(Minghui.org) Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty and Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty were two of the greatest figures in Chinese history. Fortunately, their wisdom, vision, and legacy were recorded in two books.

Zhenguan Zhengyao

The first book, Zhenguan Zhengyao (Political Essentials from the Reign of Zhenguan), was compiled by historian Wu Jing during the Tang Dynasty. The 40 articles in 10 volumes contain the dialogues between Emperor Taizong and Wei Zheng, Fang Xuanling, Du Ruhui, and others on issues of governance. It also includes recommendations, suggestions, and submissions from officials, as well as major political and economic initiatives. It is more detailed than other books about that period such as Old Book of TangNew Book of Tang, or Zizhi Tongjian (Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government).

Wu Jing (670-749), born in Bianzhou (in today’s Henan Province), lived from the reign of Emperor Gaozong to Emperor Xuanzong. He was described as “determined and diligent in learning; knowledgeable about Confucian classics and history.” As a historian, Wu not only recorded facts but also risked his life by commenting on certain topics. Unsatisfied with previous historians such as Wu Sansi, he believed the official historical record should “document completely” everything said and done, good and bad, without distortion. To that end, Wu kept his own record of the Tang Dynasty. He focused on being factual and explained to Emperor Xuanzong that, although his own version of records “was not well written, it was all facts.” When working as a historian, he also compiled Zhenguan Zhengyao to keep a record for future generations.

In the preface to the book, Wu explained that two chancellors, Yuan Qianyao and Zhang Jiazhen, had encouraged him to write the book. In particular, Yuan and Zhang expressed their admiration for Emperor Taizong’s reign, referring to it as “unprecedented and the best in history”.

In his early years, Emperor Taizong asked his courtiers such as Wei Zheng and Yu Shinan to compile Qunshu Zhiyao (Governing Principles of Ancient China) to review the good and bad of previous emperors. Including information collected from all kinds of sources, this book covered the kings and emperors from the beginning of Chinese history to the Jin Dynasty.

Emperor Taizong wrote Di Fan (Model for an Emperor) and gave it to the crown prince [Emperor Gaozong] in 648. “Everything you need to know about being strict with oneself and governing the country is in here,” he said.

The 12 articles in this collection are:
1) Guiding Principles for an Emperor
2) Handling Relatives
3) Seeking Out Talent
4) Assigning Officials
5) Accepting Advice
6) Rejecting Calumnies
7) Avoiding Extravagance
8) Humility and Thrift
9) Rewards and Punishment
10) Agriculture as the Foundation
11) Reviewing the Military
12)Emphasizing Education.

If Di Fan was a summary of Emperor Taizong’s principles, Zhenguan Zhengyao was a testimony to how he actually acted upon them. That was also why the titles of some articles in the latter are similar to those in the former.

More specifically:

Guiding Principle of an Emperor vs. Principles of an Emperor, Governing State Affairs
Handling Relatives vs. Granting Favors
Seeking Out Talent vs. Appointing Talent Assigning Officials vs. Choosing Officials
Accepting Advice vs. Accepting Advice
Rejecting Calumnies vs. Stopping Slander and Calumnies
Avoiding Extravagance vs. Modesty
Humility and Thrift vs. Thrift
Rewards and Punishment vs. Punishment
Agriculture as the Foundation vs. Agriculture
Reviewing the Military vs. Military Expeditions, Border Security
Emphasising Education vs. Promoting Confucianism, Literature, and History

Although the topics in Zhenguan Zhengyao are broad and the format diverse, they all focus on Emperor Taizong’s vision as well as on what he actually did to ensure the peace and stability of China.

This book came just in time and was studied by later generations of the imperial family. Emperor Xuanzong, for example, paid close attention to it and adopted its principles. He had selected phrases from the book written on screens for him to read respectfully from time to time. So perhaps it was no surprise that he became one of the most accomplished emperors in the late Tang Dynasty.

Emperors in the Yuan Dynasty also emphasized Zhenguan Zhengyao many times and asked Confucian scholars to explain its contents. Moreover, once every three days at noon, the emperors studied teachings from the book with Confucian scholars. Emperor Xianzong of the Ming Dynasty republished the book and wrote a preface to promote it. Both Emperor Kangxi and Emperor Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty admired the book and were familiar with its contents. Emperor Qianlong once wrote, “I once read the book [Zhenguan Zhengyao] and missed the time. Again and again, I was so impressed and said, ‘The Zhenguan Era was indeed great!’”

The book also had a great impact overseas. After it was passed to Japan in the 9th century, Sugawara no Tamenaga, one of the top court officials, was in charge of teaching Zhenguan Zhengyao during the Kamakura period. When the Tokugawa shogunate published its “Laws for the Military Houses” in 1615, the first law required daimyō (feudal lords) to read classical literature such as Zhenguan Zhengyao. The book became well-known in Japan afterward.

Emperor Taizong created the glorious Tang Dynasty, the peak of Chinese history. His words and actions in many areas were recorded in Zhenguan Zhengyao. Below are some examples.

Emperor Kangxi (Public Domain)
Emperor Taizong (Public Domain)

* * *

Article 19: Modesty

In the second year of the Zhenguan era, Emperor Taizong once said to his courtiers, “People often believe emperors are the highest and they have no fear. But I am modest and humble and do have fear. Emperor Shun in ancient times once told Yu the Great, ‘Only if you stop showing off will people cease to compete with you to see who is more talented; only if you stop boasting will people cease to argue with you to see who is more accomplished.’

In the I Ching (The Book of Changes) it also says, ‘As a person, the worst trait is complacency and the best is humility.’ If an emperor always thinks highly of himself and fails to be humble, who would dare to confront him and point out his mistakes? Because of that, before I say or do anything, I first check to see if it is respectful of the divine and that it will satisfy officials.

The divine is high but is aware of everything—how can I not be fearful? The officials are all looking up to me—how can I not be afraid? Although I am always humble and fearful, I am still worried, wondering if they will comply with heaven’s will and people’s needs.”

Wei Zheng replied, “There is an ancient saying, ‘Very often people had a good start, but few could make it to the end.’ I hope Your Majesty will remain humble and fearful, day after day. Our country will then be strong and firm with no catastrophes. This was really how Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun kept the peace.”

Article 13: Kindness and Virtue

In the 13th year of the Zhenguan era, Emperor Taizong said to his courtiers, “A deep forest will have birds that rest; a lake will have fish that swim; kindness and virtue will result in prosperity. People all know to stay away from disasters, but they do not know that cherishing kindness and virtue will prevent disasters from occurring. One should always keep this in mind and abide by it. Slacking off for even a short time will lead to a major derailment. It is as essential to our bodies as food and water. Only by eating enough food can one live a long life.”

Article 22: Careful with Speech

In the second year of the Zhenguan era, Emperor Taizong said to his courtiers, “Before I say anything when I am sitting in the imperial court, I always first consider if it will benefit the people. Therefore, I dare not speak much.”

In the eighth year of the Zhenguan era, Emperor Taizong said to his courtiers, “A gentleman’s words have weight—they are not trivial. Even an ordinary person could be disgraced if he makes an inappropriate remark and someone writes it down. If a king says something improper, how can the damage be compared to that of an ordinary person? I often bear this in mind. When Emperor Yang of Sui first visited Ganquan Palace, he liked it but complained there were no fireflies. So he issued an edict to ‘collect fireflies to light up the palace at night.’ His officials ordered thousands of people to collect fireflies and sent 500 carts of fireflies next to the palace. The effects of even a trivial matter can lead to something like this, let alone something bigger.”

Wei Zheng replied, “An emperor is the highest in the kingdom. If there is something improper, people view it like an eclipse of the sun or moon—everyone will be able to see it. It is indeed like Your Majesty has noted, that one must be careful about what one says.”

* * *

Emperor Kangxi spoke very highly of Zhenguan Zhengyao and Emperor Taizong’s era:

“Many years having passed,
this book still shines among the history books;
In the past over one thousand years,
Zhenguan’s was the most prosperous era.
Cherishing virtue led to peace and no wars,
leaving laws unnecessary and jails empty;
With civilization established everywhere in the country,
both officials and citizens celebrated with joy.
This legacy was recorded,
passed down in history dynasty after dynasty;
Forty articles comprise this book,
and they all carry the same theme:
Following kindness and virtue will last long,
failing to do so will lead to a dead end.”

Beacons in History: From Emperor Taizong to Emperor Kangxi (Part 2)