Several Stories about Tang Taizong (Part I)

How to Manage the Officials

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After Tang Taizong (second emperor of the Tang Dynasty; his unofficial name was Shimin Li) succeeded to the throne, some of the old officials who had worked for him for several years complained that they had not been promoted.

Taizong told them: ‘The trust of an emperor by his subjects depends on his unselfishness. The common people supply our clothes and food. Setting official positions and selecting worthy persons to be officials are all for the common people. How can I promote my old followers without considering carefully whether they are worthy and virtuous or not?’

One day, Taizong was worried about the possibility of some of his officials’ taking bribes, so he secretly sent some people who pretended to offer bribes to test them.

One of his officials accepted a bolt of thin silk and so Taizong decided to sentence him to death.

Ju Bei, a dignitary the empire, however, offered this advice: ‘As an official, he should be sentenced to death for accepting a bribe. But, My Majesty, have you thought about your own behavior? You sent people to bribe him and make him break the law. Our ancestors have told us: ‘Govern the country by virtue, and rule the people by truth’. What you have done is not in accordance with this.’

Taizong was very pleased to hear that, and told all of his officials that: ‘ As a dignitary of the empire, Ju Bei has persevered in the truth, instead of unconditionally obeying my order without thinking about whether it is right or not. If we can do everything like this, there is no need to worry about whether the empire is built well.’

Once, someone offered to point out the treacherous court officials in his government.

Taizong asked him: ‘Who are the treacherous officials?’

That person said: ‘ I don’t know, but I know how to find them. My Majesty, you can pretend to be angry. The officials that persevere in their own opinions are loyal officials while those that absolutely obey your order with a scared heart are the treacherous court officials.’

Taizong said: ‘ Thank you for your advice. But I cannot do that. The Emperor is like the headwaters of a river, and officials are like the streams from the river. It is impossible to purify the steams while the headwaters are polluted. If I myself cheat others, how can I ask my officials to be loyal? I govern the empire by honesty and justice. I always feel shame for the past emperors that treated their officials without trust and honesty.’

One day, Taizong asked Xuanling Fang and Yu Xiao (both were famous officials of the empire): ‘How does Jian Yang (first emperor of Sui dynasty) compare with me?’

Xuanling Fang and Yu Xiao said: ‘Jian Yang devoted himself to the state’s business. He was always discussing the affairs of state with middle-level and high-level officials. Even at mealtime he was still working; guards brought him his meals. He was not a very kind person, but he was a diligent emperor.’

Taizong said: ‘ You have not grasped the whole situation. Jian Yang was not a very wise man but he always wanted to manage everything. Because he was not wise enough, there were always some situations that he could not comprehend. And since he wanted to manage everything, Jian did not trust his officials and decided every affair by himself instead of depending on his officials. The empire is so large, how could he deal with everything all by himself? His officials knew his characteristics; they just waited for his decisions instead of volunteering their own opinions even if they had good ideas. So his empire only lasted for 36 years and was destroyed when his son took over. I am quite different from him. I find all the people with ability in my empire and give them official positions. Let them deal with the affairs of state. I just examine their achievements, and reward the good ones and punish the bad ones. Everyone devotes himself to the affairs of the state. I don’t need to worry about the empire.’

To be continued.

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