Advice to Emperor Tai-zong
Wei, Zheng 1 (580-643 CE)
I have heard that if we want a tree to grow tall, we should solidify its
roots; that if we want a river to flow far, we should dredge its springhead; and
that if an emperor wants his country to have peace, he should accumulate his
virtue. Ignorant as I am, I understand that a river cannot flow far if its
source is rooted shallowly, that a tree cannot grow tall if its roots are shaky,
and that a country will not prosper if the emperor lacks integrity. Since you
are wiser than I am, you must know these principles already. An emperor assumes
heavy responsibilities for the throne and governs the entire country. If the
emperor wants to keep his highest position and preserve his fortune forever, but
fails to anticipate crises before they actually happen, fails to abstain from
the habit of extravagance by economical measures, and fails to cultivate virtue,
or to overcome his desires, it would be as unattainable as growing a tree by
cutting its roots and wanting a river to flow far by blocking its source.
All heads of state bear the Creator's grand order. They work hard to set an example
to their people during hardship. However, their virtue declines after success.
Many emperors have a good start, but few can keep the Creator's work to the end. Is
governing a country more difficult than establishing a country? When a leader
suffers hardship, he will be sincere to his subjects. Once he gains absolute
power, he will become arrogant by doing whatever he likes. When one is sincere,
even an enemy becomes a friend. When one is arrogant, even a brother becomes a
stranger. Punishing people with severe sentences and intimating people by threat
may make people want to avoid trouble, but will not teach them to gain virtue.
People may show respect to the emperor perfunctorily, even though they really
doubt that the emperor deserves his title. While people are like water in a
river, the emperor is like a ship. The water may make the ship go forward, but
it may also tip the ship over. This is the reason why an emperor should take
great care of the people's problems if they have any complaint. One should not
neglect the danger when riding a carriage with a worn-out rein.
If you see something you want, you should restrain your desire by being
content with what you have. If you want to declare a war, you should consider
when you will end it to relieve people. If you worry that your high position is
unstable, you should cultivate virtue with humility. If you worry about being
complacent, you should think that an ocean is lower than hundreds of rivers
2. When you go hunting, you should only explore three directions and leave
one direction undisturbed so that there will still be animals to hunt in the
future. If you worry about indolence, you should start with a careful plan and
manage to finish it. If you worry that the truth is hidden from you, you should
humbly listen to people's problems. If you resent flattery, you should stand up
for your morals and denounce evil. When you award someone, you should not
excessively praise him simply because you like him. When you punish someone, you
should not severely abuse him because of your anger. If you follow the above ten
guidelines, promote nine morals 3, choose qualified people to work
for you and choose good advice to follow, then wise people can optimize their
plan, brave people can achieve their potential, kind people can spread their
aid, and responsible people can devote loyalty to their country. Education and
military affairs could compete for progress. The emperor and his subjects would
be free from worries. They could enjoy comfort and pleasure, and remain young
like gods. Even though an emperor would play zither or join his hands together
4 without saying anything, the entire empire would come to order. Why
do you need to worry about various problems, do your subjects' work, enslave
your acute senses and, violate the principle of governing by noninterference
1 Xuan-cheng was Zheng Wei's alternate first name. He was a native of Qu-cheng
City (west of present day Jin City in Hebei Province) of Ju-lu Country. During
his childhood he was a poor orphan, but he was ambitious. He loved to read books
and gave his attention to the principles of developing a country and governing
people. At the end of the Sui dynasty China was in great chaos. General Mi Li
rose in rebellion. Zheng Wei gave him ten pieces of advice, but Mi Li did not
adopt them. Later, Wei followed Mi Li to surrender to the Tang dynasty. Crown
Prince Jian-cheng loved Wei's talent and appointed him to be his officer. After
Jian-chang failed to win the throne and died, Shi-ming succeeded the crown
prince and summoned Wei to be his manager. After Shi-ming became the emperor, he
appointed Wei to be his Advisor. Wei was a man of principle and great ability.
He saw Emperor Tai-zong trust him, so he always told the emperor his opinions without
reserve. In total, he gave Emperor Tai-zong more than two hundred pieces of
advice while he was the Advisor. They were all to the point. Later, he successively
assumed the offices of the Deputy Secretary of State and the Guardian of the
Crown Prince. After Wei died, Emperor Tai-zong wept bitterly, avoided his court duty
for five days, offered Wei an honorary title of Minister of Public Works, and
buried him in the Imperial Cemetery. Afterwards, Emperor Tai-zong missed Wei very
much and told his entourage, "If one uses bronze as a mirror, one can groom
oneself. If one uses history as a mirror, one can understand the principle of
rise and fall. If one uses advice as a mirror, one will know one's gain and
loss. I treasure my three mirrors. After Wei passed away, I lost one mirror."
Emperor Tai-zong's words showed how greatly he held Wei in esteem.
2 Dao-de-jing (The Bible of Morality) written by Lao-zi
(ca. 571-471 BCE) says,
reason that rivers and oceans are kings of all the valleys is that rivers and
oceans are good at lowering themselves." The Man by the River comments, "Rivers
and oceans lower themselves, so all the rivulets flow to them like people flow
to their emperor."
3 The nine morals are mentioned in the chapter titled
in Cannons of Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun, a.k.a. The Book of
It says, "One should be serious and generous, flexible and independent, discreet and respectful, talented and responsible, humble and resolute, kind and straightforward, simple and honest, solid and upright, strong and virtuous."
4 "Joining one's hands together" is a gesture for welcoming friends.
5 Dao-de-jing written by Lao-zi says, "Nature often does nothing; yet
it accomplishes everything." It also says, "A sage says, 'I do nothing and
people automatically become civilized. I love quietness and people automatically
become rich. I have no desire and people automatically become frugal.'"