Wei Zheng (AD 580-643), an orphan and eager reader since childhood, spent a few years in a Taoist temple due to poverty. Later he served the arch rivals of Shimin Li (later Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty), but Shimin Li appreciated Wei Zheng’s knowledge and courage so much that he not only pardoned him but also promoted him to be his close advisor when he became the emperor. Wei devoted himself to offering independent, often blunt advice to the emperor throughout his life with the greatest integrity.
Once Wei Zheng was accused of nepotism but the internal investigation found no wrongdoings. Still the emperor warned him to take extra care to avoid controversy or damage to his reputation. Wei replied, “I serve with my integrity, and I do things because I believe it is right for the state, not for my fame. It lies in the emperor’s hand that whether an advisor ends up a good one or a loyal one in the history,” Wei warned the emperor.
When asked the difference between these two by the curious emperor, Wei replied “An advisor assists his emperor with integrity and impartiality. He will be remembered a good one when the emperor can appreciate this and together they make the state powerful and the people prosperous. Or he could be remembered a loyal one for being killed for his impartial advice by the emperor, and it may lead the state to go downhill. May your Majesty make me a good adviser! ” Emperor Taizong was thrilled.
When the emperor was planning to offer more dowry for his favourite princess’s wedding, Wei Zheng challenged the emperor by saying it would break the consistency of the existing legal codes and customs. When the empress Zhangsun heard of the story from the emperor in the palace, she said “Now I understand why you respect him so much. I am your wife but still afraid of offending you, but Wei Zheng dares to challenge you and put propriety of justice above your Majesty’s opinion. What a true treasure to our nation! Your Majesty please take this courageous person’s advice.” Therefore the princess’s dowry was reduced.
Wei Zheng eventually became the cabinet minister of national affairs, but his blunt approach to the emperor did not alter. One day when Emperor Taizong returned from a cabinet meeting, he told the empress with anger: “Sooner or later I will kill that damn old yokel!” The empress asked what caused his fury and the emperor answered, “Wei Zheng! He always contradicts and embarrasses me in front of everyone!” Upon hearing the answer, the empress retreated and soon returned in formal dress to congratulate Emperor Taizong. She explained, “Only when the emperor is wise and open-minded can an advisor present his honest opinions. I would like to congratulate Your Majesty, Wei Zheng’s challenge is a proof of Your Majesty’s open-mindedness!” Emperor Taizong’s anger ceased gradually and he respect both the empress and Wei Zheng more.
When Wei Zheng became seriously ill, it was reported to the emperor by the royal messengers that Wei Zheng had been living in an old house with a small hall. The emperor immediately ordered them to build a large hall within five days with materials originally allocated for the palace. The emperor also sent his personal doctor to stay with and care for Wei Zheng. Unfortunately, Wei Zheng’s illness still aggravated and died soon. At his funeral, Emperor Taizong cried, “Using a copper mirror can I put my dress right, using the mirror of history I can see the direction and reflect on my rulings, while using a gentleman as a mirror I can correct my own flaws. Now that Wei Zheng passed away, I’ve lost one mirror!”