Wise Emperor and Loyal Ministers, a Chinese New Year painting from the late Qing dynasty (清代) (overprinted painting). (Picture credit: Gongyuan Communication/Fotoe)

There is a famous quote from Emperor Taizong of Tang (唐太宗), “With a bronze mirror, one can see whether he is properly attired; with history as a mirror, one can understand the rise and fall of a nation; with men as a mirror, one can see whether he is right or wrong.” History can help us understand the rise and fall of dynasties, allowing us to learn from them and avoid repeating the past mistakes. There are numerous stories about the emperors and their ministers in ancient China during its thousands years of history. Here, we have selected some of them that may be little-known by the public yet worth reading to share with you.

The policy “One Country, Two Systems” is well-known by the Hong Kong people. In fact, this governing principle was actually introduced as early as more than a thousand years ago by Yelu Abaoji (耶律阿保機), Emperor Taizu of Liao (遼太祖). In 938, Emperor Taizu took over the 16 prefectures of Yanyun (燕雲十六州) in northern China tributed by Shi Jingtang (石敬瑭), a regional military governor in the late Tang dynasty. Following this, Emperor Taizu began to control both the northern nomadic ethnic groups and the southern farming people. Considering the different living habits between the two regions, he adopted a special governing principle to adapt to their different customs, forming two complete sets of official systems in the north and south. This reflected the Khitan people’s respect and inclusiveness for other cultures.

“Belt and Road” was proposed in a policy document entitled Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road issued by the National Development and Reform Commission of the People’s Republic of China in 2015. The document was prepared to facilitate the coordination of economic policies of countries along the Belt and Road, and jointly build an open, inclusive and balanced regional economic cooperation architecture that benefits all. This idea of economic construction was first initiated by Emperor Yang of Sui (隋煬帝) early in history. He sent his minister Pei Ju (裴矩) to Zhangye (张掖) to invite Hu (胡, northern and western regions of ancient China) merchants to the Han (漢) land, hoping to promote trading. In order to impress the Hu merchants with the Sui dynasty’s prosperity, Emperor Yang ordered to beautify the capital Luoyang (洛陽), and demanded everyone to wear fine clothes. Furthermore, he ordered to wrap trees with silk to demonstrate the country’s wealth.

Many emperors and ministers had to deal with various epidemic breakouts in ancient China. For example, during the reign of Emperor Renzong of Song (宋仁宗), a plague broke out in the capital Kaifeng (開封). For the safety of Emperor Renzong, the imperial physicians presented him with a pair of extremely rare rhinoceros horns as medication. Emperor Renzong was so concerned about his people that he ordered the physicians to grind the rhinoceros horns into powder and distribute it to those in need. He also sent his imperial physicians to them. To fighting against the epidemic, the famous officials Su Shi (蘇軾) and Zeng Gong (曾鞏) from the Northern Song dynasty not only actively raise funds to help the people get through the hard time, but also donated their own savings to build and operate hospitals.

The past dynasties of China all saw numerous corrupt officials, who were disdained by the people. Some treacherous officials enjoyed wealthy and peaceful lives before death, but some were not so lucky. The latter were imprisoned and tortured as a punishment for their misbehaviours. Respective examples are Qin Hui (秦檜) and Cai Jing (蔡京), two notorious chancellors in the Song dynasty. Despite their different destinies, they were all despised by the later generations. During his eighteen years of tenure as chancellor, not only did Qin take bribes and bend the law, but also persecuted his political enemy Yue Fei (岳飛), a loyal general who fought for the Song during the Jin (金)-Song Wars. However, Emperor Gaozong of Song (宋高宗) appeased his wicked behaviours and did not remove his descendants from office until his death. Qin lived a rich and peaceful life, but his evildoings were recorded in the annals of history. However, Cai, another chancellor in the Song dynasty met a completely different destiny. He took dictatorship for 20 years during the reign of Emperor Huizong of Song (宋徽宗). Just like Qin, his rule was characterised by corruption and bribes. His dishonest behaviour was also acquiesced by the emperor. However, when Emperor Huizong abdicated the throne to Emperor Qinzong (欽宗), Cai lost his power and immediately became disdained by the masses. He died of sickness in exile at last.

In his poem Encouragement to Learning (《勵学篇》), Emperor Zhenzong of Song (宋真宗) wrote, “In books, there are houses made of gold and women as beautiful as jade.” Some may think that emperors did not need to read books. In fact, many ancient politicians loved to read and kept it as a routine in their busy schedules. What kind of books did they like to read? For example, the emperors in the Song dynasty were interested in historical books, such as The Book of Documents (《尚書》, Shangshu,), History of the Former Han (《漢書》, Hanshu), and Readings of the Taiping Era (《太平御覽》, Taiping Yulan) . Liu Anshi (劉安世), the Imperial Censor in the Northern Song dynasty, once said, “Emperor Taizu (太祖) enjoys reading. Every night he reads the historical annals of previous dynasties in his palace. Sometimes he even reads until midnight.”

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