1. Emperor Tang Taizong Emphasized Leniency
In year one of Emperor Taizong’s Zhenguan Era, or 627 AD, a rebellious plot against the emperor was discovered in Qingzhou. The local officials arrested many people and the local prison was full. Being uneasy with the situation, Emperor Taizong dispatched Xue Renshi to investigate the circumstances.
As soon as Xue arrived at the prison, he ordered the warden to remove the prisoners’ shackles and provide them with adequate food and bathing facilities. At the end of his investigation, only a few of the instigators of the coup were convicted.
Sun Fujia, an imperial court official, questioned Xue Renshi’s conclusion, thinking that Xue exonerated too many prisoners. Xue defended his actions, “Following the emperor’s order, in handling criminal cases, we should base our decisions on compassion and leniency. How could I ignore the innocence of the people and only consider the possibility of backlash from my superiors against my decision? As long as I make a judgment based on justice and moral principles, even if I offend the royal family, and they execute me for that, I would have no regrets.”
Emperor Taizong wanted to give Sun Fujia the benefit of the doubt, so he sent another official to investigate Xue Renshi’s handling of the case. All evidence showed that the pardoned prisoners were indeed innocent. After reading the report, Emperor Taizong knew he could trust Xue Renshi even more.
2. Compassionate Ruling and Moral Teachings Make Zhenguan the Pinnacle Era in Chinese History
Chinese culture is based on principles from Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. These beliefs and teachings peaked during the Tang Dynasty. The common core principle of the three schools is rectification of the human heart. The effect of these principles on society far exceeds that of law and order.
Emperor Taizong believed in compassion and leniency by the authorities, and he was open to different opinions. Under his rule, the law was simple and lenient, but his rules for official conduct were tough and transparent. The accomplishments during Emperor Taizong’s reign formed one of few peaceful and prosperous eras in Chinese history. In 630 AD, only 29 criminals were given the death penalty even though the society had just been through a period of war. The people and government both faced economic hardship. Despite that, society was in good order, thanks to the emperor’s emphasis on moral teaching. People learned to restrict their own conduct according to these principles. Faced with natural disasters, people pulled together and prevailed without complaints. In the following years, the nation returned to prosperity with a bumper crop. The social order improved, people left their doors unlocked, and would not pick up anything on the street that did not belong to them. In the latter years of the Zhenguan Era, if people forgot to bring food on the road, they could eat in a stranger’s home. This was a time envied by people for thousands of years. Historians called Emperor Taizong’s time the “Prosperity of Zhenguan.”
3. Tang Taizong’s Reform of Extreme Punishment
From the outset, Emperor Taizong devoted much of his effort to reforming harsh punishment. According to the Song Dynasty history book Zi Zhi Tong Jian, “The Emperor ordered Zhangsun Wuji, the Chief Justice, and other officials to work with scholars and judges to reduce the severity of the laws. They removed 50 types of crimes from a ‘death by hanging’ sentence. They proposed to replace the regular death sentence to ‘cutting-off the right big toe.’ But the Emperor still felt it was too cruel and told them, ‘Physical punishment has been obsolete for a long time. You should find some alternative form of punishment.’ Finally, Official Pei Hongxian proposed to substitute these sentences with hard labor, 1500 km away from home for three years. The emperor approved it.”
Later the emperor found that people often falsified their accomplishments or family lineage when it came to the selection of officials. He ordered them to confess on their own, and if they did not confess, the death penalty awaited. However not long after, a falsifying incident occurred again. Emperor Taizong was furious, and he ordered that the individual be executed.
Dai Zhou, an official of the Supreme Court, objected in his report, “According to our new law, this man should be sent to exile.” The emperor was not pleased, “If you follow the law, I will lose my credibility (since the execution order was already issued)!” Dai Zhou argued, “Your order just now was due to your temporary, personal anger. The law is the foundation for the country to earn people’s trust. Your majesty was offended by the fraudster, so you ordered that the man be killed. But we know this is not right, especially when the new law was just enacted. We should all follow the law. I call this ‘endure the small anger, uphold the big principle.’” The emperor was impressed and said, “What do I have to worry about, now that I have someone like you to enforce the law?”
Dai Zhou was outspoken and consistent in his duties. He was not afraid of opposing the emperor in upholding the law. Emperor Taizong listened to him. Therefore, injustices were very rare.
Emperor Taizong emphasized leniency. He was able to overcome his personal emotions and respect the law. From this perspective, it is clear that Emperor Taizong was a ruler of great compassion.
(From Book of Social Harmony by Zhou Siren, Qing Dynasty)