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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 5?


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, "The 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 "Gao-tao's Advice" in Cannons of Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun, a.k.a. The Book of Records. 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.'"