Lessons Learned from Two High Officials in Tang Dynasty
(Minghui.org) Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty is one of the most famous emperors in Chinese history. He kept portraits of his 24 most accomplished officials at Lingyan Pavilion to honor their contributions, both in political strategy and success on the battlefield.
This article is about Li Jing and Hou Junji, two renowned generals on this list. Li was a accomplished general and was appointed to numerous positions, including chancellor. His virtue and wisdom were highly praised by Emperor Taizong. Hou, on the other hand, also made great achievements on the battlefield and was appointed as a military minister. But because he participated in rebellion with Prince Li Chengqian, Hou was executed as a lesson for later generations.
Both these two made great contributions, but their endings were different. Why was this? When we look at their history in more detail, we would see that this was because their principles and moral values were different.
Li Jing: Successful, Modest, and Humble
Li used to be an official in the Sui Dynasty court; he later worked for the Tang Dynasty court as well. As a great general, he could predict the outcomes of battles accurately and, based on the specific circumstance and status of the enemy, win wars under any condition. At the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, Li’s military contribution was second only to that of Emperor Taizong. Because of that, Emperor Gaozu of Tang Dynasty considered him a better general than many well-known generals in the past such as Han Xin, Bai Qi, Wei Qing, and Huo Qubing. Based on his experiences, Li also wrote several military books and was known as the “god of military.”
Besides these contributions, Li was also well-respected for his character. Throughout his life, he was loyal to the emperor and cared for the people. He aimed to bring peace to the country and had no interest for fortune or power. Compared to many other renowned generals or high officials, Li was special because he always remained modest and humble. When discussing state affairs with the emperor and other officials, he was courteous and did not argue with others. After becoming a chancellor for four years, he resigned, citing illness in his feet. Moved by the sincere letter, Emperor Taizong praised him as a model for all officials. Although Li was no longer a high-ranking officer, Emperor Taizong cherished his personality and expertise. As a result, he continued to include Li in key decisions and asked him to mentor other generals.
Li was special in that, upon being wronged, he did not argue or explain – instead, he would simply remain loyal. Below were two incidents where right after he made great contributions, someone framed him and accused him of wrongdoing. Both times, Li did not defend himself and in the end won Emperor Taizong’s trust.
The first time occurred in January of the fourth year of the Zhenguan Period (630 AD). Leading a special troop of 3,000, Li left Mayi (in today’s Shanxi Province) in freezing winter and defeated East Tujue (Eastern Turks) at Dingxiang, leaving its head Illig Qaghan fleeing to Qikou. In the following month, Li selected 10,000 well-trained cavalry soldiers and defeated East Tujue again at Yinshan, killing over 10,000 enemies and capturing over 100,000. Illig Qaghan was also caught and East Tujue collapsed.
Since the Sui Dynasty, Tujue had been very strong in the north and often harassed the mainland with its cavalry. Li’s success not only stabilized the border, but also cleared some humiliating agreements that Emperor Gaozu and Emperor Taizong signed with Tujue. It was also a major victory where a much larger enemy was defeated with a relatively small troop, making the Tang Dynasty well-known and highly respected by other regions, so much so that Emperor Taizong earned the moniker of Tian Khan (Khan of Heaven). As the news came back, the entire nation celebrated. Emperor Taizong highly praised Li for this success. That day, Emperor Taizong, his father (Emperor Gaozu), and other high-ranking officials gathered at Lingyan Pavilion for a celebration that lasted the entire night.
Upon Li's return, however, he was impeached by Imperial Counselor Xiao Yu for not governing the army well. Xiao said when the soldiers raided Illig Qaghan’ place, they robbed his valuables and took them as their own. Therefore, he recommended punishing Li for that. Emperor Taizong severely reprimanded Li because of this, but Li did not argue or defended himself, simply kowtowing in apology. After the investigation results came out and Li was proven innocent, Emperor Taizong comforted him, awarded him, and promoted him to chancellor.
Another incident happened on the 9th year of the Zhenguan Period (635 AD), when Tuyuhun invaded mainland China. Despite his elderly age and leg ailment, Li volunteered and, after overcoming various difficulties, defeated Tuyuhun, making it a vassal state of the Tang Dynasty.
During the war, Officer Gao Zengsheng did not arrive in time and delayed the battle. When being reprimanded by Li, Gao was dissatisfied. After the war was over, he colluded with another officer, Tang Fengyi, to falsely accuse Li of conspiracy against the state. Once again, Li was investigated after coming back from the successful war and he did not defend himself. After Emperor Taizong found out the facts, he exiled Gao to the remote regions for his false accusation.
Through these incidents, Emperor Taizong further recognized Li’s loyalty and good character. When Li was ill, Emperor Taizong often visited him, despite his own ailments, and was very worried about him. When Li passed away at 79 on the 23th year of the Zhenguan Period (649 AD), Emperor Taizong was in deep grief and ordered that Li be buried in the Zhao Mausoleum (the graveyard selected for Emperor Taizong) as an honor.
Li was also highly praised and respected by late generations. During Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Dynasty, he was considered one of the top 10 generals throughout Chinese history.
Hou Junji: Proud, Scornful, and Indulgent
Hou Junji was also an important official who helped Emperor Taizong in the early years. He contributed ideas in the imperial court and was very capable on the battlefield. Because of his accomplishments, he was given high positions, such as military minister. As time continued, however, he became greedier for power and money.
On the 14th year of the Zhenguan Period (640 AD), Hou won over the country of Gaochang. Without permission, he exiled some innocent officers. In addition, he took treasure from Gaochang as his own. Following his examples, other generals and soldiers also encroached valuables for themselves. To avoid his own misdeeds from being exposed, Hou did not punish these other people either. After the army returned, someone reported this and upon verification, Emperor Taizong imprisoned Hou based on the laws.
Although Emperor Taizong released Hou at a later time, Hou was not grateful. Instead, he considered himself a great achiever and thought the treasure incident insignificant. Instead of recognizing his own faults, he became resentful and complained. Later on, he thought about rebellion and discussed this with another general, Zhang Liang. Upon hearing this from Zhang, Emperor Taizong did not take any action and said to Zhang, “Both of you are accomplished generals and he only talked about this with you. If we question him and he does not admit that, there is nothing we can do.” Therefore, despite the improper words from Hou, Emperor Taizong still treated him the same. On the 17th year of the Zhenguan Period, he instructed renowned artist Yan Liben to draw portraits of 24 of his most accomplished officials for display at Lingyan Pavilion. Among them, Hou was listed as the 17th.
Instead of taking these chances to correct himself, Hou went further and further. As his resentment and hatred increased, he planned to rebel.
At that time, Emperor Taizong was about to remove the crown prince title from Li Chengqian due to misconduct. Hou took this opportunity and colluded with the prince for rebellion. On the 17th year of the Zhenguan Period (643 AD), this plot was exposed and Li’s crown prince title was removed. Hou was put in prison, but Emperor Taizong planned to release him because of his many contributions.
However, officials in the imperial court did not agree. They considered conspiracy against the state the worst crime and they recommended for the emperor to execute him. In addition, the arrogance and recklessness of Hou also made him lots of enemies. Emperor Taizong had no choice but to kill Hou. Nonetheless, he approved Hou’s request to keep his wife and children alive, and exiled them to Lingnan in southern China.
Before Hou’s execution, Emperor Taizong said to him in tears, “Because of you, I will not go to Lingyan Pavilion again.” By then, Hou finally understood the care and forgiveness from Emperor Taizong, but it was all too late.
When Hou was young, he was not skilled and yet claimed himself very capable. After joining Emperor Taizong, he gradually established his career and was promoted for successes on the battlefield. Later on, he began to improve his skills in other areas and learned military knowledge from Li Jing. As a result of his low moral values, his scornfulness and his greed, however, he gradually embarked on a journey of no return.
Over 1,000 years have passed since Li and Hou’s era, but people can still learn a lot from their stories even today.