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.
When he was a prince, Emperor Taizong enjoyed hunting on horseback very much. His interest in hunting stayed high even after he became the emperor. He often led a large number of people outside the city to hunt in the wilderness. Many officials tried to use many different mild methods to persuade him to stop pursuing such a time-consuming interest. But Emperor Taizong felt that his entourage was practicing riding and archery, and it would help to hone their battlefield skills and defend the country better. So he didn’t listen.
One day, Emperor Taizong was again ready to go hunting. At the moment he was about to mount the horse, a royal court official named Sun Fujia dashed over and grabbed the horse’s reins and stopped Emperor Taizong from going out of the palace. He warned Emperor Taizong seriously in a solemn manner, “The Son of Heaven [another term for the emperor] must be heavily guarded at all times and followed everywhere he goes. It is not for the sake of showing off, but for the sake of the country and his administration. Riding on horseback, releasing the eagle and driving the dogs to hunt are things that young, profligate, good-for-nothing sons of the wealthy do to seek pleasure. It didn’t affect the general situation when you hunted occasionally as the Prince of Qin. However, being as noble as the Son of Heaven, how could you do it this often? Has your Majesty forgotten Lao Zi’s warning? Lao Zi said, ‘Galloping through the field and hunting would make one’s heart go crazy.’ Your obsession with hunting is neither beneficial to the country nor a good model for later generations, so I think Your Majesty should refrain from hunting.”
Emperor Taizong did not listen to Sun Fujia’s advice. While hurrying to get on horseback, he explained to Sun Fujia: “Although it is a peaceful time right now, we should not let up our military preparation. What is so bad about my going out hunting, keeping fit and practicing fighting skills? I have arranged a light entourage to accompany me so I won’t bother the people. What’s wrong with it? Don’t say anything more!”
Sun Fujia held fast to the horse’s reins and wouldn’t let go. He said sternly: “If Your Majesty does not listen to my humble advice and insists on going out of the palace, just let the horse trample over my body. Even if I am stamped into pieces, I won’t let go of the reins. Your Majesty, I won’t allow you to leave the palace as long as I am alive!” Emperor Taizong ordered him repeatedly to release the reins and the guards also tried to persuade him to let go of them, but Sun Fujia ignored everybody and held fast onto the halter, saying angrily, “As long as I am breathing, I will not sit idly and watch Your Majesty do anything improper as the Son of Heaven!”
Emperor Taizong was greatly angered by Sun Fujia’s stubbornness and shouted loudly: “I am as noble as the Son of Heaven and the Master of the land with ten thousand chariots! Can I not enjoy just a little freedom? Must I do everything according to your likes?” Then he ordered the soldiers to publicly decapitate Sun Fujia at Wu Gate. Several soldiers pulled Sun Fujia outside by grabbing his collar and twisting his arms. Facing death, Sun Fujia showed no fear and said loudly, “I would rather be killed for providing honest remonstrations than live to watch Your Majesty repeat his mistake and refuse to correct it!”
Seeing Sun Fujia’s determination without worrying for his own life, Emperor Taizong was very touched by his fearless spirit and great loyalty. So Emperor Taizong got off the horse and said to Sun Fujia with a smile, “I was just testing your courage. You are willing to risk your life to remonstrate and have persistently demonstrated your loyalty. How can I ignore your advice and go hunting?” Emperor Taizong immediately dismissed the hunting team, praised Sun Fujia and promoted him to the rank of a 5th grade court official. (Official ranks were defined in grades first to ninth in descending order.)