Xiao Yan, Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty--China's First "Monk Emperor"
(Clearwisdom.net) Xiao Yan, whose courtesy (zi) name was Shuda, lived in the period of the Southern Dynasties (420-589). He was born in 464 A.D. in Zhongdouli, Nanlanling County (the current Wujin County of Jiangsu Province). Xiao Yan was Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty (one of the Southern Dynasties).
Xiao Yan Was a Gifted Person
Xiao Yan was a descendant of Han Dynasty Prime Minister Xiao He. Xiao Yan lived for 86 years and ruled the nation for 48 years. Among the Chinese emperors after Qin Shi Huang (259 BC - 210 BC, and the first emperor of unified China), Xiao Yan enjoyed the second greatest longevity. Xiao Yan was a rare Emperor in Chinese history because he was gifted in both literature and military talent. According to Zizhi Tongjian [literally: "Comprehensive Mirror to Aid Government," a famous Chinese history book by the great historian Sima Guang (1019-1086) that covers 16 dynasties and spans across 1363 years], Xiao Yan/Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty was "erudite and good at writing and literature, Yin Yang, divination, riding and archery, rhythm of writing, calligraphy of Cao (a fully cursive style) and Li (Clerical Script), and Go [an ancient board game]." His natural talents in literature and military arts earned him an outstanding reputation, even at the age of seven or eight years old.
Xiao Yan was intelligent and enjoyed reading, even when he was a child; he was very knowledgeable and multi-talented. He was especially gifted in literature. At that time, he and his seven friends were collectively called "The Eight Friends." This group included such famous individuals in history as Shen Yue, Xie Tiao, and Fan Yun. Shen Yue later wrote Song Shu (The History of Song Dynasty), Qi Ji (The History of Qi Dynasty), and other books. Xie Tiao was then a famous poet. However, among the eight, Xiao Yan's courage and insights were far above that of the others'.
An Emperor for Forty-eight Years in the Period of the Southern Dynasties
Xiao Yan was an emperor for 48 years. He maintained the longest reign among all of the emperors in the Southern Dynasties.
Xiao Yan's achievements in government were outstanding, even after he initially became Emperor. He took a lesson from the demise of the Qi Dynasty; he worked diligently in his handling of state affairs. He always got up very early to read and revise the submitted reports regardless of the time of year. To encourage opinions from others and find talented people, he had two boxes placed in front of the palace gate. One box was called the Criticism Box, the other the Suggestion Box. If there were accomplished officials or gifted individuals who had not been awarded or promoted for their accomplishments, or if there were talented persons who had not been utilized by the government, people could put their recommendations in the Suggestion Box. If the common citizens wanted to criticize or make suggestions to the government, they could put their letters in the Criticism Box.
Xiao Yan paid a lot attention to choosing and appointing officials. He expected the government officials to be honest, uncorrupted, and righteous. He also made a decree to the nation: If a magistrate of a small county made outstanding contributions or achievements, he could be promoted and become a magistrate of a larger county. If a magistrate of a larger county made outstanding achievements, he could be promoted to a prefecture. After this order of recognition was executed, the officials' performance and the official appointment system in the government of the Liang Dynasty was much improved.
Wholeheartedly Believing in Buddhism and Willing to Give Up the Throne
The Southern Dynasties was a very important period in the development of Buddhist culture in China. Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty did his best to promote Buddhism, which resulted in Buddhism becoming more widely spread throughout Southern China. While he was Emperor, he went to a temple to become a monk four times; he thus was the first "Monk Emperor" in China.
Xiao Yan believed in Daoism when he was young. In the third year after he became Emperor, he led 20,000 people, including both monks and common citizens, and held a Buddhist assembly, where he claimed that he "gave up Daoism for Buddhism." He hoped to "use Buddhist principles to rule the nation," so as to enable people to relinquish their attachments to fame and self-interest and pursue eternal life.
After Emperor Wu declared himself a believer of Buddhism, he went to live in Tongtai Temple four times. In 547, he went to the temple and lived in a plain room with a simple bed; he used earthenware teapots, cups, and bowls. He recited the scriptures; he struck the bell in the morning and beat the drum in the evening. He also cleaned the temple along with the other monks. Because a nation cannot function without the Emperor, his officials begged him to return. Only after many requests by the officials, did he go back to the palace. In September of 529, he held a religious service with the participation of monks, nuns, and male and female lay Buddhists. After finishing the ritual with his officials, he decided to not go back to the palace. That evening, he stayed in Tongtai Temple. The next day, he gave a lecture on Buddhist scriptures to the four types of beings (monks, nuns, and male and female lay Buddhists). He again did not want to go back to the palace, even after his officials tried many times to persuade him. It was only after the officials (from the ministers to those in the lower ranks) donated a sum of one hundred million (money) to redeem him did he return to the palace in October. In 546, when Emperor Wu of Liang was 83 years old, he went to the temple again. In the end, the officials donated two hundred million to get him back. One year later, he went to Tongtai Temple for the fourth time; he lived there for a total of 37 days. He was willing to become a monk even when he was a highly respected Emperor. Through his devoted promotion of Buddhism, the influence of Buddhism greatly expanded in China. Moreover Buddhism reached the peak of its development during the reign of Emperor Wu of Liang. At that time, all people, from the emperor to the royal family and from the noblemen to the common citizens, believed in Buddhism. Buddhism experienced unprecedented popularity at this time, and it became the religion of the whole nation.