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The man who spoke truth to power

One of the most extraordinary conversations in Chinese history was a confrontation between a person who called for a man to be assassinated – and his would-be victim. Here’s the story:

ABOUT ONE AND A HALF millennia ago, three brothers became tough military leaders in China.

One of the brothers had an advisor named Wei Zheng who realized that the three would eventually battle for power. So he told his employer to kill the others now, before they killed him.

“I will not,” said the oldest of the Li brothers, known as Crown Prince Li.

But tension mounted between the brothers, and one brother eventually killed Crown Prince Li and the third brother.

Afterwards, the winner of the fight called his dead brother’s advisor Wei to his room. “We were brothers,” he said. “Why did you alienate us?”

By all logic, Wei should have dropped to his knees and begged for his life. Instead Wei spoke calmly about his dead employer.

“The Crown Prince should have listened to me,” Wei said. “Because then this disaster would not have befallen him.”

Li was astonished at Wei’s coolness. He realized that he should have the man executed—but that would be a waste of an unusually intelligent and courageous individual. So instead, Li added him to his own team.


That’s just one of the extraordinary episodes in the life of Wei Zheng, who was born to a dirt-poor family in Guantao, Hebei (今河北馆陶) in the year 580, but grew up to become advisor to one of China’s greatest historical leaders.

The surviving Li brother, Li Shimin, became Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, and Wei Zheng was his famous advisor. (You can read his story by clicking here.)

Wei Zheng had been lonely and poor in childhood, and spent some time as a Taoist priest. He eventually joined the uprising against the Chinese leadership of the time, and the unrest led to the end of the Sui Dynasty. His intelligence led him to rise to become advisor to a leading military commander. And despite being on the losing side, as mentioned above, he became imperial advisor to his leader’s brother, who became one of the most celebrated of all Chinese emperors—and one whose reign is still studied today by China’s current leaders.

Over the years, Wei developed a reputation as a wise minister and important historian of the era; and went down in history as a role model for government advisors for the future.

Here are three tales from his life:


On one occasion, Emperor Taizong and advisor Wei travelled from the capital city of Chang’an  (长安)to Luoyang(洛阳). They took a rest in Shou’an County of Henan Province (河南寿安县). The emperor lost his temper because of the poor quality of the food he was given.  Nobody dared to criticize him – but Wei spoke out.

“The previous emperor, Sui Yang (隋炀帝), often complained about the food the people gave him,” Wei said. “He lost the people’s love. And then he lost his empire.” Wei also made a philosophical point. “Better to be satisfied than to be greedy – for a greedy man can never be satisfied.” The Emperor found Wei’s words to be sharp but accurate, and held his tongue.

Stories of Wei Zheng and the Emperor have frequently been made into TV shows or movies


But not all criticism was readily accepted. One day, Emperor Taizong lost his temper at a banquet and returned to his rooms, shouting: “Let me find a chance to kill this farmer!”

The Empress Zhangsun asked whom he was referring to.

“To Wei Zheng,” the Emperor said. “He always finds a way to insult me in front of everyone in the imperial hall.”

The Empress hurried to her bedchamber and put on her official gown, before returning to the Emperor to perform a ritual bow.

“What’s the occasion?” he asked.

“Only the greatest if emperors is able to have a subordinate who speaks out with integrity. He is the evidence that you deserve the utmost congratulations,” she said.

The Emperor’s mood changed.


Wei constantly reminded his leader to be frugal. People of all levels of wealth should spend money carefully, he preached. One day, after Wei had been a senior official for more than 20 years, Emperor Taizong found an occasion to visit Wei at home.

He found Wei lived in a humble house with small rooms. There was no main hall in which special guests could be received.

After Wei passed away, Emperor Taizong wanted to spend money on something expensive to honor the advisor. But Wei Zheng’s widow, wearing a humble garment of coarse cloth, politely declined, saying that such a thing was precisely what her husband would not want.

Wei Zheng, popular in art works, could be said to have become one of the ultimate models of the wise advisor


The period in which Taizong ruled China and Wei served as his advisor was a golden age for China. The capital, Chang’an, was probably the most populated city in the world – and also the most international, as thousands of people visited it from around the world.

It is still studied today for lessons on how to reign over a happy and thriving city.

Artwork at the top by Fridayeveryday; other images believed to be public domain

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