Li Shimin, Emperor Taizong (627 – 649 A.D.) of the Tang Dynasty was one of a few truly outstanding emperors in Chinese history. He was famous for being receptive to advice and criticism. When his officials’ criticism became too harsh and painful, Emperor Taizong sometimes had difficulty maintaining self-control, and would even want to cover up the problems and refuse to listen. Despite that, after all he was a person with remarkable generosity and laudable tolerance, and he always regarded the country’s interests as the most important and made corrections once he realized his own faults.
Wang Gui (also known as Wang Shujie) of the Tang dynasty was an upright and straightforward person with a pure heart, few desires and righteous behavior. When Li Jiancheng, Li Shimin’s elder brother, became the crown prince, Wang Gui was appointed as his political advisor. On July 2, 626 A.D., a Palace Coup at Xuan Wu Gate took place. Li Shimin was forced to kill Li Jiangcheng and another brother in self-defense. After that, Wang Gui was exiled to the remote Jun Zhou Prefecture.
In the first year of the Zhen Guan Era (627 – 649 A.D.), Li Shimin ascended to the throne and became Emperor Taizong. He knew that Wang Gui was very talented, and therefore summoned Wang Gui back to the capital city. He pardoned Wang Gui for the attempted assassination at Xuan Wu Gate, and made him a royal advisor responsible for pointing out the emperor’s mistakes.
One day when Emperor Taizong was about to appear in front of the court, he said to the officials, “If an upright emperor uses evil officials, the country won’t be governed well. By the same token, if righteous officials serve an evil emperor, the country won’t be governed well. Only when the emperor and the officials coexist as harmoniously as fish and water, can true stability across the country be achieved and can the country be in good order. I am not smart, so I hope you all can correct me when I am wrong in order to put your good ideas and opinions into full use and make the country peaceful.”
Upon hearing this, Wang Gui said: “I have heard that only by following the correct measurement, can a piece of wood be cut straight. An emperor can be wise only when he listens to his officials’ advice. Therefore in ancient times, an emperor had to surround himself with seven frank and forthright officials. When their remonstrations were not listened to, they would continue to remonstrate with their lives. Your majesty is wise and a man of virtue. As a member of this open-minded court, I will be wholeheartedly devoted to it.”
Emperor Taizong felt inspired by Wang’s words. He made a rule that when all high-ranking government officials above the third grade were in court, advisors must be present to give advice. [Note: In ancient China, there was a nine-grade system for high-level government officials with the 9th grade being the lowest and the 1st grade being the highest.] Emperor Taizong indeed accepted remonstrations readily. Wang Gui routinely gave him advice and corrected his mistakes.
However, not all the remonstrations were so easy to listen to. One time, Taizong lost his temper badly and scolded Zu Xiaosun, a royal court music director, just because his way of teaching musicians in the palace did not suit Emperor Taizong’s style. Wang Gui and Wen Yanbo thought it was not Zu Xiaosun’s fault and therefore advised Emperor Taizong: “Zu Xiaosun is proficient at music and he also tried his best when teaching. The person you asked might have lied to your majesty. Besides, Zu Xiaosun is a refined scholar, yet your majesty neglected this and asked him to teach music to maids, and even scolded him. We are concerned that people in the country will be scared by this.” Upon hearing this, Emperor Taizong became even angrier and scolded them, “You are my trusted officials and should show your loyalty and honesty. Why are you going along with a lower person and deceiving a higher person, speaking up for Zu Xiaosun?”
Wen Yanbo hurried to kneel down and apologized for being offensive, but Wang Gui refused to do so and said: “I served the former crown prince Li Jiancheng and should have been executed for my offense. Your Majesty pardoned me and placed me in an important position, asking me to serve faithfully. The words that I spoke earlier today weren’t for myself. Yet to my surprise, Your Majesty has become suspicious and blames me. It is Your Majesty who has let me down, and not the other way around.” Emperor Taizong was speechless.
The next day, Emperor Taizong said to Fang Xuanling, “Since ancient times, emperors have had difficulties in accepting remonstrations. King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty failed to accept loyal Boyi and Shuqi’s words. King Xuan of the Zhou Dynasty was an emperor of virtue, yet he killed the innocent Shubo. I have been hoping to follow the previous saints, but regret that I can’t achieve the level of the ancients. Yesterday, I scolded Wang Gui and Wen Yanbo, and I now regret it. I hope this incident won’t stop you from providing upright remonstrations!”