One of the most forthright of China’s top royal advisors was likened to a mirror reflecting the mistakes of the court.
One of the most celebrated Chinese officials of the Tang dynasty defied his Emperor by slaying a sinful dragon. In his sleep.
The Dragon King of Jinghe River secretly dared to change the amount and time of the rainfall, violating heavenly law and incurring the wrath of Heaven. But the Dragon King visited Emperor Tang Taizong in his dreams and pleaded for mercy. In his dream, the Emperor agreed to spare the Dragon King.
Wei Zheng had been appointed by the Heavens as the official beheader of wayward dragons. Tang Taizong tried to prevent Wei from executing this particular dragon by calling him to court to play chess. But Wei fell asleep during the match, and as he slept, his soul went to execute the Dragon King all the same, according to Heavenly Law.
The incident, while unusual, was typical of the relationship between Taizong and Wei Zheng. The 17 years they were together were marked by similar occasions: the two would disagree, Wei would win, and the final outcome would be the best one for the Emperor and the kingdom.
Wei Zheng’s role as a loyal and stalwart adviser to Emperor Taizong has been remembered through Chinese history, and is an example of the Confucian principle of the ruler and his subjects: the Emperor wise, careful, and considered; the adviser respectful but never hesitating to air concerns for the benefit of all.
During his career as an imperial official, Wei Zheng advised the Emperor on more than 200 affairs of state, and wrote hundreds of thousands of characters of memoranda to the throne. He ceaselessly expressed his views and, as long as he thought himself in the right, he wouldn’t back down.
Eventually, the Emperor could not bear Wei Zheng’s argumentativeness. He asked his brother-in-law, loud enough so that Wei could hear:
“Do you see that whenever I go against Wei Zheng’s advice, he doesn’t accept it? What’s going on here?” Wei Zheng, without being asked, piped up.
“It is only when Your Majesty does not do things correctly that I admonish. If Your Majesty does not listen to my advice, and I immediately obey Your Majesty, and that matter is handled wrongly, would that not be contrary to the original intention of my remonstrance?”
Taizong asked why Wei could not simply stay quiet during court, and then present his disagreement afterwards.
“During ancient times,” Wei said, “Shun [a legendary leader] warned his ministers not to obey him in public and speak otherwise in private, as this does not show a subject’s loyalty toward his monarch, but instead craft and fawning. Therefore, I do not agree with Your Majesty’s remarks.” The statement was sharp, direct, decisive — and every word of it was reasonable. His Highness simply nodded in thought.
Wei even asserted his views about the Emperor’s personal habits. He believed, for example, that Taizong was too fond of hunting and falconry. Taizong even had a little house for his collection of hawks, and would play with them for hours.
One day His Majesty got a new baby hawk, and Wei spotted him with it. Wei approached the Emperor. The Emperor, embarrassed, stuffed the tiny creature into one of his sleeves and met with Wei. Wei now gave the Emperor a lesson: rather than a quick chat, he deliberately kept the conversation going. After Wei left, Emperor Taizong removed the hawk from his clothing only to find that it had suffocated. His Highness never wasted any more time on the birds.
On another occasion, Wei Zheng heard that the Emperor was heading to Mount Zhongnan for a hunt. Wei, intending to short-circuit the Emperor’s obsession, waited at the entrance of the palace, but Taizong never came out. Entering the palace, Wei found Taizong in his hunting attire, going nowhere.
“I heard that Your Majesty was going hunting. Why haven’t you left?” The Emperor answered with a smile.
“I was going to, but I knew you would come and stop me, so I have decided not to hunt after all. You can relax now and go home!” Wei left with a smile.
In 643 AD, after giving 17 years of loyal service and fearless advice, Wei Zheng became sick. When he died, Emperor Taizong was filled with grief and loss. There would be no more unsolicited advice or banter with his most dedicated subject. The Emperor climbed to the top of a building and wept. He ordered all court officials to participate in the funeral procession, and personally walked with it to the outskirts of Chang’an, the capital.
The Emperor wrote this inscription on Wei Zheng’s tombstone, expressing ideas that have resonated in Chinese thought for centuries: “Put a slab of copper as a mirror in front of me, and I can straighten out my robe. Put history as a mirror in front of me, and I can identify the troubling signs of the rise and fall of a society. If I have a man as a mirror who reflects my flaws, then I can correct my mistakes. I constantly keep these three mirrors to prevent me from erring. With Wei Zheng’s passing, I have lost a mirror!”
Illustration by Ben Lee