afraid to contradict you, because it is proof of your open-mindedness!"
Emperor Tang immediately calmed down and thought of Wei Zheng's integrity and moral character. He later said, "A lot of people think Wei Zheng is a direct and tactless man, but I think those are his very charms."
When Wei Zheng passed away, Emperor Tang burst into tears at his funeral. He famously said,
"Put a slab of copper as a mirror before me, and I can straighten my robe. Put history as a mirror before me, and I can identify the alarming signs of rise and fall in a dynasty. Have a man as a mirror who reflects my flaws, and I can rectify my mistakes. I constantly keep these three mirrors to prevent me from making mistakes. Now that Wei Zheng has passed away, I have lost a mirror!”
Emperor Tang’s Filial Piety
Filial piety is about loving and respecting our parents, who are the people that we owe the most gratitude to. If a person cannot even love and respect their parents well, then how could they truly love and respect other people? Thus, filial piety is the first of all virtues.
Emperor Tang loved and respected his parents deeply. When he was 14, his mother got very ill. He served by her mother’s bedside day and night and didn’t even change his clothes because he was so worried about her. Before giving her herbal medicine, he would first taste it to make sure the temperature and taste were alright. He also never celebrated his birthday because he viewed it as the day that his mother had to endure a lot of pain to deliver him to this earth.
Emperor Tang was also very filial to his father, who was a military general. One time, his father decided to go invade a nearby war camp. At that time, Tang Taizong was still young and served under his father in the army. He advised his father, “I am afraid this plan won’t work. It is very likely that the enemy has planted an ambush ahead. Not only that, but they can encircle us from behind, which would spell disaster for our army.”
His father did not listen. He tried advising his father three times to no avail. He thought about how the next day, his father and the army would encounter an ambush and likely be killed, and he was overwhelmed with sadness. Thus, he sat outside his military tent and cried loudly.
His father inside the tent heard the sound of a grown man crying loudly, so he came out to see what was happening. When he saw his son crying, he demanded an explanation. Tang Taizong said, “I tried to advise you to avoid this risky military mission, but you rejected my advice. When I think about your lives being in danger, I can’t help but cry.” His dad, seeing his son so sad, considered his son’s logic again, and decided to accept it.
From these two examples, we can see how he sincerely loves and respects his parents. He often thinks of his parents’ kindness towards him and is not demanding towards them. With this foundation of filial piety, he is able to sincerely love and respect all people.
Emperor Tang’s Integrity
Once, a minister told him, “Your majesty, there are some bad people in your group of advisors. These people only seek to gain your favor.”
Emperor Tang replied, “I only employ virtuous ministers. There should not be any bad people in my group of advisors.”
The minister said, “There is. I have a method for you to find out who they are. The next time the imperial court is in session, pretend to get very angry and say something unreasonable. Then see who comes to advise you afterwards. The people who advise you and tell you that what you said was unreasonable, those are the virtuous and trustworthy ministers. The people who agree with you and try to comfort you, those are the bad people.”
After hearing this suggestion, Emperor Tang replied, “The Emperor to the ministers is like a lake to rivers. The lake is the source, and the rivers flow out from the source. It is impossible for the source to be dirty yet demand the rivers to be clean. Although your suggestion is clever, I think I should first cultivate my own integrity and trustworthiness."
When Emperor Tang saw his ministers arguing with each other, he told them:
"It is easy to break one arrow, but a bunch of arrows together cannot be broken. We must stay united."
Emperor Tang role modeled integrity and trustworthiness, and so his ministers and citizens followed suit.
Emperor Tang’s Broad-Mindedness and Benevolence.
Emperor Tang showed great tolerance and interest towards all cultures and religions; he did discriminate against others countries and cultures but rather welcomed them. China was the strongest country in the world at that time, but Emperor Tang did not invade any other countries. Instead, he treated them all with benevolence.
During his reign, foreign ambassadors frequently visited the capital city to learn from Emperor Tang. At times, there were up to seven translators assisting the communication between a foreign ambassador and Emperor Tang! Emperor Tang was also very generous in donating gifts to foreign ambassadors, giving multiple times more gifts than they brought to China.
Due to his great hospitality towards foreigners, thousands of foreign merchants and artisans came to live in the capital and other major cities in China. These people wanted to bring their own religions and cultures to China, and Emperor Tang gave them all permission. Furthermore, Emperor Tang allowed them to build temples, mosques, or churches in accordance to their culture’s designs, and he even donated money to support them.
During this period, religions from all around the world began to develop in China, including Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Islam, and Nestorianism. Lots of international students also came to study from China and brought Chinese teachings back to their home countries. Emperor Tang’s broad-mindedness was key to the great cultural development and international relations during his reign.
Emperor Tang Teaching His Son
Emperor Tang was a skillful teacher who seized every opportunity to teach his son important life lessons. One day during a meal, he asked his son, “Son, do you understand ‘food’?” His son said, “No.” He replied, “Farmers need to work hard in the fields for many months to make the rice you have in your bowl. We need to be grateful for our food and not waste it.”
Later that day, they went horse riding. He asked his son, “Do you understand ‘horse’?” His son said, “No.” He explained, “Horses serve us humans, but you must treat them well. If you abuse or overwork the horse, the horse will run away. People are the same.”
Afterwards, they were riding a boat. Emperor Tang asked, “Son, do you understand ‘water’?” His son said, “No.” he explained, “Water supports the boat and allows it to float. But water can also overturn the boat if upset. The citizens of a country are the same.”
Later, he saw his son lying under the shade of a large tree. He asked his son, “Son, do you understand ‘tree’?” His son said, “No.” He explained, “A tree often doesn’t grow perfectly straight, but a carpenter can turn it into a straight log strong enough to support a building. A monarch who grows up in a palace cannot know everything and will certainly make mistakes. Only by modestly listening to the advice of his ministers can he correct and straighten himself up and become a worthy emperor.”
Thanks to his father’s tireless and timely teachings, his son remembered all these important life lessons, and he later achieved even greater success than his father as Emperor.
My favorite quote from Emperor Tang has got to be this one:
I admire how he was able to overcome his ego and temper to become such a humble person. I hope to emulate his example and become more humble myself.
Emperor Tang is also an excellent example of many teachings from the Confucian classic, The Guide to a Happy Life.
If we can learn from his example and also apply the teachings from this book into our lives, we will surely have a happy and successful life as well!