Emperor Tang Taizong’s Leniency Based Principles

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Emperor Tang Taizong (Wikimedia)

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)

唐太宗以仁为本

一、唐太宗以仁为本

唐代贞观元年,青州因发生谋反的事件,监狱里抓满了人。皇帝下诏派薛仁师去复查。

薛仁师到监狱后,就给囚犯们打开枷锁,供给饮食,送水洗澡。最后,只查办了为首的几个人。

朝中的官员孙伏伽,怀疑他平反过多。薛仁师说:“遵照皇上(唐太宗)的意见,大凡处理罪案,应当以仁恕(仁爱宽恕)为本。难道只为自己不被上面责难,就明知有冤,也不救吗?如果我执法公正,即使触怒了皇亲国戚,以身殉职,也在所不惜。”

后来,皇上为了尊重孙伏伽的意思,下诏派人调查薛仁师办案的情况,事实证实了他所平反的人,果然原来是受到冤枉的。

唐太宗对薛仁师,更加信任。

二、施仁政,重教化,出现贞观盛世

中国文化以儒、释、道为主干,这在唐朝达到鼎盛时期。这三家文化的核心,都以端正人心为本。这是法律的作用所远远达不到的。

唐太宗施行仁政,虚心纳谏,刑罚宽简,吏治严明,形成了中国历史上一个少有的盛世。贞观四年,一年只判有死刑犯二十九人,而且当时的社会现状,还是乱世刚刚过去,国困民穷,年成也不好的时候。其所以能够达到如此的治安良况,是因为唐初重视了教化的作用,强化了道德伦理。人心自我约束力,大大加强。故遇上天灾,全国上下齐力抗灾,也并无怨气。后来遇上丰年,社会便出现了夜不闭户、路不拾遗的现象。这也就是很自然的情景。接著,又出现了行旅不带粮,路上有人款待与送给。这就更非一般社会风貌所可比拟了。

所以史家将这一时期誉为“贞观之治”!

三、唐太宗改革极刑

唐太宗从一开始,就注重改革极刑。《资治通鉴》记载:“皇上(此指唐太宗)命令吏部尚书长孙无忌等,与学士、法官,共同议定改换刑律,放宽绞刑五十条,使死刑其改为断右脚趾。皇上还嫌它太惨,说:‘肉刑废除已久,应以另外的办法代替。’法曹参军裴弘献,请改为加重劳役,流放三千里,时限为三年。皇上批准,下诏实行。

皇上认为:兵部郎中戴胄,忠公正直,就提拔为大理少卿。

皇上发现:在选拔人才中,经常出现假冒资望或祖荫的人,就下诏命令他们自首,不自首者,判以死罪。没有多久,却又出现有假冒事件,发现后,皇上很生气,当即下令:要杀掉他!

戴胄上奏说:“按照新法律,应当流放。”皇上生气地说:“您要守法,就使我失信(已下令杀他)吗!”戴胄说:“您刚才的命令,是出于您个人一时的激愤;而法律,则是国家取信于民的根本。陛下痛恨选拔人才作假,因此就想杀了他。但现在已经知道了这样不对,订出了新法律,就应当依法办事。这就叫做:忍小忿而存大信。”皇上说:“您能如此执法,我还有什么担忧呢?”

戴胄经常不顾情面,犯颜护法,言如泉涌,唐太宗都听从他,所以国家没有冤案。

唐太宗以仁为本,不因个人的喜怒,而违背法律的严肃性。从这一点看来,就足以证明他是一位仁君。

(事据清代居士周思仁著《安士全书》)

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