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Peace Prevails When The Virtuous Govern, Chaos Follows When The Unethical Rule

September 23, 2007 |  

By Zhizhen

(Clearwisdom.net) Two events, "Kaiyuan Prosperous Era" and "An Shi Rebellion," during the era of Emperor Tang Xuanzong are memorable historical events, because they are prime examples of "peace prevails when the virtuous govern, and chaos follows when the unethical rule."

Tang Xuanzong, who was named Li Longji at birth, had great ideas and lofty aspirations when he was young. He was elected crown prince after he put an end to Empress Wei's attempt to assume power. As soon as he took the throne, he eliminated the despotic and domineering Princess Taiping and her followers. He reversed the sentencing of people who were wrongly accused. Furthermore, he changed his reign title to "Kaiyuan" to show his determination to achieve great accomplishments.

At the time, the royal court was riddled with chaos and corruption. Therefore, Tang Xuanzong wanted to employ virtuous and talented people. It is said that he had "an eye for recognizing virtuous prime ministers." Many famous prime ministers, such as Yao Chong, Song Jin, Zhang Jiuling, and Han Xiu, were brought into the government by him.

Yao Chong was very decisive, and because he made ten very valuable suggestions, he was highly regarded by Xuanzong and became the prime minister. The ten suggestions included encouraging advice by officials, rewarding righteous officials and firm punishment for those who exploited their positions of power. Tang Xuanzong carried out all of Yao Chong's suggestions.

After Yao Chong, Song Jin was made prime minister. He also placed great importance on selecting the right talent. Although he held great power, he never abused the law. On the contrary, his requirements for his relatives were more strict than for other people. One time, his distant uncle participated in the selection process of government officials. The uncle mentioned to the chief proctor about his relationship with Song Jin, and hoped that the chief proctor would favor him. When Song Jin heard about this incident, he instructed the official not to hire his uncle.

Tang Xuanzong not only recognized virtuous talents, but also respected them. Yao Chong and Song Jin were both devoted public servants. Every time Tang Xuanzong called them, he rose up to receive them. And when they left, he walked to the door to see them off. One can see how respectful Tang Xuanzong was to virtuous officials.

Zhang Jiuling was called the "commoners prime minister." He was selected by Tang Xuanzong because of his outstanding personal character and talent. Once Zhang Jiuling became the prime minister, like Tang Xuanzong, he placed great importance on the person's character and not his background. And he continuously advocated fair selection of talent based on personal character. When Tang Xuanzong made mistakes, Zhang Jiuling immediately pointed them out and corrected him. Zhang Jiuling did not conceal the truth because Tang Xuanzong appreciated his talent and treated him well.

During the early period of his reign, Tang Xuanzong recognized talents, treated them well, and was very respectful of the wise. Therefore, he was surrounded by many competent and wise officials. At the time, the government administration was uncorrupted and just, society was stable, and the country was very prosperous. The Tang Dynasty entered its most flourishing period and was thus called "Kaiyuan Prosperous Era." Historically speaking, "Kaiyuan Era" was a time where "there was much abundance in the country. There were stores on every street that offered food and wine." It was an era when "courier stations kept donkeys, so that one could travel long distances and need not depend on foot soldiers (to carry the messages)." The poet, Du Fu, wrote in his book, "Yi Xi" (or "Remembering the Past": "Remembering the prosperous days of the Kaiyuan Era, even a small town had as many goods as a wealthy home. The rice was plump, and the corn was white. Private and public granaries had ample goods."

In the latter part of his reign, Tang Xuanzong became arrogant, liked hearing flattery, and sought a comfortable life. He favored and entrusted disloyal and cunning officials such as Li Linfu and Yang Guozhong. This finally led to the "An Shi Rebellion," thus ending the magnificent and prosperous era.

Li Linfu was very good at guessing Tang Xuanzong's thoughts. One time, Tang Xuanzong wanted to go back to Chang'an from Luoyang. However, Prime minister Zhang Jiuling and others were against the idea, citing the Emperor would interrupt people's work along the road and affect their harvesting as the autumn harvest was not over. After Zhang Jiuling left, Li Linfu said to Tang Xuanzong: "Your majesty, Chang'an is your East Palace and Luoyang is your West Palace. Your majesty should be able to come and go as you please, and not wait until the harvest is over. If we interrupt people's autumn harvest, then we just waive their taxes." Tang Xuanzong was quite happy after hearing that and traveled as planned. He trusted Li Linfu more and more. Li Linfu schemed and brought false charges against Zhang Jiuling and others. Eventually, Tang Xuanzong dismissed all the prime ministers who were honest and upright, and named Li Linfu prime minister.

Li Linfu was jealous of capable and wise officials. After he took power, he banded together with clandestine groups to cast aside dissidents, and framed good people. Although he was good at flattery, deep down, he was deceitful and malicious. This is the origin of the Chinese proverb "mouth full of honey, a sword hidden in the belly." He stifled criticism and suggestions. One time, he threatened the officials and said, "You've all seen the horses that we use for ceremonies and rites. As long as you just do as you're told, then you will be fed and paid adequately. Those who complain will be eliminated immediately. By then it would be too late to regret."

Yang Guozhong took power after Li Linfu's death, and the socio-political environment became even darker. Tang Xuanzong favored concubine Yang Yuhuan. He was reluctant to attend state affairs and enjoyed a luxurious and decadent lifestyle. Yang Guozhong was Yang Yuhuan's brother. His power and influence was unrivaled. Other than prime minister, he held forty-some other positions. The Yangs were making rapid advances in their careers.

Yang Guozhong deceived the public and created chaos in the royal court. One time, a rainstorm caused a lot of damage. When Xuanzong inquired about the situation, Yang Guozhong brought a big cereal crop seedling and showed it to Xuanzong, and said that the powerful rainstorm did not cause any damage to the harvest. Some lower ranking officials reported the damage situation and asked for help. Yang Guozhong became extremely angry, dismissed them from their jobs, and severely punished them. Later on, no one dared to speak the truth. He formed cliques, was very corrupt, and took bribes. He did all kinds of villainous acts.

As the social unrest intensified, warlord An Lushan and Shi Siming started the "An Shi Rebellion" and dispatched troops to rise up against the Tangs. Because many of the Tang generals were overbearing and domineering, the troops had very low morale. They did not fight much and ran away. The rebel army quickly swept over a large region and was forging toward the Big East Gate of the capital until it reached Tongguan (a strategic point, the gateway between Northwest and Central China). There was no one in the royal court that could defend the capital. Xuanzhong had to summon a retired old general, Ge Shuhan, who was loyal and upright. At the very last minute, he put together a troop of 200,000 soldiers and guarded Tongguan.

Ge Shuhan reported to the Emperor: "An Lushan is not well-liked by the people. As long as we persevere in guarding the city wall and moat, there will eventually be conflicts amongst themselves. We should wait until their strength is weakened, then dispatch our troops to attack them. This will assure our victory. If we dispatch our troops now, we will be ambushed." At the same time, Guo Ziyi and Li Guangbi, from as far as Hebei Province, also reported to the Emperor: "Tongguan is a strategic point, we must guard it with perseverance. Do not attack now and wait for the auxiliary troops to arrive. Then we will win when we strike." However, Yang Guozhong was jealous of the power Ge Shuhan had, and was afraid that he might be a threat to him in the future. Therefore, Yang Guozhong kept urging Tang Xuanzhong to dispatch Ge Shuhan's troops. Tang Xuanzhong believed Yang Guozhong's words and ordered Ge Shuhan several times to dispatch the troops. Ge Shuhan had no choice but to lead the army beyond the wall to attack the enemy. Sure enough, the Tang army was ambushed and lost the battle. Ge Shuhan was captured. He refused to surrender and was killed by An Lushan. Tongguan fell into the hands of the enemy.

In a panic, Tang Xuanzong escaped to Sichuan Province. On the way to Sichuan, the imperial guards began a mutiny and requested Tang Xuanzong to immediately execute Yang Guozhong and Yang Yuhuan as an apology to the country. Tang Xuanzong, reluctantly, ordered the execution of the Yang siblings. By that time, the Tang Dynasty was in decline and there was constant war and chaos. Therefore, people could not live in peace.

Looking at the historical relationship between the use of virtuous officials which brought stability to a nation, we can conclude that regardless of the political situation, when the Emperor relies on officials who lack virtue and act recklessly, when he associates with fiends and alienates himself from the wise, what awaits him is self-destruction. Those who do not have virtue will bring tribulations upon themselves. One should learn from history and others that only when one cultivates oneself can one can be clear-headed, know right from wrong, and do good deeds. Furthermore, one should not collaborate with evil forces, and give villains an opportunity to do whatever they wish. This way, the nation's political system will not be obstructed, people will have peace and live in prosperity, and the nation's leader will be praised by future generations.