In early Zhen Guan Reign (1), Emperor Taizong (2) said to his ministers, "Principle of being emperor lies in contenting his people first. Impairing peoples' benefits to content himself is just like cutting flesh from leg to feed stomach, which will be followed by death. To make a nation peaceful, the emperor must self-cultivate first; no askew image comes from straight body and no national unrest comes from well-governed imperial court. I often think that all damages to body are out of excessive desires, but not others. Indulging in foods, music and sex with more desires would bring about more damages, which not only hinders affairs of imperial court, but disturbs people. If I speak out whatever ignorant, people will get different minds, complaints will arise, rebellion will happen. Each time I thought of it, I couldn't dare to indulge in comforts." Wei Zheng (3), the Counsellor Remonstrant, answered, "All wise emperors in ancient times started from cultivating themselves, then others. King Zhuang of Chu State (4) invited Zhanhe (5), asking him for tactics of state-governing, Zhanhe responded with those of self-cultivation. The king then asked how to rule a nation, Zhanhe said it was never heard that a state was in unrest whereas its emperor was well self-governed. The comprehension of Emperor is the same as that of our ancestors."
In the second year of Zhenguan Reign, Emperor Taizong asked Wei Zheng, "What is a wise emperor, and what is a fatuous one?" Wei Zheng answered, "Hearing far and wide leads to wisdom, while fatuous emperors only believe in those words from one side. There was a saying in Book of Songs (6): ancestors had told us to solicit advices from those persons who cut straw and firewood. In the times of Tang Yao (7) and Yu Shun (8), the way of state governing was opening-up broadly to all virtuous and talented persons, seeing and hearing comprehensively to acquire more. Consequently, nothing could obscure views of the emperor, evil men like Gong and Gun (9) could not blind him, duplicity could not mislead him either. Emperor Qin II (10) stayed in deep palace and trusted only Zhao Gao (11) while keeping himself away from others so as to be "deaf" when the nation was put into riot and people rebelled; Emperor Wu of Liang's (12) only trust to Zhu Yi (13) even made him insensible when Hou Jing (14) directed his force towards capital gate; Same for Emperor Yang of Sui's (15) only trust to Yu Shiji (16), causing him unaware when all the anti-Sui forces attacked capital and robbed in it. So, if an emperor hears more and take advices from his liegemen, the ministers with high status could not cheat him, realities must be reached the emperor." Emperor Taizong appreciated his words very much.
In the tenth year of Zhenguan Reign, Emperor Taizong said to his ministers, "As far as an emperor's achievement, which is harder between winning and keeping?" Fang Xuanling (17), the prime minister, answered, "Before winning, state was in chaos, heroes uprose from time to time. They surrendered only when broken and yielded only when defeated. From this, winning is harder." But Wei Zheng answered, "Every emperor's achievement winning follows previous decline and national unrest. It's not too hard really but a giving from Heaven and people, because overthrowing a fatuous and brutal emperor is peoples' will which causes one heart all over the nation. But after winning, the emperor becomes arrogant and self-indulgent; people needs contentment whereas being endlessly enslaved; people lives nearly in poverty while extravagance never stops. National demise always comes from it. In my opinion, keeping achievement is harder." Emperor Taizong continued, "Xuanling had followed me to conquer the world, experienced all hardships, narrowly escaped from death, so he saw hardness of winning; whereas Wei Zheng helps me make the nation peace, worrying much about emerging of extravagance and dissipation which will lead to a peril, so he saw the hardness of achievement keeping. Now, winning had gone, for the keeping, I should be cautious together with all of you."
In the 11th year of Zhenguan Reign, Wei Zheng, the state counselor, presented a memorial to the emperor which said: In my opinion, all emperors, whether national founders at heaven's will or system heritors, hope their great virtue match to the universe, wisdom brilliant like the sun and moon, offspring boom for hundreds of generations and emperors' achievement be passed forever when they manipulates heroes and rules the nation, but very few could have a good ending, state downfall and demise continued one after another. Why? The reason is loss of principles as an emperor. Death of Sui Dynasty is not far which could be our lesson.
In the period of Sui Dynasty, world was unified, national force was strong. Over the 30 years, its power rapidly reached great long and was known all over the world. But once it was taken over, all of them became another's possession. Did Emperor Yang of Sui (18) hate to see an ordered world and a lasting reign, deliberately implement brutal policy as Jie of Xia's (19) for its meltdown? No. Leaning on his wealth and force, he never counted for consequences, forced people to follow his own will, collected all treasures for his use, selected beauties all over the nation, hungered for rare treasures at far. The palace and garden were superbly decorated; towers, terraces and pavilions were magnificently built; enslaving and warfare never stopped. He looked imperatorial and decent, but much insidious and suspicious really. Evil liars benefited from him for certain, whereas upright loyalists couldn't survive. Everyone was befooled, emperor and ministers were isolated, people couldn't bear their suffering and the nation fell apart. Consequently, he, as a throne of a nation, was killed by underprivileged people, no offspring was left, which was sneered over the world. Is that harrowing?
Wise emperors could seize opportunities to save the nation from death, the whole nation would be in good order soon, undermined national base, which is made of propriety, justice, honesty and sense of shame, would become more stable. Less than one year would be taken for the stabilization near and far, elimination of brutality and ban of torture would happen in less than one hundred years. Now, palaces and terraces, towers and pavilions are all possessed, rare treasures are all collected, beauties served around, all people in the nation are emperor's liegemen. If you warn yourself why they lost and why we won, act carefully everyday, don't be complacent when praised, learn the lessons from King Zhou of Shang's (20) self-burning with his treasure at Lutai (21) and burning down of Epang Palace (22), worry about national demise when relaxing in magnificent palace, satisfy with living in a plain room, you can reach the deity, rule the world without doing anything. It's one of the ways of ruling world with virtue, the best one.
If you reserve the achievements obtained instead of destroying them, eliminate or minimize non-urgent affairs, allow shelters exist together with superb palace and jade railings with earth steps, please to labors instead of exhausting them, frequently think of your comforts and labors' suffering, people will be delighted to be your liegemen, respect you and behave well naturally. That is the better way of ruling the world with virtue.
If an emperor thinks of himself as sacred without ideas of doing good, never counts for consequences carefully, forgets the hardness of national establishment, believes he has heaven's will to lean on, ignores frugality in his life, pursues luxury of sculptured wall to extend construction on original bases, add decorations on them and endlessly do similarities, people will not see his virtue but only hear orders. That is the worst way of ruling the world, just as putting out fire with firewood, stopping boil with boiled water and putting down a riot with violence, which is a riot itself. The outcome is unforeseen. How will the offspring think of it?
If having no virtue to see, the emperor would be complaint of by his people, which would irritate God, causing disasters then unrest. There would be very few who could survive and save their reputations in unrest. After an emperor takes regime at Godís will, his achievements will be glorious for seven hundred years, passed to his offspring till 10,000 generations. Itís hard to win and easy to loss. How to keep us from pondering?
In the same month, Wei Zheng presented another memorial to the emperor: I heard that if wanting a tree to be tall, we must fix its root firmly; if wanting a river to flow afar, we must widen its source; if wanting a nation to be stable, emperor must cultivate his virtue and mortality. Though lower and not talented enough, I still know itís impossible to hope far flow of river without rich resource, a tall tree without firm root and a well-ruled nation without great virtue, needless to say a wise emperor. An emperor holds the highest national power, possesses the most worshipful status in the world, has sovereign dignity and endless fortune. Not preparing for dangers when safe, not eliminating luxury to be frugal, not cultivating great virtue and not controlling desires are just like hoping a flourish tree with broken root and continuous river flow with clogged source.
Most founding emperors, who succeed at God's will, have got outstanding achievements with more worries, which are accompanied by mortal decays. We can see much good outset but very few good ending. Isn't that winning easy and keeping hard? The power for taking regime in the past was sufficient, but not for keeping it today. Why? When an emperor worries much, he must be modest to his people, but once he succeeds, he become arrogant following his inclinations. Sincerity could integrate nations of North Hu and South Yue, whereas arrogance could even split a family. Though brutal corporal punishment was used for supervising and rage was used for frightening, they just keep away from violating laws without morality, don't be convinced even if they obey you. Complaints, big or small, if many, it would be terrible. Water can carry boat and also sink it that should be careful. Can you ignore a running horse with a corrupted halter?
As an emperor, he should think of contentment for self-restriction when seeing favourites, stop construction for being convinced when planning to do it for himself, be modesty for self-cultivation when thinking of his high and dangerous status, eliminate arrogance to think of great river and sea beneath hundreds of streams, consider a limit of 3 Reign per year when hunting for entertainment, be cautious of careful startup and better ending to avoid laziness, be modesty to take advices from lowers to keep himself from blindness, self-straighten to dismiss evil men when thinking of calumny and evil, give no faulty reward at his pleasure when giving favors, avoid brutal corporal punishment at his anger when giving punishment. Thinking of the above 10 points, carry forward the Nine Virtues (23), choosing talents to use, as well as taking good advices to follow will make talents endeavor in their wisdom, warriors endeavor in their strengths, kind people spread their kindness, honest men present their loyalty. Civilian and military officials energetically act, nothing disturbing between emperor and his ministers, he can enjoy tours as much as he likes and immortal long life, play music and doing nothing. People can be moralized without any words. Why to suffer from thinking all days long, do things his ministers should do, damage his ears and eyes? It's against the principle of governing by doing nothing.
Taizong answered Wei Zhen with handwritten imperial decree:
Having read your several memorials, I saw your pure-heartedness from them. You spoke out vitals without reservation. I often forgot tiredness and read it till late night. If not caring much about the nation to enlighten me with faithfulness, you couldn't show me such good viewpoints and remedy my faults. I've heard that after Emperor Wu of Jin (24) defeated Nation Wu, he indulged in extravagance and dissipation, didn't care about court affairs any more. He Zeng had said to Shao, his son, after an audience with the emperor, "Each time I saw the emperor, he doesn't talk about strategies of ruling the world but chit chat with me. He's not an emperor who can pass his achievement to his offspring. You could survive yet. " Then he pointed at his grandchildren and said, "They will die in unrest". He Sui, his grandson, was killed indeed by tortures. In previous history, He Zeng was praised, said to be a forecaster, but I don't think so. In my opinion, he was not a faithful minister but an unforgivable sinner. As a minister, he should have thought to endeavor faithfully at audience with emperor, correct his mistakes afterwards, follow emperor's goodness and correct his badness, in order for me to rule the world together with them. Being a prime minister with noble status and great power, He Zeng should have presented advices frankly at court, talking about policies to assist the emperor; but he didn't give advices at court whereas talking about at home. Isn't it absurd to regard him as a wise person? Why to use such a prime minister who didn't help even when he notices a danger? Your memorial made me know my mistakes, which should be put on my desk as a reminder just like Ximen Bao's soft fur (25) and Dong Anyuís bowstring (26). I must be succeeded in ruling the world in my late time, making the ode of prosperity appear not only in old days. Now, the relation of emperor and ministers is just like that of fish and water. To your good advices, I delay its response up to today. Hope you still give advices frankly without any worries. I would be modest and keep calm to look forward to your good advices.
In the fifteenth year of Zhenguan Reign, Emperor Taizong said to his ministers, "Is it easy or hard to keep the world rest?" Wei Zheng, the Palace Attendant, answered, "too hard." Emperor Taizong said, "Appointing virtuous and talented persons and taking advices would be enough, why to say hard?" Wei Zheng said, "Since ancient Reign, emperors have appointed virtuous and talented persons and taken advices only when the nation was in danger; but once it became stable, they must be nerveless. Ministers who present advices shivered in front of instructions, the nation would be brought into peril as time goes. So, wise emperors prepare for danger in Reign of safety. Isn't it hard?"
Note by the translator:
(1) Zhen Guan Reign: 627 - 649 AD
(2) Emperor Taizong: with name of Li Shimin, had been called Duke of Qin before he became the emperor for his great battle achievements, initiated the most prosperous Tang Dynasty. See this WIKI: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emperor_Taizong_of_Tang
(9) Gong and Gun: Gong Gong was referred to as Gong, and Xia Gun was referred to as Gun - two notorious "evil" men in Chinese history. The notoriety came from their "disrespect" to the nature as they were both sponsors of river flood control. They failed in front of strong flood and public wills, and said to harm the world as a symbol of infamy.
(21) Lutai: The place where King Zhou of Shang committed suicide by self-burning with his treasures.
(22) Epang Palace: 20 km south of Xianyang, now 15 km west of Xi'an, Shanxi province: the fabulous imperial palace built by the First Emperor in replacement of Xianyang Palace. It was 115 meters wide from the south to the north, occupying 80,000 square meters. It's traditionally said to be burnt down by Xiang Yu, but may not have been completed at the fall of Qin Dynasty.
(23) Nine Virtues: Loyal, hones, respectful, tough, gentle, kind, firm, faithful and dutiful