China’s Greatest Emperor Offers Five Timeless Secrets for Newly Elected Leaders
As not just President Trump but other world leaders who have recently been swept into office confront the immensity of the job before them, they could profit handsomely from the advice of warrior-ruler Taizong Tang, who is arguably Asia’s greatest leader ever and whose three-hundred year dynasty (618-907) created a legacy that can’t be matched. In addition to defeating the descendants of Attila the Hun, he opened up the Silk Road trading route, created a golden age of prosperity and cosmopolitan culture, presided over a society in which women enjoyed higher status, and, for the first time, opened his country’s door to the world’s major religions.
Taizong and his advisors held many philosophical discussions regarding how to best run the government and achieve longevity. Here are fivetenets that helped the emperor compile a record that causes him today to be ranked with such figures as Napoleon and Augustus, and that, in his own time, ensured his popularity ratings were always high:
- Appoint officials with care. “I must be careful in appointing officials,” Taizong said to his ministers. “The people are watching. If I appoint an honest man, he will set a good example for all. If I appoint a wicked man, he will attract others who are likewise wicked men. If I reward a meritorious official, those with no merits will quit on their own. If I punish a wicked one, others like him will also get the warning.” “It is difficult to appraise a man,” his advisor Wei Zheng responded. “We have to look into his moral conduct before hiring him. We have to check up on his performance before promoting or demoting him. If we hire a man of mediocre ability, he may not do a good job, but the harm he can do is limited. If we appoint an evil yet capable man, he can cause a lot of damage.”
- Stick to principles. Taizong asked his officials to think independently, dare to disagree, and not muddle through for the sake of saving face. He said: “Those who hold dissenting views share the same objective—to serve the public interest. Some officials try to gloss over their faults. They don’t like criticism and hate those who speak out. Some officials try to avoid conflicts by all means. Even if they know it is a wrong decision, they choose to obey their superiors because they are afraid if they speak out they will cause their superiors to lose face. This kind of behavior must stop. They must understand it is a minor concern to cause somebody to lose face, but it is a serious matter to jeopardize public interest.”
- Look for good points in those you don’t like.Minister Wei Zheng wrote to Taizong, “Your Majesty is willing to forgive some big mistakes of your ministers but is rather intolerant of small errors. A small error can cause you to lose your temper. But you can’t run the government according to your personal preferences. Toward those you like, be aware of their shortcomings. Toward those you dislike, look for their strengths. If you can’t see good points in those you dislike, good people will be scared. If you can’t see weaknesses in those you like, villains will be emboldened.”
- Seek complaints and criticism.Taizong said, “The ruler runs the country from the depth of his office. But he cannot see everything he should see and hear every voice he should hear. As a result, if he makes a mistake, he may not know; if he does something wrong, he cannot correct it in time. That is why he needs to hear complaints, heed different views, and listen to other people’s advice. Wholesome advice often grates on the ear, but it can benefit you. Flattery is often pleasing to the mind, but it can do you harm. The enlightened ruler follows wholesome advice. Even though it may taste bitter, it can cure his sickness. The ignorant ruler likes flattery. Even though it may taste sweet, it can destroy him.”
- Respect followers.Minister Wei Zheng cautioned Taizong in a memorandum, “When a ruler is establishing a new regime, he is sincere to his followers. But once he has won, he becomes arrogant. When he treats people in good faith, they rally around him. When he becomes supercilious, even his own brother will be alienated. If he abuses his power and intimidates his subordinates, they will come up with various ways of countering him. Outwardly they may show respect, but inwardly they will feel resentful and will betray him in the end.”
Taizong was a fearless warrior and a brilliant strategist. In the course of founding the Tang dynasty, he defeated many contenders, personally slaying a thousand men in battle. At the same time, he was an ardent student of history. He understood, long before George Santayana and Winston Churchill, that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. He’d witnessed firsthand the disintegration of the earlier Sui dynasty; its chief of state was cruel and egomaniacal, and his court infested with sycophants and derelicts.
Taizong preferred to look for inspiration to theolder Han dynasty.One day its founding emperor was visited bya scholar who talked with him about Confucian classics. The emperor was bored and told him to shut up.
“I conquered the world on horseback. Why should I be bothered about Confucius?”he said.
“YourMajesty has won the world on horseback, but can you rule it on horseback?” the scholar challenged.
The emperor saw his point and proceeded to runthe country by Confucian values. As a result, the Han dynasty lasted more than four hundred years. Taizong never forgot the lessons embedded in the reigns of his predecessors.
– Rosaleen Mahorter