Wei Zheng — The Boldest and Most Successful Imperial Censor of the Tang Dynasty
Wei Zheng (580 — 643), courtesy name Xuancheng, was one of the most famous imperial censors in the history of China due to his bold, straightforward, and persistent character.
However, his successful tenure as an imperial censor derived as much from the ability of the open-minded Emperor Taizong of Tang to appreciate Wei’s unique qualities as from Wei’s character itself.
A Bold Official that Impressed the Emperor
Wei was born into a poor family but was diligent, knowledgeable, and ambitious.
When he was young, China was divided into warring factions that engaged in a continuous struggle. After authoring an essay that earned the praise of one faction’s general, Wei served the general as an advisor.
With the rise of the Tang Dynasty and a united China, Wei went on to serve the crown prince Li Jiancheng.
During this time, Wei proposed that the crown prince execute Li Shimin, his younger brother, and a contender for the throne.
Li Shimin struck first, killing his older brother and ascending to the throne as Emperor Taizong of Tang (or Tang Tai Zong).
Epitaph of Late Crown Prince Li Jiancheng — Xi'an Museum
Following the coup, Emperor Taizong discovered Wei’s proposal to assassinate him before he had a chance to attempt a coup.
Instead of denying the charges, Wei boldly admitted that he had proposed this solution to the crown prince and asserted that Li Shimin would have been unsuccessful in ascending to the throne if the crown prince had followed his guidance.
Wei’s fearlessness in the face of Emperor Taizong’s accusation impressed the new emperor and, as a result, he appointed Wei as his imperial censor.
Gilding Silver Box of the Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Wei Zheng's Brilliant Suggestions on Politics
Wei advocated for fair and just treatment for all citizens of the realm.
According to Wei, the prosperity or chaos inherent in a society derived from the quality of the ruling class, as opposed to the values, beliefs, and behavior of ordinary citizens.
As such, rulers were exemplars that set the standard of conduct that guided the behavior of the people.
In Wei’s view, if the common people were uncultivated or unrefined, the blame lay squarely on the rulers.
Wei proposed a wide variety of political and administrative reforms designed to improve the governance of the realm.
Additionally, he served as the emperor’s confidant, pointing out how Emperor Taizong should avoid spoiling his beloved princess or temper his longing for the queen, and temper his desires for entertaining diversions.
Wei’s influence on the emperor was significant. The emperor respected Wei’s opinion on whether he was expressing his views on national policies or family matters.
Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils from the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China (Photo by Kanjianji)
Excellent Official and Door God Wei Zheng
Wei was also notable for his integrity and frugality. Despite his position, he lived a Spartan life, leaving little or no valuable stuff upon his death besides his contribution to excellent essays and poems.
During Wei’s illness before his death, Emperor Taizong visited him several times. He also participated in Wei’s funeral services and wrote him a memorial epigraph, an uncommon honor in Chinese culture.
After Wei’s death, his wisdom continued to influence the emperor’s thinking. The emperor mentioned Wei often and pondered what Wei would say or do faced with the current challenge or decision.
Unearthed Copper Mirror of the Tang Dynasty — Shanxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
The combination of Wei’s brilliance and Emperor Taizong's sage rule remains legendary.
Later, in some legends, Wei Zheng had slaughtered an evil dragon to protect others.
Therefore, he has been represented as one of the “door gods” in China and continues to protect the rights of ordinary people even after his death, just as he did throughout his life.
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