Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty, considered one of the greatest emperors in China’s history, was also one of few to heed the advice of his remonstrance official. Pictures: Alamy
by Wee Kek Koon
by Wee Kek Koon

Chinese emperors needed critics, just as world leaders do today

In ancient China, remonstrance officials were employed to keep the emperor in check, and while many were silenced, it was when their advice was heeded that the empire flourished

In July, Xu Zhangrun, a professor of law at Tsinghua University, wrote an essay that was scathing in its criticism of China’s current administration. In it he spoke out against party grandees amassing special privileges for themselves and the personality cult that had formed around President Xi Jinping.
A month earlier, Liu Yadong, editor-in-chief of the state-owned Science and Technology Daily, spoke publicly against the misplaced triumphalism of many in China, including state leaders, regarding the nation’s technological achievements and capabilities.

Back in imperial China, there was a prestigious class of officials whose principal function was to advise the emperor, and especially to remonstrate with him about what they considered improper conduct or flawed policy. In theory, it was a laudable institution to curb the power of the throne. In practice, however, most emperors ignored the advice or worse, punished the adviser. As a result, many remonstrance officials, fearful for their own lives and careers, prudently chose to remain silent.

An exception to the rule was the relationship between Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty (598-649), considered by many to have been the greatest Chinese emperor in history, and Wei Zheng (580–643).

When Taizong was still a prince, Wei was an adviser to the former’s older brother and rival to the throne. After a successful coup, which saw the murder of two brothers and their sons and the forced abdication of his father, Taizong spared Wei’s life because he valued the latter’s honesty and candour. It was a testament to Taizong’s judgment of character that he appointed Wei – who had previously conspired against him as his brother’s counsellor – as grandmaster of remonstrance in his own court.

Wei stayed true to his straight-talking and no-nonsense self in his new post. It was recorded that he angered Taizong by his blunt counsel more than 200 times.

On one occasion, the emperor returned to the inner palace after a court session shaking with anger. “I will surely kill that old farmer!” he fumed, referring to Wei, who had again antagonised the emperor with his advice. It was only through the intervention of Empress Zhangsun that Wei’s life was spared.

Taizong was distraught when Wei died of an illness, and wept before his coffin. He declared five days of state mourning and ordered civil and military officials to take part in Wei’s funeral procession.

Wei Zheng.
The emperor was recorded to have said: “Using bronze as a mirror, a man can straighten his clothes and hat; using the past as a mirror, he can see the rise and fall of states; using men as a mirror, he can understand gains and losses. We have always kept these three mirrors to prevent us from making mistakes. Now that Wei Zheng has died, one of these mirrors is lost to us!”

Remembering Wei after his failed invasion of Korea (645-48), Taizong remarked: “If Wei Zheng was alive, he would not have allowed me to take this course of action.”

We need more people like Wei Zheng today to remind governments of their fallibility. However, those in power must also possess the wisdom and humility of Emperor Taizong to hold up unflattering mirrors to themselves.