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Taoist Emperors in Chinese History





(from A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy Chapter 15 by You-Sheng Li)


Apart from political tricksters and manipulators, or elixir-seekers who said they were Taoist followers but they were not, there were occasionally emperors in Chinese history who sincerely believed in Taoism and used Taoist principles to guide this huge empire. Although Lao Tzu listed some principles running a country, he, from a Taoist view, only asked the government not to interfere with life at the primary society level. Neither Lao Tzu nor Chuang Tzu was a politician or a political philosopher. They were even farther removed from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who gave a detailed blue print for totalitarian governments in the hands of charismatic leaders to carry out the general will of the people. The Taoist view is more like an anarchist who, instead of removing the government, asks the government to stop functioning. For example, Lao Tzu advocated celebrating military victories with funerals because of the deaths of soldiers on both sides. Even now six decades after the Second World War, people still celebrate their memory days in memory of the deaths of their own side only. Chinese scholars often quote the early years of the Han dynasty as the political realization of Taoist philosophy. They indicate specifically two consecutive emperors, Literate and Scenery (Wen and Jing), and a total of some forty golden years under their rule (179-156-140 BC). Their success was due to the application of Taoism but also owing to the special circumstances. It remains a rarity in Chinese history.

The founder of the Han dynasty was by no means a Taoist believer. He fought one battle after another until he was injured by a stray arrow and died. He and his wife used various excuses and tricks to kill those who had fought with them to create the empire but became some local powers themselves. After more than two hundred years of political turmoil and wars, all Chinese people also wanted peace.

Han was the first dynasty of a huge bureaucratic empire run by thousands of officials drawn from ordinary peasants by their merits and abilities. Neither Confucianism nor aggressive legalism reached those commoners whose belief was by nature close to Taoism. In the early years of the Han dynasty the major intellectual beliefs were in favour of Taoism.

When the throne was in the hands of the founder’s grandson, Literate, he was a sincere Taoist believer, and put it into practice. Taoism became the guiding philosophy of this ancient Chinese empire. Historians like to compare Chinese Han dynasty with the Roman Empire, since they were contemporaries but the cultures were totally different.

Lao Tzu’s three treasures, frugality, kindness, and no competition were adapted as ethic principles during these golden years. In ancient time the tax rate was about ten per cent. During these years, the tax rate was reduced to three per cent, and tax collection was stopped altogether for many years. To follow the Taoist natural way, there was nothing to be busy about in the country for several decades. People became rich and the government had a big surplus. In the central government, the money was left over for years so that all the strings along which the coins were chained rotted. There was no way to count how much money was there. Grains were piled up year after year as they all rotted away. It was no surprise that the government stopped tax collection.

For example, Literate was on the throne for twenty three years but did not add any new garden, palace or new service. Every year he led his court officials farming on a piece of land and producing grains for ritual usage in the palace. His wife led palace maids raising silk worms and so on. The emperor set up strict dress rule for the royal family members and court officials. The emperor wore a black cotton robe, and no embroidery was allowed in his wife’s bedroom.

He apparently endured inconvenience in the benefit of his people. Royal officials once planned to build a dew plateau. The cost was 100 pieces of gold. Emperor Literate stopped it saying, “100 pieces of gold equal the annual income of ten farmer families. I inherited the palace from my father, and I often feel I am unworthy of it. How can I expand it?” One official took a bribe. Emperor Literate heard about it and sent some of his own money to this official. In his last will, Literate wrote shortly before his death:



I have learnt that myriad things on earth which have births will die, and there is no exception. Death is the nature of heaven and earth, a natural happening. Why do we grieve much? Now people like life and hate death, and have elaborate funerals to burden the living ones. I dislike such a trend. Furthermore I had no virtue to help my people, and now that I am dying, and it would make me feel even guiltier to have my people to grieve over my death. … I am not a clever person, and often

Re: Taoist Emperors in Chinese History

A full version of this essay is available at the following website, and the reader can read it by clicking the following title:




Taoist Emperors in Chinese History

written by You-Sheng Li


Re: Taoist Emperors in Chinese History

Why were those emperors so different from each other with the first two almost perfect while the last one so pathetic???

Chinese emperors were so different from the Roman emperors.

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