Updated: Mar 26
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 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."
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
One time, Emperor Tang saw his son lazily lying under the shade of a tree. He walked up to his son and told him,
“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.”
Heeding his father's advice and learning from his father's example, the son later achieved even greater success 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!