Wei Zheng — The Boldest and Most Successful Imperial Censor of the Tang Dynasty
Wei Zheng (580 -- 643) 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 Tang Tai Zong to appreciate Wei’s unique qualities as from Wei’s character itself.
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 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.
Following the coup, Li Shimin 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 Li Shimin’s accusation impressed the new emperor and, as a result, he appointed Wei as his imperial censor.
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 which 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 governance of the realm.
Additionally, he served as the emperor’s personal confidant, providing guidance on how Emperor Li Shimin should avoid spoiling his much beloved princess or temper his longing for the queen, and temper his desires for entertaining diversions.
Wei’s influence on the emperor was significant. Shimin respected Wei’s opinion whether he was expressing his views on national policies or family matters.
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 of excellent essays and poems.
During Wei’s illness prior to his death, Emperor Shimin 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.
The combination of Wei’s brilliance and the Emperor Shimin's sage rule remain legendary.
Today, Wei is represented as one of the “door gods” in China and continues to protect the rights of ordinary people even after his death, just as what he did throughout his life.
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