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Wei Zheng candid official earns great respect

(Shanghai Daily)

14:33, October 28, 2011

BEIJING, Oct. 28 (Xinhuanet) -- Before the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was overthrown in the 1911 Revolution, China was governed by a feudal autocracy for more than 2,000 years. Under such totalitarian rule, an emperor's words were regarded as imperial decrees. According to both imperial rules and the Confucian canon, no one could or should ever challenge an emperor's decisions or acts.

However, out of unswerving loyalty, from time to time, one or two court officials would risk their lives and pleaded in protest or criticized an emperor's policies or decisions. Of this rare breed of remonstrant officials in Chinese history, Wei Zheng, a great politician, thinker and historian in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), was the most prominent and best respected.

Wei was born in today's Hebei Province in northern China. His father was a county magistrate, but he died when Wei was still very young. Though living in poverty throughout his childhood, Wei studied very hard and harbored a great ambition to become an upright official and help build a prosperous state.

During the late years of the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618), rebellions against Sui rule had spread across the country. Wei joined a rebel army led by Li Mi, who later submitted to the Tang Dynasty. Wei followed him to the Tang region and became an official there.

He first served the Crown Prince. But later, the prince was killed by his younger brother Li Shimin, who eventually became Emperor Taizong.

Despite the fact that Wei had been on the staff of his rival, the Crown Prince, Emperor Taizong invited Wei to serve in his court because he was deeply impressed by Wei's faithfulness and great capability in governance.

Wei always spoke up for what he believed to be right and criticize the emperor's opinions or behavior. For instance, whenever he thought the emperor was becoming complacent, indulging in debauchery or neglecting his duties as a ruler of the country, he would say so openly.

Though the emperor didn't always accept his criticism or follow his advice, he treated Wei with great respect. Sometimes, he even invited Wei into his bedroom to have long talks on issues he was interested in.

One day, the emperor asked Wei: "Why are there wise rulers and fatuous rulers throughout history?" Wei replied: "By listening to both sides, you will be enlightened; by heeding only one side, you will be benighted."

Another day, the emperor had a heated debate with Wei in the court and became irate. He retreated to an inner hall and cursed aloud: "Someday, I'm bound to kill that hillbilly."

After hearing this, the empress immediately changed into a formal dress and kneeled in front of the emperor. The emperor asked: "What's this for?"

The empress answered: "I have learned that only wise and sagacious rulers could have righteous and outspoken officials. You have such an official in Wei Zheng, and this means that you are a wise and sagacious emperor. So, I have come to congratulate Your Majesty."

After listening to the empress's remark, the emperor's ire began to recede.

As a famous historian, Wei had compiled many important history books, including the Book of Sui. He often quoted stories from the Book of Sui to advise the emperor to avoid the mistakes made by Sui rulers and draw lessons from the failure and eventual collapse of the Sui Dynasty.

In AD 643, Wei died of illness. After learning the news, the emperor wept. He said: "Using a mirror made of bronze, one may check the tidiness of his dress; using history as a mirror, one may understand the rises and falls of powers; using other people's opinion as a mirror, one may correctly weigh the gains and losses. Now, Wei Zheng has died and we have lost a mirror!"

The righteous and outspoken Wei was later deemed a role model for all government officials throughout Chinese history.


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