Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty was a man of virtue and mercy and also a master of martial arts. He is typically considered to be one of the greatest emperors in China’s long and colorful history.
Featured in the book ‘Zizhi Tongjian’ (roughly translated to ‘Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance’) is a story about an agreement made between the Emperor Taizong and 390 death-row prisoners, which has earned copious admiration of generations of Chinese people.
The story reads that during the last month of the seventh year of his reign, when the snow flew down from the sky above, Taizong made the final patrol of the court’s prison, where 390 infamous death-row prisoners were awaiting their sentences to be carried out. Each one of their cases had been reviewed exhaustedly and all of the prisoners were still found to be guilty. All that awaited the prisoners was the execution day.
The settled agreement
Emperor Taizong believed that those who were going to die for their sins would always behave in a decent manner. Therefore, the heartfelt final words of offenders awaiting the death penalty should be heard with sympathy.
With this sentiment, Taizong went to each cell. And then in front of the 390 prisoners, he loudly said, “I want to ask you two things, please answer honestly!”
With desolate and hopeless faces, their eyes gazed up at the emperor with a little hope or excitement.
Then came his first question, “Firstly, for the conviction of the offenses under the judgment of the court, do you have any comment?”
“Your Majesty, we admit that we are guilty and the judgment is just,” came the response.
“In that case, secondly, I allow you to express your final wish before death,” replied the great Emperor.
One of the inmates knelt down, hurriedly cow-towed and said, “Your Majesty, all I want is to go home and bid my last farewell to my elderly parents.”
“This …” Taizong paused and was in silent contemplation before turning to the other prisoners asking, “And you all share this final wish?”
“We all wish for this,” came the response of the inmates, practically in unison.
Taizong raised his hand to his chin in thought and then stated, “I will make a “death agreement” with you, do you agree to this?”
“We beg you, your majesty!”
“Under the terms of the agreement I will let you go home to visit your parents and wives, and you will not be subjected to any supervision.”
In astonishment, the criminals looked at each other, seemingly not daring to believe their ears.
Emperor Taizong then stared intensely at the prisoners in a solemn but fierce manner and said, “But all of you must promise to return here before noon on September 4th next year. I request all of you to volunteer to return to the prison in time to incur the finality of your sentences.”
The prisoners were lost in grateful tears, before proclaiming, “Your majesty, we are grateful for your tolerance!”
One of the Emperor’s government officials drew in closer to the Emperor and nervously said to him, “Your Majesty, they are all infamous murderers and robbers, they can not be trusted. What if they do not come back? Please give it a second thought!”
Still, Emperor Taizong insisted that “I would like to use my trust in exchange for their loyalty, I believe they will not compromise my credibility.”
The due date
The date of the prisoners return, September 4th, finally arrived. In the capital city of Changan, people from all across the region rushed to the prison to witness the unprecedented event. The square in front of the prison was filled with people, everyone bustled and shoved. And tried to stand on tiptoe for a clearer view as they enthusiastically awaited the return of the prisoners.
Everyone was wondering whether within the minds of the death-row prisoners there still remained enough conscience so as to keep their promise to the emperor. It was, after all, a death sentence that they were returning to, it was hard to believe they would willfully return only to face their end.
The results, however, were surprising. The inmates returned to the prison one by one. 1, 2, 3… 100… 300… 388… Until finally, 389 criminals were present and accounted for, only one prisoner was missing. The prison guards rushed to find out the identity of the absent prisoner, who was revealed to be Xu Fulin, from Phu Phong city.
As the news of the missing inmate spread, it was not only the citizens who were in grievance but the other prisoners too.
“He is so untrustworthy, how could he be so dishonest and break his promise like that? We must go after him, we must kill him to vent our anger!”
Everyone looked at Taizong, wondering how the young emperor would deal with this proposal. Taizong clenched his fists and said, “Wait a little longer”.
Time passed by very slowly, the atmosphere was tense and everyone was in anxiously deep thought.
Two hours passed by and the absent prisoner was nowhere to be seen. People began to argue that the prisoner had not kept his promise, he had betrayed the emperor and was never coming back.
Another half an hour passed, and still there was no news from Fulin. The people grew angry, and the prisoners roared with frustration.
Suddenly someone shouted, “There he comes!”
All the eyes turned and fixed their gaze on an approaching wagon.
All of a sudden, Fulin came stumbling out of the wagon as a skinny and sickly looking man.
It turned out that on his way back to Changan, Xu Fulin had become very sick, so seriously sick that he could not walk, he had to rent a wagon to carry him back. That is why he was so late.
“Your Majesty, what are you going to do with them now?” asked a government official.
The prisoners then bowed their heads in speechlessness, knowing that it was now the time for their execution.
“What should I do?” Taizong quietly said aloud to himself before turning to look at the prisoners for a moment.
He then loudly declared,
“I decide to free all of these prisoners and allow all of you to go home!”
Almost immediately after the Emperor’s announcement, the sky was full of joy, the whole city of Changan was full of happiness. Not only the 390 death-row prisoners but all the people were deeply touched by the tolerance of Emperor Taizong.
A wise emperor, instead of imposing punishment to deter the offender, converts others by means of virtue and tolerance, then even the most infamous criminals are willing to change themselves.
Later Chang’an had to face an unexpected attack from the Western rebels. In the 14th year of Zhenguan, emperor Taizong appointed Hou Junji to be the commander of 150,000 cavalries to fight against the rebels. Upon hearing the news, 390 ex-prisoners voluntarily enlisted as soldiers to fight on the front lines.
Under the guidance of Hou Junji, they bravely killed the enemy. And eventually, they each endured injuries and sacrificed their lives on the battlefield for the dynasty.
Finally, the Western rebels were conquered, paving the way for the Tang dynasty to step into a period of glory and prosperity, the golden pages of Chinese history.