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Tang China in Multi-Polar AsiaA History of Diplomacy and War$

Zhenping Wang

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780824836443

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824836443.001.0001

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Seeking Policy Appropriate to a Changing World

Seeking Policy Appropriate to a Changing World

Diplomatic and Foreign Policy Thought under the Tang

(p.231) 6 Seeking Policy Appropriate to a Changing World
Tang China in Multi-Polar Asia

Zhenping Wang

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines how Tang emperors often sought substantiation for their actions from the rich legacy of antiquity, in order to create an international environment conducive to Tang's existence and development. This was an era when Chinese rulers interacted extensively with non-Chinese peoples and gained broad experience in managing external relations. To achieve their goals, these Chinese governments employed peaceful as well as violent means, ranging from appeasement, creation of alliances, the divide and rule method, and reliance on trade to defensive warfare, aggression, and the establishment of military farming colonies, among others. The successes and failures that resulted from using these means offered Li Yuan (Emperor Gaozu) and future Tang rulers lessons that were valuable and immediately relevant to their own situations.

Keywords:   Tang emperors, Chinese governments, external relations, divide and rule, defensive warfare, military farming colonies, Li Yuan

In its nearly 290-year history, the Tang dynasty related to very different types of neighbors, ranging from the peaceful to the outright hostile. To create an international environment conducive to Tang’s existence and development, Tang emperors often sought inspiration and substantiation for their actions from the rich legacy of antiquity. This legacy evolved roughly from the Western Zhou (eleventh century B.C.E.–771 B.C.E.) to the Eastern Han (25–220). This was an era when Chinese rulers interacted extensively with non-Chinese peoples and gained broad experience in managing external relations. To achieve their goals, these Chinese governments employed peaceful as well as violent means, ranging from appeasement, creation of alliances, the divide and rule method, and reliance on trade to defensive warfare, aggression, and the establishment of military farming colonies, among others. The successes and failures that resulted from using these means and, in particular, the thinking behind the means in question, offered Li Yuan, his supporters, and future Tang rulers lessons that were valuable and immediately relevant to their own situations.

China’s Centrality in the Ancient World

When the Western Zhou came to power, managing relations with Chinese princes and non-Chinese tribes became its major business. The court invented the concept of China’s centrality to handle these matters. This concept suggested that the whole world should come under the Zhou king’s nominal and actual control. A Chinese phrase best expressed this idea: “all of Heaven, every spot is the sovereign’s ground. To the borders of the land, every individual is the sovereign’s minister.”1 Since political centrality could exist only in a hierarchical system, the Zhou court assigned Chinese princes and non-Chinese rulers to five zones or levels based on the degree of their political loyalty to the Zhou king and to their geographic distance from the Zhou capital. These zones formed an idealized Chinese world in which the Zhou king was at (p.232) the center, surrounded by his subjects, outer subjects, and the non-Chinese.2 As the sole source of power and of religious and moral authority, the Zhou king enjoyed the political allegiance pledged to him by his subjects, and he received from them local products and other services as tributes on a regular basis. He, in turn, granted them political recognition and military support.3 The Zhou king could strip a Chinese prince of his official title if he failed to fulfill his obligations. The king could also confiscate his fief or even wage a punitive campaign against him if a Chinese prince committed the same offense a second or third time.4 The non-Chinese groups were supposed to be submissive to the Zhou king and to act as his defenders.5

This utopian perception legitimized the Zhou king’s rule. The deliberate differentiation between the Chinese and the non-Chinese justified his subjugation of other groups in China. But both ideas distorted reality and history. The differentiation in question was largely absent in high antiquity, when five major groups of people were active in China: the Xia in central China, and the Yi, the Rong, the Di, and the Man in eastern, western, northern, and southern China respectively. Of these groups, the Yi came into frequent contact with the Xia through cultural exchanges and military operations. Together they contributed to the formation of early China and its culture. This process came to the attention of Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.). He observed that the legendary Chinese ruler Shun was born “a man of the Eastern Yi” and King Wen of the Western Zhou, “a man of the Western Yi.” And he highly praised their achievements: “More than a thousand miles separated their lands; more than a thousand years separated their generations. But they fulfilled their inspirations in the Central State [i.e., China] as if they matched tallies. The principles of this former and this latter sage were the same.”6 Confucius considered the Yi people not only active contributors to Chinese culture, but also its staunch guardians. During Confucius’ time, many leaders of the inflated regional princely states, who were the nominal subjects of the Eastern Zhou court (770–256 B.C.E.), ignored their duties to the Zhou king. Confucius was deeply troubled by this violation of Chinese political tradition. He told his disciples: “I have heard that the officers [i.e., the regional leaders] of the Son of Heaven do not properly perform their duties, but knowledge [of these duties] is [well preserved] among the non-Chinese in the four quarters. I believe it.”7 Confucius’ remarks indicated that he did not consider the Yi, the Rong, the Di, and the Man culturally inferior to the Xia. These five terms denoted mainly the geographic locations of the different groups in China. It was only after the Western Zhou came to power that the terms in question became value laden in political language. To support the claim that the Zhou dynasty had inherited the mandate of Heaven (p.233) to govern China, the court needed to degrade the Yi, the Di, the Rong, and the Man to the level of non-Chinese “barbarians.” These four terms now took on derogatory meaning, connoting inferiority, cultural backwardness, and economic underdevelopment.8

A dichotomy between the Chinese and the non-Chinese misrepresented China’s relations with its neighbors.9 Nonetheless, this concept would become an integral part of the diplomatic thinking of Chinese emperors and courtiers in the future. And court deliberations over this concept had important policy implications. Critics of this view generally supported a cosmopolitan policy. They would, for example, welcome foreigners into the Chinese system and settle them along the borders or in the metropolitan regions. The advocates of it, in contrast, would back either an expansionist or an isolationist policy. Some would use the dichotomy to justify China’s conquest of foreigners. Others would argue that any attempt to conquer and to assimilate foreigners was destined to fail because the gap between the Chinese and the non-Chinese was unbridgeable.

This vision of the Chinese world in which the Zhou court enjoyed centrality deviated markedly from reality. Border tribal leaders some-times brought tributes to the Zhou king. Many of these goods, however, were perhaps but trading items. At the same time, these leaders encouraged and assisted Zhou vassals to rebel against their master, thus becoming a major source of disturbance to China.10 The Zhou king’s authority further declined during the Spring and Autumn period (720–476 B.C.E.). An event that altered this vision occurred in 706 B.C.E., when the Zhou court organized a joint campaign against, but failed to defeat, the disrespectful Prince of Zheng. After this humiliating set-back, the court was never again able to take further action against the prince or to order the regional leaders to do so on its behalf.11 This failure was a clear sign that the Zhou king had lost authority over his subjects. Powerful regional leaders immediately acted to exploit this opportunity by annexing their weaker neighbors. China was being reduced to total chaos.

During this turmoil, four regional states emerged as the most promising contenders for hegemony: the Qi (in northern Shandong province), the Chu (in southern Hubei province), the Qin (in central Shaanxi province), and the Jin (in southwestern Shanxi province).12

Just as in the case of a dichotomy between the Chinese and the non-Chinese, China’s political centrality had hardly been the political reality. But the notion of “great unity” (da yitong), that is, that China should achieve and maintain its unity, and occupy the center stage of the world, became a grand ambition for many generations of Chinese leaders.13 The ruler of the State of Qi was the first to achieve overlord status and (p.234) impose a new political order on other regional states.14 Qi’s supreme position was, however, only temporary and was quickly replaced by the State of Jin.15 At the same time, regional leaders worked hard to protect their independence by contacting and collaborating with one another to resist their overlord. While China was engulfed in internal turmoil, the Rong and the Di tribes in the northwest were also becoming more threatening.16 The Zhou king had to depend on regional leaders to fend off invaders.17

In this fiercely competitive environment, interstate relations and relations with the non-Chinese assumed more importance for all Chinese regional rulers. A passage in the Spring and Autumn Annals with the Zuo Commentary (Chunqiu Zuoshi zhuan) vividly described the situation: “The defenses of these states were their neighbors all around them. And when their power became low, their defenses were their four borders. They attended carefully to them and formed alliances with their neighbors as helpers.”18

Early Diplomatic Thinking

The Warring States period (475–221 B.C.E.) was a time of complete disunity in China and of brutal wars between the Chinese regional states. Diplomacy became a vital part in any state’s effort to strengthen its position, to ensure its survival, and to compete against other states for hegemony.19 Regional leaders considered successful diplomatic maneuvers secondary only to superior military strategies. Diplomacy further developed and reached maturity.20

While they consented to the significance of diplomacy in state affairs, Chinese rulers and courtiers disagreed with one another on the timing and the extent to which they should commit their limited resources to external relations. This was the context in which various schools of diplomatic thinking flourished. A contentious issue was the importance of external affairs relative to that of internal matters. Many regarded proper management of domestic matters, not diplomacy, as the first priority in governance. To them, maintaining an orderly society, a prosperous economy, and a strong military was the best way to ensure their state’s safety. They advised their master that “a true king should begin his governance from those who were nearby [i.e., his own people].”21 They argued that “benefiting the internal brings about good fortune. Benefiting the external invites disaster.”22 Putting domestic matters in good order was, however, never the ultimate goal for any Chinese ruler but merely his means of developing or maintaining hegemony. This ambition urged a Chinese ruler to be a universal king. He must strive to extend his rule to those far away, thus “leaving nothing (p.235) and nobody outside his realm.”23 It was always a challenge for any Chinese ruler to manage external affairs effectively in the light of domestic situations.

To meet this challenge, Chinese thinkers and politicians suggested a two-phased approach: while maintaining friendly ties with neighboring states, a ruler should give primary concern to domestic matters; and only when he had put internal matters in good order, should he carefully choose and defeat competitors one by one. Guan Zhong (?–645 B.C.E.), minister of the State of Qi, was a statesman who practiced this approach. He initiated a series of domestic reforms that eventually transformed his homeland into the overlord of other Chinese states. He advised his master that Qi should stop waging premature wars against other states, pacify its neighbors by returning the lands it had seized from them, recognize their territories, and send envoys to offer their rulers gifts. He assured his master that this foreign policy would create an external environment conducive to domestic reforms. Completion of the reforms would then allow Qi to identify “the immoral rulers and to defeat them first.”24

Some three hundred years later, Mencius (372–289 B.C.E.) offered King Xuan (r. 319–303 B.C.E.) of the State of Qi a way to properly handle relations with neighboring states: “A perfectly virtuous prince [of a great state] should serve a small [state].” This was so because a great state should tolerate a small state’s provocation. It should retaliate only when a small state was guilty of repeated provocations. As for the wise prince of a small state, he should serve a large state for his own survival, since stubborn resistance to a large state would lead to his state’s destruction. Summarizing his way of diplomacy, Mencius concluded: “He who with a great state serves a small one delights in Heaven. He who with a small state serves a large one stands in awe of Heaven. He who delights in Heaven will affect with his love and protection the whole kingdom. He who stands in awe of Heaven will affect with his love and protection his own kingdom.”25

Mencius used the term “virtuous” in his advice to King Xuan. He acknowledged an association between moral principles and the desire to achieve what was in a state’s self-interest in diplomacy. He thus posed a challenge to all policy makers and philosophers of his time: how to form a policy that would both benefit one’s state and comply with moral principles.26

De and Yi as Complementary Concepts

Confucius was the first to target regional rulers’ relentless pursuit of self-interest, power, and wealth. He identified such activity as the root (p.236) cause of China’s problems, and he attempted to use virtue and righteousness as restraints to the impulse of selfishness. Virtue and righteousness were the absolute principles of his moral system.27

As a philosopher, Confucius argued strongly against the inclusion of any concern for benefit in the foundation of his moral system in order to maintain its purity.28 But he was also a reformer concerned with contemporary issues and was determined to use his teaching to transform China. Mencius once spoke of Confucius as “a sage whose acts display timeliness” (sheng zhi shi zhe).29 Confucius recognized the desire for benefit as a part of human nature.30 He saw it as the responsibility of a ruler to bring prosperity to the ruled.31 In the meantime, he also wanted people to satisfy their desire for benefit in a morally appropriate and righteous way.32 He admonished people against selfish conduct.33 Using his moral teaching to address people’s desire for benefit, Confucius urged them to think of righteousness when seeing things beneficial and to obtain benefit only when so doing was consistent with righteousness.34 Confucian teachings, thus, had both intrinsic and extrinsic values: intrinsic in their emphasis on virtue and righteousness as the fundamental principles for morality and extrinsic in their efficacy in addressing and accommodating the varied and conflicting interests of people and states. And this held true in the so-called schools that surrounded and descended from Confucius’ own.

Mencius was equally concerned with the morally appropriate way whereby local rulers could bring about benefit to their states. He once advised the king of Liang (its capital in present-day Kaifeng) not to make the pursuit of benefit his only and openly acknowledged aim in domestic and foreign affairs since doing so would be both morally in-correct and politically imprudent, would evoke resentment from other local rulers, and would disadvantage his own state.35 A state’s interest was to be realized through adopting righteousness as the principle in state affairs. A state would prosper if its ruler, ministers, and people all cherished and acted on the principle of righteousness.36

Righteousness and benefit were conceived still differently in the teaching of Mozi (470–391? B.C.E.) and his followers.37 This school’s particularly utilitarian approach regarded loyalty, filial piety, virtue, and righteousness as the practical means by which to bring about benefit.38 What benefited the state and the people was the ultimate standard by which to judge all values,39 and any sensible policy would thus bring about benefit to the state. At the same time, Mozi’s approach was also deeply universalistic since in his philosophy benefit referred not to the self-interest of an individual or a state but to the collective interest of all people in a state or even all states. This was known as “mutual benefits” (xiangli),40 a concept that originated from another of his well-known (p.237) ideas, namely, “universal mutual love” (jian’ai). If one acted on the principles of mutual benefits and universal mutual love, one’s behavior would then be a manifestation of virtue and righteousness: this, he maintained, had been the way of the ancient sage kings.41 Mozi essentially agreed with Confucius and Mencius that self-interest should be handled in accordance with righteousness.

Xunzi’s (fl. 298–238 B.C.E.) teaching also established a certain unity of the concepts. Here, righteousness was no longer an abstract and absolute moral principle but an ideological means to realize one’s fundamental interest in a rapidly changing society. Xunzi enunciated an important concept: the desire for benefit and the preference for righteousness were both inborn in human nature. The sage kings did not attempt to remove such desires but educated people to recognize their innate preference for righteousness that would support their own fundamental interests.42 People in an orderly society did not ignore what was to their own benefit, but they preferred righteousness to benefit. When chancing upon things beneficial to them, they would determine their course of action after due consideration to righteousness.43 Xunzi stated: “Those who subordinate their pursuit of interest to consideration for righteousness will thrive. Those who let benefit precede righteousness will disgrace themselves.”44 To Xunzi, moral values (benevolence, righteousness, and the like) brought personal and social order.45 This unity between morality and benefit became the basis of Xunzi’s famous argument: righteousness should precede benefit (xianyi houli).

Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, and Xunzi apparently all posited an accommodating relationship between morality and self-interest. This intellectual tradition would manifest itself in Tang diplomatic thinking.

Understanding the Foreign World

Any school of diplomatic thinking needed to examine the situations in foreign countries, the characteristics of their people, and their intentions for contacting China. Proper understanding of these issues would lead to the formation of sensible foreign policy. Otherwise, a policy would be inefficacious. Officials of the Spring and Autumn period came to realize that “the Chinese, the non-Chinese, and the people in the five directions all have their [respective] natural and unchangeable dispositions.” And the proper way of governing them was to follow their specific nature.46 The dispositions of the Rong and the Di tribes determined that they “know nothing of affection or friendship, and are full of greed.”47 “They are rash and have no sense of propriety; they are greedy and know nothing about yielding.”48 These dispositions also (p.238) shaped their military tactics. On the battleground, they “are light and nimble but have no order. They are greedy and have no love for one another. When they conquer, no one will yield place to his fellow; and when they are defeated, no one tries to save another. When their front men see their success [in the retreat of our skirmishes], they will think of nothing but to push forward. When they are thus advancing and fall into an ambush, they are sure to hurry away in flight. Those behind will not go to their rescue so there will be no support for them.”49 Despite the derogatory language, these officials demonstrated an in-depth knowledge of non-Chinese mentality and behavior: They would not act on Chinese moral principles, and “their way was to do whatever they please.”50

Wei Jiang, a Grand Master of the State of Jin, was a representative of such officials. He pointed out that the Rong people “are continually changing their residence and are fond of exchanging land for goods.” Using this knowledge, he proposed that his state maintain a harmonious relation with the Rong because this policy would bring about five advantages: “Their lands can be purchased—this is the first advantage.51 Our borders will not be kept in apprehension. Our people can labor on their fields, and our husbandmen complete their toils—this is the second. When the Rong and the Di serve Jin, our neighbors all around will be terrified, and these states will be awed and cherish our friendship—this is the third. Tranquilizing the Rong by our goodness, our armies will not be exhausted, and their weapons will not be broken—this is the fourth. … Using only the measures virtue suggests, those who are remote will come to us, and those who are near will be at rest—this is the fifth.”52 He concluded that “bringing about harmony with the Rong and the Di was the happy destiny of the state” (he Yidi guo zhi fu ye).53

Wei Jiang was probably the first champion of a pacifist foreign policy. It had several aspects: China should satisfy its nomadic neighbors’ material needs in order to secure its borders; this would allow its peasants to till their fields peacefully. China should maintain friendly relations with other countries: this would avoid war. China should appease its neighbors near and far by interchanging mutual benefits. And China, when in political disunity, should forge amicable links with its powerful nomadic neighbors in order to strengthen its own position. This approach to external relations could be summarized by the directive “show your virtue, not military prowess [to foreigners].”54

This pacifist approach, however, met strong criticism from war advocates. They argued for using or threatening to use force to solve problems with the non-Chinese. They believed that, for “the wild tribes around,” China should “awe them by severity.”55 War or peace with (p.239) neighboring countries thus became the most disputed issue in China’s foreign policy.

Doves, Hawks, and Centrists at the Han Court

The state of Qin eventually ended the turmoil in China when it defeated competitors to establish a unified Qin Empire (221–207 B.C.E.). Domestic unification, however, did not immediately remove external threats to China. The Qin and its successor, the Western Han (206 B.C.E.–8 C.E.), faced the formidable Xiongnu people in the northern steppes.56 Handling these horsemen became a pressing issue for the Han court. A censor at the court compared these people to shadows that nobody could ever catch. He advised the Han founding emperor that China should not take action against the Xiongnu, but the emperor ignored the advice. He personally led a massive operation in northern China. The Xiongnu forces encircled his forces at Pingcheng Mountain. They eventually raised the siege after seven days when they received large bribes from the Han emperor.57 The Pingcheng incident was a failure of the hawks’ simplistic dogma. To ensure China’s security in the face of a militarily superior enemy required new strategic thinking.

Liu Jing suggested a marriage alliance with the Xiongnu ruler. He believed a kinship relationship with the ruler would put the Han emperor in a position of influence. As his father-in-law, the emperor could impose filial obligations on his unruly son-in-law, who had recently come to power by killing his own father. Liu recommended that the emperor “send presents of whatever Han has a surplus of and the Xiongnu lack … and dispatch rhetoricians to begin expounding to foreigners in a tactical way the principles of etiquette and moral behavior.” Liu’s real hope was for the marriage to produce a boy, who would succeed his father to lead the Xiongnu in the future. As the grandson of the Han emperor, this new leader should be submissive to China. Liu asked: “Who ever heard of a grandson trying to threaten his grandfather as an equal?”58

Beginning with Liu Jing, a number of pacifists emerged at the Han court. Their antiwar stance was based on an assessment of Han’s national strength. The dynasty had not fully recovered from domestic chaos so that any military action abroad would burden the people and risk renewed insurgence at home. A pacifist, Ji Bu exemplified this position: he strongly objected to a punitive campaign against the Xiongnu, whose leader had presented Empress Lü (r. 187–180 B.C.E.) with an insulting state letter. He told the empress that the leader of the hawks “deserved to be beheaded” because the campaign “would bring new unrest to the empire.”59

(p.240) The pacifists articulated and devised a set of nonviolent means to cope with the Xiongnu. Jia Yi (200–168 B.C.E.) advised Emperor Wendi (r. 179–157 B.C.E.) to lure the nomads into peaceful relations with China by propaganda and material incentives, a strategy whose description he coined as “the three demonstrations and the five baits.” The emperor should demonstrate fondness for the nomads, appreciation of their skills, and sincerity in his treatment of them. If the Xiongnu chieftains and their tribesmen came to China, they should be showered with fabulous rewards so as to encourage others to follow suit. If their messengers visited the court, they should similarly be accorded generous treatment.60

Jia Yi and other like-minded officials believed that China was in a disadvantageous position in its relations with the Xiongnu. He compared China to the head of a person and the Xiongnu to his feet. The current situation between the two countries, however, was upside down, rather like a person standing on his head with his feet in the air.61 Humiliating and unacceptable as was this status quo to China, Jia Yi advised his sovereign to acknowledge its reality. Consequently, Emperor Wendi recognized the Xiongnu sphere of influence and forwent the ideal of becoming a universal ruler. He wrote in a state letter to the Xiongnu ruler: “The areas north of the Great Wall belong to the state of the archers [i.e., the Xiongnu]. They obey the orders of [the Xiongnu ruler] Shanyu. The areas within the wall are for the Chinese to live. And they come under the [Han] emperor’s governance.”62

This statement was a retreat from the vision of an ideal Chinese world, and it begged for justification. Here, the age-old notion of a dichotomy between the Chinese and the non-Chinese came readily to the service of the pacifists. Some used the popular theory of Yin and Yang to uphold the idea of a dichotomy.63 Others regarded the non-Chinese world as the “remote regions” (jueyu),64 where local people had never followed the Chinese calendar or worn Chinese-style clothes. The pacifists converged on one point: “It is not that [the sage kings] could not subjugate the barbarians by force. And it is not that they were too powerful to be defeated. It is because [the sage kings] regarded these places as remote regions and their inhabitants as unwanted people. They thought it was unworthy to bother China with them.”65

The pacifists suffered a setback in court politics when Emperor Wudi (r. 140–87 B.C.E.) ascended the throne. Under a policy of territorial expansion, Han forces targeted the Xiongnu and marched into the northern part of Vietnam and Korea, and into the Western Regions in Central Asia, thus greatly expanding Chinese territories. Wang Hui, an official experienced in frontier matters from the Messenger Office, provided a strong defense for the new policy: “The five sage emperors did (p.241) not inherit their rituals from one another; nor did the three sage kings copy each other’s music. It is not that they deliberately contradicted each other. They did what was appropriate to their own time.”66

Wang’s use of appropriateness to justify policy change deserves close attention. His argument represented an intellectual tradition rooted in the Warring States period, and Wang himself represented a growing number of officials who treated tradition in a utilitarian manner. Policy appropriate to the time, not necessarily to any tradition, was their major argument. Shang Yang, the famous reformist of the State of Qin, was the first to make the argument. He contended: “One does not rely on one method to govern a state; nor does he need to follow tradition to bring about benefits to the state.”67 King Wuling of the State of Zhao was a Chinese ruler well known for practicing “appropriateness” in governance. To transform his soldiers into a formidable military force, he ordered them to wear the nomads’ clothing and to learn horsemanship and archery from them. The king said: “Clothing must facilitate what it is used for; rites must facilitate the undertaking involved. Therefore sages examine local [customs] and follow whatever is appropriate.”68

Real or perceived appropriateness was now a powerful argument that both the doves and the hawks at the Han court used to promote their policy. Emperor Wudi regarded offensives as the most effective way to defend China against the Xiongnu and other nomads. He wanted to prevent them from linking up with one another to destabilize areas in present-day Gansu and Qinghai provinces, which were close to the capital. The pacifists, however, thought otherwise. They dismissed military operations as actions that would benefit only a few ambitious generals and officials, not China and its people. They argued that the devastating impact of war on the frontier regions and local people would not bring China lasting peace.69 And the idea of conquering and annexing foreign lands and peoples to China was fundamentally flawed since situations in China and in its neighbors were entirely different.70 Their solution to border conflicts was to enhance defense by “using foreigners to check foreigners.” Jia Yi proposed incorporating certain tribal groups into the Han defense system and entrusting them with the task of guarding the borders.71 However, he lacked specific measures to properly address such important issues as enlisting the foreigners’ service, controlling the population growth of the surrendered foreigners, and funding such a defense system.

The pacifists regained their influence at the court toward the end of the Western Han, when bitter disputes between competing Xiongnu groups weakened the nomadic empire. This development prompted some Han generals to want to act against the Xiongnu in the 60s B.C.E. (p.242) But Wei Xiang (?–59 B.C.E.) disputed their suggestion: “An action in which one party, relying upon the superior size of its territory and boasting of the large number of its people, sets out to overawe its enemy by a show of force is called a campaign of arrogance, and it is doomed to annihilation. [These ideas] are not merely something contrived by men but have their basis in the Way of Heaven. In recent times, the Xiongnu have consistently manifested a spirit of goodwill, immediately returning to China any subjects of the Han who happened to fall into their hands and refraining from violations of the border. … And yet now I hear that the various generals are planning to call our troops and move into Xiongnu territory. Ignorant as I am, I am at a loss to know what name to assign to a campaign such as this! The border regions these days are beset by poverty and want, father and son sharing their pelts of lamb, eating the seeds of grass and herbs, ever fearful that there will not be enough to sustain life. It would be hard in such a time to launch a military campaign.” The emperor stopped the plan.72

The Xiongnu were further weakened in 48 B.C.E., when the ruler of the southern Xiongnu offered his allegiance to China. His visit to the Han court ended years of hostility with China. Cross-border trade and cultural exchanges flourished. But he soon changed his mind and left China for home to reestablish his power base on the steppes after Han forces had defeated his rival.

It was not until the early years of the Eastern Han that the Xiongnu finally ceased to be a threat to China when internal strife broke up the Xiongnu confederation into rival northern and southern parts. The Northern Xiongu began to move west. Chieftains of the Southern Xiongnu and their tribesmen migrated southward to China. The Han court settled them in regions north of the Great Wall under the supervision of Han officials. Han China eventually gained better control of its border and enjoyed peace with its neighbors. Most Han officials, how-ever, seemed unaware that their settlement policy posed a potential danger to China. The surrendered Xiongnu in frontier regions would grow in number and strength. It was only a matter of time before they would again assert their independence and seriously destabilize China’s borders.

This was the historical context for the rising influence of the doves at the Han court, but debates between the doves and the hawks were far from over.73 We still read about such hawkish arguments as “the Rong and the Di can be subjugated [by force] but cannot be edified [by affection].”74 In 123, Chen Zhong, a chief minister, defended Emperor Wudi’s operation to subjugate the Xiongnu. He lamented that many of his contemporaries simply missed the strategic significance of the campaign: it secured Han control of Gansu and Qinghai provinces, and (p.243) thus prevented the Xiongnu from threatening Chang’an. He warned: “If the region is in danger, the court has to defend it. And this will entail great expense.”75 But Cai Yong (132–192) rebutted the hawks: “China may acquire [foreign] lands, but the Chinese cannot till them. China may subjugate [foreign] people but cannot transform them into literati. China may defeat but cannot exterminate these people.”76

The most notable voice in policy deliberation during the Eastern Han came from neither the doves nor the hawks, but from a centrist: Ban Gu (32–92), author of the monumental work History of the Han Dynasty. He criticized the policies of both groups for calculating China’s short-term gains and losses only,77 and for lacking a thorough under-standing of the Xiongnu. He offered a more comprehensive analysis of the nomads and of the power relationship between China and the Xiongnu. Ban Gu described their bilateral relationship as dynamic and constantly changing. The best policy by which to manage such a relationship was neither war nor peace but a centrist approach: preparedness at all times. He wrote:

When the former kings measured the land, they placed the royal domain in its middle, divided [the lands] into nine provinces, arranged five circuits, fixed the tribute of [each] land, and regulated the things that were internal and those that were external. They either adopted punitive and administrative measures, or illuminated civil virtue—this is because the power of what is distant and of what is near differs. Therefore the Chunqiu treats all the Xia as insiders, while the Yi and the Di are treated as outsiders. The people of the Yi and the Di are greedy and seek profit; they wear their hair loose and fasten their garments on the left; they have human faces but beasts’ hearts. Their badges and clothes are distinct and customs different from those of China; their foods and drinks are not the same, and their language is incomprehensible. They flee to dwell in the northern borderlands, in the cold and wet wasteland. They follow their herds across the grasslands and hunt for a living. They are separated [from us] by mountains and gorges, and barred by the desert. Thereby both Heaven and Earth sever what is internal from what is external. Therefore also, the sage kings treated them as beasts and birds, did not make a treaty with them, and were not engaged in offensive expeditions: if you make a treaty with them, they will spend the gifts and then deceive you; if you attack them, the army will become exhausted and you will induce banditry. Their lands cannot be tilled for living; their people cannot be treated as subjects; therefore they must be regarded as those who are external and not internal, as strangers and not as relatives. Cultivation through proper government does not reach these people, a proper calendar (p.244) cannot be given to their lands; when they arrive, we must block and repel them; when they leave we must make preparations to be on guard against them. When they admire our righteousness and [send envoys to] submit tributes, we should accept them with courtesy; we should not sever the loose rein and should always leave them in the wrong. This is the constant Way applied by the sage kings to manage the foreigners.78

Ban Gu apparently believed that there could be no permanent solution to the border conflicts between Han and the Xiongnu. When such conflicts occurred, he felt China should use only limited force to handle them. Ban Gu also used the term “loose rein” (jimi) in his treatise.79 Foreign policies based on this idea required China to “return all courtesies from foreign countries” (jimi zhi yi li wu buda).80 As long as a visiting foreign ruler or his envoy complied with Chinese ceremonial, he should not be denied a court audience since his visit was deemed a reflection of the far-reaching moral influence of the Son of Heaven. But Ban Gu thought China should also not attempt to make foreign rulers China’s outer subjects because substantial relations with them were burden-some to China.81

Emperor Gaozu’s Pursuit of Appropriateness

In 617, when they began their efforts to build a new regime, Li Yuan and his supporters found an environment that, although challenging, was not unfamiliar or unmanageable to them. They faced the issues of how best to meet the fierce competition from rebel leaders in northern China and how to defuse a possible threat by the Eastern Turks, then the overlords of the northern steppe. They skillfully sorted out these thorny issues and successfully established the Tang in 618. However, within the century and a half that followed Tang’s founding, the international scene evolved beyond the recognition of Li Yuan’s successors. China’s neighbors, in particular the Korean states, the Turks, the Tibetans, and later on the Nanzhao Kingdom, transformed themselves from loosely organized, unstable tribes to powerful entities. Some developed their own scripts; some enjoyed an agricultural or semiagricultural and seminomadic economy. But all were politically more stable and militarily formidable than in the past. The international environment from the mid-eighth century to the fall of the Tang in the early tenth century was much more competitive and complex than it had been during the previous Chinese dynasties.82 To ensure Tang’s survival in this changing environment, the successive Tang emperors resorted to China’s rich and vast tradition, but they also developed a set of principles to guide (p.245) their action: appropriateness, efficacy, expedience, and mutual self-interest, among others. These principles were pragmatic and utilitarian in nature, and were largely free of the Confucian moral constraint of trustworthiness, righteousness, and loyalty.

From his decision to accept a Turkic title, thus offering nominal allegiance to the Turkic ruler, to his exhortation that his envoy should request only minimal and symbolic military assistance from the Turks, Li Yuan expressed prudence and appropriateness as integral to his thinking. Appropriateness (yi) involved shrewd calculation of one’s own strength relative to that of competitors and enemies, careful examination of the timing for the action to be taken, and due consideration for the possible outcomes of the action. During the Tang, the appropriateness of an action to be taken was always a focal point for policy discussions at court.83

The first example was perhaps an edict that Li Yuan, now Emperor Gaozu of the Tang dynasty, promulgated in 619:

I have reverently received the heavenly task of pacifying and governing people to the ends of the universe. I shall please the people nearby, attract those from afar, and correct the shortcomings of the previous dynasty. When countries in inaccessible lands submit themselves to and offer to become barrier kingdoms for China, we should establish harmony with and befriend them. Now the Tuyuhun tribe has paid tribute, and Koguryŏ has also offered loyalty to us; people from remote places far beyond our borders have all asked to submit themselves to us. It is therefore timely and appropriate to pacify them. I shall dispatch envoys to announce my intention to maintain friendly relations with neighboring countries. That is the way to end border conflicts and to calm my people. This should be made known to the world so that everybody understands my intention.84

This edict, however, should not be understood as a revelation of Emperor Gaozu’s intention to become a universal king or to make Tang a suzerain that had substantial overlord-vassal relations with its neighbors. The gist of the edict was to neutralize external forces hostile to Tang so that the court could focus on consolidating its domestic control. China in 618 and early 619 was moving toward political unification. Tang forces proceeded to bring southwestern and eastern China under control, and extended its territories into areas of Gansu and Qinghai provinces in the northwest, Sichuan province in the south, and almost the whole of Hubei and Henan provinces in the east. During this time, Emperor Gaozu controlled but a small part of China. He was preoccupied with the arduous task of subduing the separatist regimes (p.246) controlling important regions of China and with establishing domestic order.

On the international front, the balance of power between China and the Eastern Turks remained in favor of the latter for more than another decade. And other nomadic groups were far from submissive to Emperor Gaozu. As yet, he was not a universal king. The Tuyuhun, for example, was not a tribute-paying tribe to China but a source of support for Emperor Gaozu, whose envoy had approached the Tuyuhun for an alliance against Li Gui, leader of an anti-Tang force.85 In fact, border conflict was the norm of bilateral relations during Emperor Gaozu’s time, with the Tuyuhun taking the offensive in 622, 623, 624, and 626. In 624 alone, the Tang borders were attacked five times.86 Emperor Gaozu’s major concern was to secure China’s borders so that he could concentrate on eliminating domestic rebel forces. This concern prompted him to improve relations with the three Korean states, Silla, Paekche, and Koguryŏ, the last of which had been the target of repeated attempts at conquest by the Sui dynasty.87 Securing China’s borders was to become a central concern for successive Tang emperors. Emperor Gaozu and his successors thus faced the challenging task of balancing the contradictory demands of operating an open international system while concurrently keeping effective control of China’s borders. What would be an appropriate foreign policy oriented toward neither undue expansiveness nor excessive closure?

Emperor Taizong Goes on the Offensive

Upon initiating his reign in 627, Emperor Taizong announced that refined culture and moral virtue would be the principles guiding his domestic and foreign policies.88 Just as was their master, many early-Tang courtiers were also cautious and pragmatic when handling foreign tribal chieftains who had surrendered. Li Daliang (586–644) suggested a “loose rein” policy that would allow these leaders and their followers to remain in their homeland north of the Great Wall. This enabled the Tang court to provide them only superficial benefits while bringing about real gains for China.89

During the early years of Emperor Taizong’s reign, he could not immediately renounce the lord-vassal relationship that his father had once entered into with the Turks. He had to use the bribery-for-peace approach when dealing with them. Given Tang strength relative to that of the Turks before 630, this was the only sensible policy for the Tang to pursue peace with them. And Emperor Taizong was a major player both in forming and implementing this policy.

From the 630s, the Tang court began a strategic offensive under its (p.247) new policy of “using military force to conquer foreigners in the four directions.”90 Tang troops carried out three major military campaigns: the conquest of the Eastern Turks in 630, the defeat of the Tuyuhun tribe in the Lake Kokonor area in 634, and the subjugation of Gaochang (Karakhoja, located in present-day Turfan, Xinjiang province) in 640.91 Hand in hand with territorial expansion went the establishment of loose rein prefectures (jimi zhou) in the newly conquered areas. Based on the idea that Li Daliang had suggested earlier, these were quasi-Chinese administrative structures headed by chieftains of the defeated nomadic tribes. At the peak of Tang power, these prefectures numbered more than eight hundred. To ensure effective control, area commands (dudu fu) staffed and backed by Chinese officials and troops were organized and placed in command of loose rein prefectures. Protectorates (duhu fu) were also established in areas west of present-day Gansu province, then known as the Western Regions, in northern Vietnam, and in Korea to administer daily government affairs.92 A vast Tang empire was taking shape that would eventually stretch over 9,000 li from the east to the west and more than 10,000 li from the north to the south, and would encompass areas in the northern Korean peninsula, Mongolia, and Eastern Turkistan.93

Wei Zheng’s “Supply and Demand” in Diplomacy

Wei Zheng (580–643), a minister during Emperor Taizong’s reign, was the first to realize that China’s military successes could lead to a dangerous expansionist foreign policy with disastrous consequences to his country. As Zhangsun Wuji once pointed out: “During the early years of the Zhenguan reign period [627–649], many courtiers suggested in their memorials that ‘[China should] flaunt its military might and mount punitive campaigns against the non-Chinese.’” But Wei Zheng opposed the prevailing sentiment in the court and espoused a famous sixteen-character policy by which to handle both domestic and foreign issues: “to cease military actions and nourish civil culture [yan’ge xingwen], spread virtue and bestow favors [bude shihui], in order that when China settles into peace [Zhongguo jian], people from afar will obey us of their own accord [yuanren zifu].”94

Wei Zheng’s policy showed the influence of intellectual traditions from remote antiquity: the Confucian ideal that “the sage kings [of the Western Zhou dynasty] displayed virtue, not force [yaode bu guanbing],” when dealing with the non-Chinese;95 and the Daoist teaching that an ideal ruler should benefit the common people by good governance and should avoid undue interference in their lives as the way to bring tranquillity to the world.96 Wei’s policy, however, was primarily the product (p.248) of his thorough understanding of the changing situation in China and of the appropriate actions the Tang court should take. With limited national resources at its disposal, the Tang court had to be moderate in setting goals. Rational allocation of resources was needed in order to handle properly China’s competing needs at home and abroad. Restraint from using sheer force to attain military objectives abroad was also needed so as to concentrate on solving domestic problems by administrative means.97

Wei Zheng’s foreign policy was sober-minded, characterized by objective assessment of China’s strength. In his eyes, the Tang dynasty, ten years after its founding, had barely healed its wounds from civil wars and was akin to a person who had just recovered from a ten-year illness: but skin and bone, he was unable to travel 50 kilometers a day with a heavy sack of rice on his back.98 Thus, China had a limited capability to engage its enemies. The choice was peaceful intercourse with foreign countries or military campaigns against them that would deplete scarce Tang resources.

This assessment of Tang strength led Wei Zheng to base his foreign policy mainly on considerations of China’s ability to supply the demands of foreign countries. To Wei Zheng, a request that a foreign ruler submit to China, the arrival of a foreign envoy at the Tang court, the settlement of defeated nomads on Chinese soil, a marriage alliance with the Tang royal family, and many other acts involving the Tang with neighboring countries were all foreign demands on China. He felt that China should be prudent in granting any of these requests. In 628, Wei Zheng admonished Emperor Taizong not to grant the request of ten small kingdoms in the Western Regions to pay tribute to China. He argued: “China, although quite stable now, has yet to recover from the devastation of war. Labor service would disturb the people. When the ruler of Gaochang last visited the court, local authorities on his route to Chang’an could barely supply his needs. How could we burden them with the reception of ten foreign missions? We may allow foreigners to trade freely along the borders because it would benefit frontier people. But it would be a disadvantage to China if we receive foreigners as state guests. Should we allow the ten kingdoms to pay tribute, their delegations would amount to some one thousand people. How could the frontier prefectures manage?”99 Wei Zheng was particularly concerned about costly military assistance to Tang’s nominal vassals. Li Baiyao (565–648) shared his concern. He had authored the work On Enfeoffment (Fengjian lun), in which he advanced this concern in the form of a eulogy of Emperor Taizong: “Whenever foreigners in all quarters come to offer tribute [to China] and travel thousands of miles to submit themselves to the benevolence [of Emperor Taizong], Your Majesty always goes into retreat (p.249) to reflect [on the matter] with concentrated attention and hard thinking. [You do so because you] are afraid that [accepting the foreigners] will unduly burden China and serve [the interests] of remote countries.”100 These considerations of Wei Zheng and Li Baiyao apparently influenced Emperor Taizong—so much so that in 631 he rejected the request by Kangguo (Samarkand) to become a satellite state of China. “In the past,” said Emperor Taizong to his ministers, “some emperors were fond of attracting foreign tribute to gain a reputation for pacifying foreigners. But these tributes are of no use, and the reception of foreign missions will burden my people. Now Kangguo wishes to submit to China. Out of righteousness, we would have to assist them were they to be threatened in the future. Wouldn’t it exhaust my troops if they had to march five thousand kilometers [to Samarkand]? To burden my people for the sake of superficial reputation is not something I shall do.”101

Expense and the burden on common people were the major concerns of Wei Zheng when he examined any policy. He memorialized the throne in 632 objecting to the proposal that Emperor Taizong perform the “sacrifices of state,” a grand ceremony to be attended by both highranking officials and foreign rulers to offer sacrifices to Heaven and Earth in celebration of unity, peace, and prosperity in China.102 He candidly pointed out:

Although abundant harvests have continued for a few years, our granaries are still quite empty; although the domestic situation has been stabilized, China is not yet ready for such an arduous task as the sacrifices of state. When rulers of remote foreign countries come to attend the ceremony in the name of admiration of Your Majesty’s righteousness, we would be unable to meet their needs [wuyi gong qi qiu]. … Besides, how could we let the foreigners see our weakness?103

Emperor Taizong shared Wei Zheng’s concerns. During the early years of his reign, the emperor’s policies similarly exhibited Daoism’s influence over that of Confucianism. The early Tang was a time of strong nomadic cultural influence derived from the previous Northern Dynasties (386–581) and not a heyday of Confucianism. “At that time,” observed a contemporary monk, “the Tang had just laid its foundation; [civil] war was incessant. The court treated the military strategies of Sun Wu and Wu Qi [?–381 B.C.E.] as urgent matters and had no time for Confucianism and Buddhism.”104 The Tang imperial family reinforced this nomadic cultural legacy that endorsed, among other things, the use of force and utilitarianism. Military achievement became the principal means to gain promotion and social prestige; Confucian scholars were laughed at as bookworms.105 In 626, one year before his (p.250) enthronement, Emperor Taizong had already indicated that he preferred tranquillity as the way of governance (weiguo zhidao, anjing weiwu).106 In 630, he authored an article, “On the Fundamentals of Governance” (Zhengben lun), in which the Daoist concept of tranquillity was a major principle for his administration: “Keeping the fundamental [i.e., China] intact is the gist of governance. If China does not enjoy tranquillity, what benefit would there be in having the remote foreigners come [to visit the Tang]?”107

Emperor Taizong was particularly mindful of the excessive military operations and unbearable taxes on the common people that had eventually led to the collapse of the Sui dynasty. Faced with repeated Turkic harassments of Tang frontiers, some courtiers suggested that the Great Wall be repaired and commoners be stationed in the watchtowers. But Emperor Taizong rejected the idea on the ground that his people should not be burdened with such an arduous task.108 “Having witnessed [the demise of the Sui],” he said in 635, “I work hard day and night. My only goal is tranquillity [qingjing] so that there will be peace in the world. … To me, governing a country is akin to growing a tree. If the roots are healthy, the branches and leaves will be luxuriant. If a ruler refrains from rash actions, how can common people not enjoy happiness?”109 In the second month of 637, the emperor promulgated an imperial edict announcing Laozi as the ancestor of the Tang imperial family.110 The same edict also raised Daoist priests to a status superior to that of Buddhist monks. This edict further confirmed the pivotal role of Daoism in political life: “Laozi has shown us the model. The gist [of his teaching] is a life of simplicity with few worries. … Now our country has settled into great stability. This should be credited to [the policy of] inaction [wuwei].”111 This mention of Daoist political ideals shows yet another form of foreign policy thought early in the Tang.

Managing Foreigners with a “Loose Rein”

The idea of inaction and a shrewd calculation of China’s strength relative to its neighbors’ led early Tang officials to believe that China could afford neither undue generosity to nor aggressive military actions against foreigners. Instead, the loose rein would be the most effective policy for managing the non-Chinese. The loose rein policy of the Han had an apparent cosmopolitan connotation, and this influenced some Tang officials when they debated the settlement policy for the recently submitted Eastern Turks in 630.

The prevailing sentiment among Tang courtiers was that the court should break up the Turkic tribes, whose number amounted to over 100,000, relocate them to prefectures and counties, and teach them (p.251) farming and weaving. The aim of this policy was to “transform the non-Chinese into peasants and thus forever empty the lands north of the Great Wall.”112 Typical of those Tang ministers was Wen Yanbo. He suggested that the Turks be settled along the Great Wall, be allowed to retain their respective tribes, and to preserve their own customs. To him, this was a sensible policy that would transform the Turkic resettlement areas into buffer zones for China and, more important, project the image of a universal king for Emperor Taizong. He explained to the emperor: “The king’s attitude toward all living things should be the same as that of Heaven and Earth: they cover and carry everything, and leave nothing behind. Now the Turks, driven into an impasse, have surrendered to us. Why should we reject them? Confucius once said: ‘Provide education for all without discrimination.’ If we save [the Turks] from death, teach them ways to make a living, and educate them with rituals and righteousness, they shall all become our people after a few years.” He further suggested that the Turkic chieftains should be kept in Chang’an as hostages, thus effectively separating them from their tribesmen. “[If we adopt this policy], what kind of trouble could they cause in the future?”113

Wei Zheng, however, disagreed with his peers. In his opinion, the Tang loose rein policy should not closely follow the Han practice. It should be one of limited involvement with foreign countries. At the heart of this policy was the notion that a political distance from foreign countries should be maintained; no substantive relationship should be established with and no excessive political, economic, or military obligations should be owed to these countries. He thought that this state of external affairs was in the best interest of China. To Wei Zheng, the policy most appropriate for China and the Turks was to send the Turks home to the steppes, not keep them in China, because the Turks had shifting loyalty toward China: “They will submit [to China] when they are weak but rebel [against us] when they are strong. Such is their nature.” Turkic-Chinese relations were always shaped by Tang’s strength relative to that of the Turks and by China’s domestic situation. And the status quo could evolve either in favor of China or to China’s disadvantage.114 Wei was mindful of allowing some 100,000 surrendered Turks to stay in China: “After a few years,” he cautioned Emperor Taizong, “their number will double. They will become a serious hidden danger for us.”115

Acting on this notion, Wei Zheng and his supporters opposed Wen Yanbo’s settlement proposal and any attempt to transform neighboring countries by force into vassal states of China. They emphasized instead the cultivation of civil culture to attract non-Chinese (laizhi), the spread of moral influence to make them obey (fuzhi), and the dispatch of trusted subjects to pacify them (fuzhi). They justified and supported repulsing (p.252) military assaults on Chinese borders and keeping Chinese troops on alert (beizhi)116 but did not seek to conquer and incorporate foreign countries into the Chinese territory. They compared foreign lands to “stony fields,” which were not arable and whose people were unlikely to be reformed by Chinese customs.117 There was neither advantage nor disadvantage in acquiring or losing such land.118 In Tang diplomatic vocabulary, “acquiring a stony field” was an expression of biting sarcasm aimed at any expansionist policy that brought no real benefit to China.119 They considered that the best way to deal with remote and rebellious countries was to tolerate them as long as they did not attack Chinese borders. In the meantime, they felt China should assume an active defensive posture on the foreign front. Thus, while refraining from military suppression of the rebellious non-Chinese, China should yet maintain military vigilance even when the non-Chinese were submissive to the Chinese court. Border defense was to be strengthened and strategic places fortified so as to deter the non-Chinese from raiding Chinese borders. In Wei Zheng’s opinion, internal political stabilization and military preparedness were the best guarantee for China to maintain peaceful relations with its neighbors.120 And should military action ever become necessary, the Chinese court should stabilize the occupied areas by loosely defined laws and orders but not station Chinese officials or soldiers there.121

Because of Wei Zheng’s influence, the early Tang loose rein policy sometimes displayed a considerable degree of tolerance and flexibility (kuolüe).122 The Tang court did not demand total loyalty from its neighbors. It allowed countries in the Western Regions to practice equidistant diplomacy during the seventh and early eighth centuries, when Northwest Asia was polarized first between the Chinese and the Turks, and later between the Chinese and the Tibetans. Envoys from countries of dubious political inclinations were welcomed at the Tang court as long as they duly observed the court protocols.

Emperor Taizong hailed Wei Zheng’s loose rein policy as the “best policy” (shangce) for China since it conformed to the sage kings’ method of governance.123 Tang officials of later times often referred to this policy in their debates and compared it with the less desirable “second best policy” (zhongce) of the Qin dynasty (246–207 B.C.E.), whereby the Great Wall was constructed to defend China. Although the Qin borders were secured, construction of the wall exhausted the Qin people, who rebelled and brought the Qin Empire down. The Han expansionist policy, in contrast, was harshly criticized by some Tang officials. They labeled it a “nonpolicy” (wuce) for having committed China’s resources to territorial expansion into areas of no use to China.124

The Tang loose rein policy was reciprocal in nature. It enabled (p.253) China to satisfy at low cost its own needs and those of its neighbors in mutual relationships. The policy kept China in touch with the outside world, but it also defined a political distance between the Middle Kingdom and the non-Chinese, thus freeing the Tang emperor from political, economic, and military obligations to his foreign counterparts. Under the loose rein policy, China refrained from territorial expansion, saving the enormous expense of military campaigns, establishment of Chinese administrative apparatus, stationing of Chinese troops in acquired areas, and suppression of rebellions.125 The loose rein policy furthermore enabled China’s neighbors to access China’s material civilization and high culture at almost no risk. They needed neither to offer political allegiance to the Middle Kingdom nor change their own customs. This unique nature of the Tang loose rein policy was the reason for Tang China’s diplomatic success. In 647, Emperor Taizong himself pointed out: “In my relations with foreigners in the north and the west, I could gain from them what previous rulers could not gain and subjugate those whom previous rulers could not subjugate. This is because I always go with what people [Chinese and non-Chinese] desire.”126

People’s Well-Being as the Fundamental Principle of Governance

Emperor Taizong’s remarks also revealed that his loose rein policy was rooted in ancient political thinking: the goodness of a government “is determined by its nourishment of people.”127 Mencius developed this thinking into the theory of “the fundamental importance of the people” (minben). He emphasized, among other things, that the well-being of people was to be the primary concern of a benevolent ruler.128 Soberminded Tang officials also regarded “the Chinese people as the basis of all under Heaven” (Zhongguo baixing tianxia genben).129 Excessive involvement with foreign countries, regardless of its burden on people, should therefore be frowned upon. To Wei Zheng and his contemporaries, the concept of minben was a basic principle in policy making: considerations of China’s internal order, prosperity, and security were to claim precedence over those regarding territorial expansion. When the management of foreign relations and the solution of crucial domestic issues competed for limited national resources, priority was to be given to the latter.130 China was to employ its scarce resources to strengthen the Middle Kingdom and not waste them on unnecessary involvement with foreign countries.

These considerations prompted Li Daliang to memorialize the court in the 630s not to settle the recently surrendered Western Turks near the capital.131 Chu Suiliang (596–658) and Wei Zheng criticized (p.254) the pacification of the northern nomads and the conquest of Gaochang.132 Using seven characters, Chu justified his objections in 642: “China must take precedence over foreign countries” (xian Huaxia er hou Yidi).133 Wei, for his part, questioned the viability of seizing the land of Gaochang and transforming it into a Tang prefecture:

A force of over one thousand [Tang] soldiers needs to be stationed there permanently. A few years later, when it is time for relief, one-third of these soldiers [heading home or traveling to Gaochang] will die on the road. Moreover, people in the Longyou region will have to bear the burden of providing [the soldiers with] clothing and other necessities, and endure the hardship of parting with their loved ones. In ten years, the entire region will be exhausted. Moreover, Your Majesty will be able to collect from Gaochang neither a handful of grain nor a piece of cloth to help China. I would call this “dispersing the useful [the resources of Tang] to serve the useless [the newly acquired Gaochang].”134

Emperor Taizong shared many of the concerns raised by his ministers. In his article titled “On the Fundamentals of Governance,” he stated: “The gist of governance is to seek to perfect the things that are fundamental. If China is not in peace, what is the use of having remote foreign countries come to pay tribute?”135 Using vivid analogies, some early Tang courtiers enthusiastically articulated Emperor Taizong’s opinion. Li Daliang compared China to the trunk of a tree, and its neighbors to the branches. For a tree to be vigorous, its trunk must be healthy and strong, whereas the branches must be relatively weak.136 His analogy originated from an ancient political belief: for China to be in good order, the Son of Heaven must be stronger than his subjects.137 By extension of this principle, for the international community to be in good order, China must be strong and the non-Chinese “outer subjects” of the Son of Heaven, weaker. Any foreign policy would be deemed irrational if it required commitment of China’s resources and manpower for extensive involvement with foreign countries since that policy would inevitably weaken China.

In 633, Wei Zheng used the same analogy in his memorial to the court. “Those who want a tree to grow must deepen its roots; those who wish a river to run a long course must dredge its source. A ruler who cares about the stability of his country must accumulate virtuous and righteous deeds.” Implementation of an adventurous foreign policy was thus an action akin to “damaging the roots of a tree while hoping for it to be luxuriant.”138 In his article “The Golden Mirror” (Jin jing), Emperor Taizong reflected on his own governance and remarked: “Within the four oceans, all lands are the king’s territories. But the remote soils (p.255) are the branches and leaves, and the metropolitan area is the root.” To further elaborate his observation of the Chinese-foreign relationship, he went on to use an ancient Chinese saying: “With the skin [China] gone, where can the hair [foreigners] attach itself?” While acknowledging the importance of “strengthening the fundamental items and deepening the roots,” Emperor Taizong was equally concerned that the branches and leaves might “fall off and no longer exist.” He confessed that proper management of these issues worried him deeply.139

Similar to the trunk-branch analogy was the metaphor of “hand scabies and chest ulcers,” which compared China’s border conflicts with neighbors to itching scabies on a person’s hand. Although uncomfortable, scabies would cause no serious health problem, and scratching the itch should sufficiently alleviate the discomfort. China’s pressing domestic problems, however, were like an ulcer on a person’s chest. If not taken seriously, it might grow larger and threaten his well-being. Cauterizing was required to remove this malignancy.140

In the minds of some Tang officials, China was like a human body, with the two capitals of Chang’an and Luoyang being the heart and the abdomen respectively, and the four frontiers, the hands and feet. Foreign countries not immediately bordering China were not part of the body and were thus external to the Middle Kingdom.141 Using force against those countries was unnecessary. Instead, these officials thought the Tang court should accord them superficial treatment (xuwai) but handle China’s domestic issues with substantive measures (shinei).142 Not surprisingly, Wei Zheng, Li Yanshou, and Chu Suiliang were the major advocates of this policy.143

Thus, the loose rein policy tapped into deeper, traditional ideas, such as those that viewed the state as a political “body” and valued domestic stability over external meddling. This bears on the question of just how far Tang policy was actually bound to Confucian notions of virtue and righteousness.

Virtue and Righteousness as Efficacy and Appropriateness

The Tang court often claimed that the goal of its foreign policy was the spread of virtue and righteousness to foreign lands and that the unprecedented diplomatic achievements of the Tang were due to its employment of virtue and righteousness as the code of state conduct. As soon as he ascended the throne in 627, Emperor Taizong announced: “Although I have conquered the world by military action, I should, in the end, pacify this world by civil virtue.”144 In his edict of 636 to pardon the rebellious Tuyuhun, Emperor Taizong proclaimed: “Conciliating remote countries by civil virtue is a grand rule of the sages; reviving extinguished (p.256) states and restoring family lines that have been broken is a general instruction from the most benevolent rulers.”145 And in “The Golden Mirror,” he wrote: “Civil virtue must be employed to govern people.”146

Emperor Taizong’s words endowed his foreign policy with a bright moralistic glow. However, whether the Tang court did indeed conduct its external relations according to such abstract and moralistic principles as virtue and righteousness remains a question. The court, for one thing, embraced “virtue” only after successful military campaigns in the northeast, the north, and the northwest. And implementation of the principles in question seemed to have been feasible only when China was in a position of power, dealing with weaker and friendly countries. Moreover, time and again China had to use force to fend off threats from hostile neighbors.147 In such situations, neither virtue nor righteousness was of much help. Worse still, Chinese rulers had to appeal for foreign support or protection when the Middle Kingdom was weak, internally divided, or threatened by hostile forces. The ever-changing balance of real power in Central and East Asia, and the stubborn insistence of Tang officials on guiding diplomacy by virtue and righteousness offer an intriguing contrast, which should lead to a reconsideration of the meaning of virtue and righteousness in Tang diplomacy. The real meaning of virtue and righteouness in Chinese primary sources is a significant issue in our understanding of premodern China’s external relations. We need to step aside from the overall argument in order to examine these two traditional terms in their specific context and in translation.148

Virtue, pronounced de in Chinese, is generally understood as the good, ethical nature of human beings, which manifests itself in admirable conduct. “Virtue” is a proper rendition of de when it is meant to signify excellence in personal moral cultivation and conduct. The term jide is a case in point. It is associated with such good conduct as filial reverence and trustworthy loyalty. De applied in contexts dealing with emperors has the sense of a ruler who is humane, suasive, and wise. In 632, Wei Zheng lectured Emperor Taizong to the effect that he would be deemed a ruler of superior virtue (de zhi shang) if he “burned the precious robes in the imperial warehouse, tore down the grand halls in the Efang Palace, feared the peril of living in magnificent buildings, and thought rather of living comfortably in a humble place.” Wei believed this because such exemplary, austere conduct would manifest “the silent transforming influence of the deities, and [as a result] China would be well governed without action.”149 In Wei’s view, however, Emperor Taizong could also be considered a ruler exhibiting a lower grade of virtue (de zhi ci) since he had already occupied “all the palaces, the (p.257) open-air terraces, and the waterside pavilions, retained all the rare treasures and exotic goods in the imperial warehouse, and let all the fair court ladies serve him.” Nevertheless, he could still please people if he were to “drop insignificant expenditures, reduce necessary ones to the minimum by constructing thatched cottages among the splendid palaces, build earth steps alongside the jade stairs, and always remember how easy it is to occupy the palaces and the difficulty with which they have been built.” His modesty would then, Wei said, make “millions happily come to Your Majesty like sons [to their fathers], and people would look up to Your Majesty because your policies fit with their disposition.” Emperor Taizong would definitely be a ruler of poor character (de zhi xia), if he “did not think wisely, was not mindful of the consequences of his conduct, forgot the hardship suffered in establishing the Tang dynasty and simply insisted that he had received the mandate of Heaven, and openly flaunted his extravagance.”150 More important, in this specific context of “imperial morals,” a benevolent ruler must transmit the virtues of Heaven to the human realm151 and manifest his intrinsic good virtues through efficacious policies.152 Implementation of these policies required a ruler of extraordinary qualities, which, once again, are referred to as de in early writings and were collectively known as the “nine qualities” (jiude) in Chinese:

  1. 1. the power of judgment by means of determining what is right (du);

  2. 2. silent exertion by means of making people respond to one’s virtue (mo);

  3. 3. illumination by extending a bright influence over all quarters (ming);

  4. 4. earnest beneficence without selfish partiality (lei);

  5. 5. leadership by teaching people without becoming weary (zhang);

  6. 6. the ability to rule by making people happy and awed with rewards and punishment (jun);

  7. 7. submission by treating people with gentleness and harmony (shun);

  8. 8. cordial union with courtiers by choosing what is good and following it (bi);

  9. 9. accomplishment by achieving order between Heaven and Earth (wen).153

If a ruler acquired these remarkable qualities, then he would be able to use moral, civil, and military means properly in order to govern the Chinese and the non-Chinese. In this political setting, efficacy was the essence of de, and as a guiding principle it became a good fit for the early Tang and its handling of domestic and foreign issues. Li Yanshou once summarized the role of de in foreign policy: “Foreigners would (p.258) send their envoys to us if we practiced de; they would rebel against us if we did not.”154

There is yet another context for de in policy debates, where it often means “getting things into proper arrangement” (de shiyi ye), thus becoming linked to the phonetically related word “get” (also pronounced de).155 The notion was that rulers and statesmen could achieve desired goals by using the power of de to handle things properly and to motivate others, with or without exerting physical force.156 An edict of 639, for example, employed the term to justify the Tang expedition against Gaochang: “By appointing generals and dispatching war carriages, an emperor acquires the power of quelling rebellions [dingluan zhi de].”157 In policy discussions, the meaning of de is therefore better communicated in English as “in virtue of,” “efficacy,” or “power.”158

Frequently associated with de is the word yi, which is conventionally translated as “righteousness.” In Tang diplomatic vocabulary, however, yi was not as moralistic as the English term righteousness would imply. The term was synonymous with efficacy and was cognate with “appropriateness” and “fitting,” both also pronounced yi in Chinese.159 The gist of yi was the appropriateness of an action taken in a specific situation. An appropriate action was one fitting to the situation and to one’s status.160 No universal moral judgment was to be passed on actions taken by people or the state.161 A Tang military campaign against another country, for instance, could be considered appropriate162 if this country was a vassal state that refused to fulfill its obligations to China, if it harassed Chinese borders, or if it had long been an enemy to China.163

In fact, “appropriateness” had been the chief policy concern ever since antiquity.164 Foreign policies based on efficacy and appropriateness (de and yi) were regarded as the “roots of all advantage,” since they could not only accommodate the state’s interests, but also bring benefit to all parties.165 Some thinkers argued that “benefit was the harmonization of all appropriate factors” (li yi zhi he ye),166 “appropriateness was the root of gain” (yi li zhi ben ye),167 and “it was appropriateness that gave rise to advantage” (yi yi sheng li).168 A ruler should willingly consider appropriateness to equate to advantage to his country (yi yi wei li)169 and learn to establish benefits by proper actions (yi yi jian li).170 Some statesmen considered appropriateness a mode of state behavior, crucial to a nation’s survival. Proper action was thus a means to win a war (zhan zhi qi ye).171

Appropriateness in policy making amounted to the ability of a ruler to handle a situation according to its relevant details and in so doing also to promote the people’s well-being.172 A ruler must “order affairs by appropriateness.”173 He, for instance, should allow people accustomed to chilly weather to live in the north and those who can endure heat to (p.259) remain in the tropics.174 When giving orders to the people, he must ensure that his orders are timely, not interrupting the agricultural work of the season, for example.175 He should try to influence foreign people rather than mandate that they change their customs, to improve local administration rather than mandating a change in local practices.176 Emperor Taizong referred to this ability as “following what people desire” and “promoting appropriateness” (dunyi).177

The pursuit of efficacy and appropriateness in diplomacy had to be anchored in the understanding of the non-Chinese and their way of life. Tang China’s neighbors were mostly nomadic or seminomadic tribes who migrated according to changes in the season to seek water and pasture for their herds. Their nomadic way of life usually did not lead to extensive contacts with the sedentary Chinese, except for occasional trading of herds for Chinese products. Situations, however, would drastically change when forces beyond the control of the nomads interrupted their cycle of life. Drought and snowstorms would drastically reduce the number of cattle on which nomads’ livelihood depended, forcing them to look for food by raiding Chinese border towns. A violent power struggle within a tribal confederation and war against other tribes would also send defeated nomadic peoples fleeing for protection in the Middle Kingdom. An interlocking relationship between China and its neighbors was thus formed and was to last throughout the Tang dynasty.178

Tang rulers and courtiers understood this interlocking relationship reasonably well. Although they often used pejorative language to degrade foreigners as necessary evils, they had some knowledge of their languages, desires, and attitudes toward China. Tang courtiers realized that foreigners, especially those whose territories bordered on China, had intimately associated with China ever since remote antiquity. They had been influenced by the virtues of the sage kings and had been part of China’s defenses.179 Foreigners in the north and west, however, became hostile to China when internal political chaos weakened the authority of the Chinese kings, whereas those in the south and east remained harmless.180 The difference in their attitude toward the Middle Kingdom was due not just to the relative military strength of individual tribes, but more to the unique disposition of each non-Chinese group, which was shaped by their homeland and was not easily changed.181 China could never avoid contacts with the non-Chinese. They would always be part of the Chinese way of life,182 and the differently situated and culturally varied nomadic groups or states would challenge or retreat from China’s border areas depending on the situation. Thus a certain fluidity was called for.183

When the balance of power was in favor of China, the Tang court (p.260) would have more options in conducting its external relations. The Tang emperors and courtiers would ponder and debate what the proper arrangements for foreigners should be. Interestingly, Xu Hui, a favorite and precociously gifted concubine of Emperor Taizong, summed up in 648 the complex correlation between domestic and foreign policies, and its implication for the fate of China: “Territorial expansion brings no eternal peace to China,” she wrote in a memorial to her master. “Policies that easily overburden the people are often the root cause of domestic upheaval.”184 Wei Zheng was of the same opinion. Using the Sui dynasty as an example, he lectured Emperor Taizong that the fall of this powerful dynasty was due mainly to its overtly ambitious but ill-conceived policies at home and abroad. The rash actions (dong) of the Sui court had caused its demise. The Tang court’s restraint from such actions, in contrast, was leading the country to internal stabilization.185 Prudent Tang ministers therefore took it as their responsibility to advise their master not to act on impulse. Wei Zheng was one of them.

Wei came up with the notion of “ten thoughts” (shisi) that Emperor Taizong might use to fend off imprudent actions. They emphasize amelioration in relations and personal frugality and humility: consider [their actual] content (si zhizu) when seeing things desirable so as to discipline oneself; consider where to stop (si zhizhi) before attempting anything so as to calm people; consider modesty (si qianchong) as a way to look after oneself when worried about staying in a high and dangerous place; consider the oceans into which hundreds of rivers flow (si jianghai er xia baichuan) when dreading complacency; consider that three times (si sanqu) are the limit when going on pleasure trips; consider a cautious start and a complete end (si shenshi er jingzhong) when fearing slackness; consider humility (si xuxin) when worried about losing contact with reality so as to accept suggestions from inferiors; consider self-cultivation (si zhengshen) when influenced by slanders and evil ideas of dishonest officials so as to weed them out of office; consider granting no undue reward out of kindness (si wuyin xi yi miushang) when extending favors; consider executing no indiscriminate punishment out of anger (si wuyin nu er lanxing) when sentencing people.186 Such sensible thoughts won praise from the empress. She commended Wei Zheng as an outspoken remonstrator, “an honest man of profound concern for the fate of the country and one who has used appropriateness [yi] to persuade his master not to act on impulse [qing].”187

Tang officials believed that maintaining harmonious relations with neighboring countries by exercising caution and restraint in diplomacy was in China’s best interest. They realized that to achieve harmony with neighboring countries, China should rear foreigners (xuzhi) as it would fish and turtles, allowing them space to breathe and grow rather than (p.261) forcing them into a corner and exterminating them.188 China should also try to comprehend foreigners’ aspirations and needs (da qi zhi, tong qi yu): they desired trade, marriage alliances, and sometimes a vassallord relationship with China. Based on this understanding, Tang officials developed a form of diplomatic thinking in which they sought to correlate mutual self-interest, appropriateness, efficacy, virtue, and righteousness. These utilitarian Tang policy makers were concerned mainly with what a Tang foreign policy would produce for China. But they also realized that, for the sake of peaceful relations with neighboring countries, Chinese diplomacy must produce results desirable to all concerned parties since the real interest of China rested in the realization of the mutual self-interest of the member states in the international community. Moreover, acting on mutual self-interest in diplomacy was itself moral conduct. It accommodated the self-interest of China to that of the concerned countries and was therefore virtuous, righteous, and appropriate state behavior. To Tang officials, virtue, righteousness, and self-interest were not diametrically opposed values in diplomatic thinking. Through implementing appropriate policies, they could make these values complementary rather than opposed to each other.

That Tang officials used de and yi in both moral and utilitarian senses was indeed a remarkable example of dialectical thinking. To them, the terms “virtue” and “righteousness” applied to diplomacy were not empty statements of ideology or of moral principle. They were practical means for pursuing the mutual self-interest of the involved parties. The Tang court often justified its international behavior by reference to Confucian morality. The final justification, however, was in fact based on a careful assessment of mutual self-interest and appropriateness.

From a Receptive Emperor to a Ruler in His Own Way

Emperor Taizong, who had ascended the throne by having his younger brother killed in a coup d’état and forcing his father to abdicate, was mindful of consolidating power at home and avoiding overexpansion abroad at the beginning of his reign. He told his ministers early in 628: “People say that the Son of Heaven is the highest sovereign and is thus afraid of nothing. I disagree. I fear Heaven who supervises me and the ministers who look up to me. Cautious and attentive [in discharging my duties], I am still afraid of my failing to act on Heaven’s will and to live up to people’s expectations.” Wei Zheng rejoiced at his master’s thoughts: “This is indeed the gist of achieving good governance. I wish Your Majesty may always think so.”189

Emperor Taizong was also willing to consult his ministers. In 629, he instructed them to recruit virtuous and honest people into the government (p.262) and urged them to dispute any inappropriate policy. “Recently, [officials from the Secretariat and the Chancellery] always obey me,” the emperor quipped. “I have not heard any differing opinion from them. But if the only thing they know is handling daily routines, which anyone can do, why do we need talented people [in the government]?”190 Two years later, in 631, when the Turks had been subjugated, Emperor Taizong again told his ministers: “China fortunately has now become peaceful, and the non-Chinese have submitted to us. Since olden times [this situation] has seldom obtained. Yet, I am daily on tenterhooks for fear that [the status quo] will not last. My chamberlains, I do wish to hear your remonstrations.” Emperor Taizong’s eagerness for different opinions delighted Wei Zheng. He told the emperor: “Peace within and without China does not delight your subject, but Your Majesty’s vigilance in peacetime does.” In the same year, Emperor Taizong reiterated: “I am always afraid that my changing moods might lead me to dispense unjustifiable rewards and punishments. Consequently, I urge you to voice your earnest admonitions.”191

Only a few years into his reign, however, Emperor Taizong started to deviate from his earlier stated caution. Disregarding strong objections, he launched expansive construction projects in 632. When Wei Zheng criticized this shift, the emperor gracefully accepted Wei’s opinion but refused to stop the projects. Tang courtiers readily noticed the emperor’s changed attitude toward spoken criticism, and many stopped disagreeing with him.192 Emperor Taizong was growing impatient with the outspoken Wei Zheng. One day in the third month of 632, he returned from a court audience simmering with rage at Wei and told the empress: “I shall kill this country bumpkin! He often humiliates me at court.” To placate her husband, the empress retreated to her quarters and then came out to stand in the courtyard dressed in the ceremonial court robe used for major events. The surprised emperor asked her the occasion for so dressing; the empress replied: “I have learned that a wise master will have honest subjects. Wei Zheng is honest because Your Majesty is wise. How could I not congratulate you?”193

Emperor Taizong tried to improve his treatment of chief ministers. He sometimes spoke courteously to them, affected a kind countenance, and encouraged them to propose policies that would sustain his rule.194 In reality, however, he was becoming irritable. He burst into rage at Huangfu Decan, who had labeled the Luoyang Palace a wasteful project that had burdened people, and thought of punishing him for slander.195 Emperor Taizong’s quick temper deeply worried the empress. With her health fast deteriorating, she gathered her last strength to convey several wishes, one being that the emperor should “accept honest admonition.”196 Unfortunately, her deathbed admonition fell on deaf ears. The (p.263) atmosphere at the court deteriorated so much so that many courtiers avoided any policy discussions. In 637, Wei Zheng aptly described Emperor Taizong’s changing attitude toward remonstrance: “At the beginning of the Zhenguan reign period, Your Majesty desired remonstrations by the ministers. You often admonished them to speak up. In the middle [of the reign period] you happily accepted [criticisms]. You are different now, for you only reluctantly accept [opinions differing from yours].”197 In a last-ditch effort to urge a renewal of interest in criticism, Wei Zheng even condemned Emperor Taizong in 641: “When presiding over a court audience … you often throw temper tantrums [at the ministers] so as to cover your mistakes. What is the benefit of doing this?”198

Wei Zheng died in 642. A sorrowful Emperor Taizong compared his loyal subject to a mirror that reflected one’s achievements as well as mistakes: “With the death of Wei Zheng, I have lost a mirror!”199 However, the emperor soon abandoned Wei’s foreign policy and organized a series of military campaigns abroad: expeditions against Koguryŏ in 644, 647, and 648; the conquest of the Xueyantuo tribe in 646; and the capture of Kucha in 648. Without due concern for the enormous cost to China, Emperor Taizong also accepted the Tiele tribe (a Turkic people active in northern Xinjiang province) into the Tang system in 646. When receiving the newly submitted tribe, he showed extraordinary generosity after inquiry about their situation: “Having pledged allegiance to me, you are now safe and sound, like rats in a hole and fish in water. I wonder whether the hole and the water are big and deep enough for you. If not, I shall have the hole enlarged and the water deepened to accommodate you.”200

The lavish treatment that Emperor Taizong accorded the Tiele was guided by a fresh idea—that of “The Greater Tang” (Da Tang). The term described a political entity open to any foreigners willing to participate in the Chinese system and that treated foreigners, submissive or defeated, as members of an extended family.201 As early as 626, Emperor Taizong announced that he “regarded countries in the four seas as one family and peoples within the [Tang] territories as his children.”202 Both Emperor Gaozu and Emperor Taizong saw themselves as “parents of all living mankind” (cangsheng fumu), responsible for the well-being of all peoples.203 In 630, at the request of the tribal chieftains in the Western Regions, Emperor Taizong accepted the title Heavenly Qaghan (Tian Kehan) to become their nominal leader.204 With his ancestor and wife being of Turkic-speaking nomadic peoples, this new qaghan was particularly open toward foreigners.205 This openness displayed itself graphically at a wine party held in 633 for Emperor Taizong’s abdicated father, Emperor Gaozu, during which a submitted Turkic qaghan danced and a leader of the southern Yue people presented a poem. Rejoicing (p.264) over the performance, Emperor Gaozu commented: “It is truly unprecedented that the Turks and the Yue are now of the same family.”206 Emperor Taizong shared his father’s mentality. Unlike other Chinese rulers who often looked down on foreigners as savage beasts and treated them as opposites, Emperor Taizong believed that they too could also have human hearts.207 He said in 644: “Foreigners are also human beings. Their feelings are not different from those of the Chinese. A ruler should worry about whether he has extended virtue and benefit equally to foreigners; there is no need for him to be suspicious of them. If he has done so, foreigners shall become members of the same family.”208 This spirit of acceptance laid the cornerstone of an accommodating Tang empire and a remarkably open Tang system.

During the early Tang, Emperor Taizong well understood that the creation of a Great Tang Empire did not imply that the “whole world” (tianxia, which literally means “every corner under the sky”) had, or should, come under the jurisdiction of China. This was certainly the case when he announced in 627 that he had conquered the tianxia by force.209 In the vocabulary of Tang scholar-officials, the “whole world” referred to the counties, the prefectures, and the loose rein prefectures under the actual administrative control of the Tang court.210 This was so particularly when the term in question appeared in Tang legal documents.211 This “whole world” often evolved in scope but always had specific boundaries during any given period.212 An ambitious Tang emperor and his adventurous courtiers, however, could also interpret “the whole world” as a term with cosmopolitan connotations and use it to justify unrestrained territorial expansion.213 This was exactly what happened during the latter part of Emperor Taizong’s reign when he handled relations with Gaochang.

On the pretext that the ruler of Gaochang had not offered tribute to Tang in recent years and had thus failed properly to fulfill the obligations of a vassal state, Emperor Taizong decided in 639 to attack Gaochang.214 Many Tang officials objected to a military operation; some argued that Gaochang was “an inaccessible place beyond the horizon [tianjie jueyu] and that, even if they could conquer it, they would never be able to defend it.”215 Emperor Taizong, however, completely ignored their objections. In an edict to the ruler of Gaochang, he announced the universality of his power: “I have received the mandate of Heaven to govern places near and far in the whole world and to foster people Chinese and foreign so that they will enjoy peace and tranquillity.”216 This rhetoric of universal power was Emperor Taizong’s justification for impending military action against Gaochang. In 640, the Tang eliminated the kingdom.

Emperor Taizong’s management of relations with the Xueyantuo (p.265) was another case in point. In 642, Fang Xuanling advised the emperor to marry a Tang princess to the ruler of Xueyantuo. Preparation for the marriage was soon under way. This marriage, however, was merely an expedient measure (bian).217 In fact, Emperor Taizong had no intention of keeping faith with Xueyantuo, for he had always wanted to exterminate the tribe by force. One year later, after reassessing the situation, Emperor Taizong changed his mind. He halted preparation for the marriage and sent a signal to tribes hostile to the Xueyantuo that it was time for them to act against their foe. Some Tang officials voiced their objection. But Emperor Taizong derided them as “conversant with history but ignorant of the current situation.” He told them: “Now I shall end preparation for the marriage and reduce the level of reception [for the Xueyantuo envoys]. When other tribes learn that I have abandoned the Xueyantuo, they will break up the Xueyantuo like slicing up a melon. You just remember what I have said today.”218 The Xueyantuo were destroyed in 646.

One year later, in 647, Emperor Taizong targeted Qiuci (an oasis kingdom located in present-day Kuche, Xinjiang Autonomous Region). To defend his decision, the emperor deviated from the conventional political wisdom of giving China priority over foreign countries in decision making and coined new interpretations for appropriateness and righteousness: “Appropriateness [yi] means to burden oneself [Tang] with bringing tranquillity to others [Qiuci].” And “promoting righteousness [dunyi] implies [that the Tang court should] follow the wishes of the [Qiuci] people.” He maintained that attacking Qiuci was a timely and appropriate (shiyi) decision, which would bring permanent peace to China’s western frontiers.219 A year later, in 648, he again employed his new interpretations of appropriateness to justify mobilization of troops for a massive campaign against Koguryŏ, an action that eventually ended in disaster.220

Li Yanshou, a contemporary of Emperor Taizong, compiled The History of the Northern Dynasties (Bei shi), in which he called emperors and ministers of the previous dynasties who had wasted resources engaging remote foreign countries “ambitious and untrammeled masters” (hong-fang zhi zhu) and “meddlesome subjects” (haoshi zhi chen) respectively.221 Li apparently wanted to use these examples as warnings for his master and his peers in the court because to him Emperor Taizong had also become such a master. The emperor confessed in 634 that he took great pride in himself for having conquered China at only twenty-four and ascended the throne before thirty. Now he had brought the foreigners to heel.222 In 639, he considered his achievements as having been no less than those of the First Emperor of the Qin and Emperor Wu of the Western Han.223 Emperor Taizong’s untrammeled spirit often vividly (p.266) embodied itself in his writings and conversations. In “Eulogy of the Imperial Virtue” (Huangde song), he wrote about his ambition to “bring order to both the Chinese and the non-Chinese … so that eight southern tribal groups will come to pay tribute and six northern aboriginal groups will accept our conciliation.”224 When receiving the Tiele tribal chieftain in 646, the emperor announced: “I am now the lord of the world. I shall feed everyone, Chinese or non-Chinese.”225 In 648, he even talked about conquering and transforming “people living up north, where nothing grows, into registered residents [of China].”226

The Tang court certainly did not lack meddlesome generals and officials. Interested primarily in winning imperial favor, gaining official rank, and establishing their own military merit, they happily endorsed Emperor Taizong’s adventurous thinking and would approve any such policy proposal despite its moral implications. In 649, Li Jing substantiated an active foreign policy by asserting that the divide between the Chinese and the non-Chinese could be easily bridged: “When Heaven gave birth to men, originally there was no distinction between ‘non-Han’ and ‘Han.’ … If we are generous to them, show good faith, pacify them, and fully support them with clothes and foods, they will then all be men of the Han.”227 Linghu Defen’s thinking on foreign policy claimed that “gain and loss are in the timing; opportunity causes both good and bad outcomes. Change according to the time; act on expediency. That way, no option will be overlooked, and every strategy will be the best plan.”228 Li Daliang also memorialized the throne to justify utilitarianism in foreign relations: “The illuminating kings of remote antiquity transformed the Chinese by trust but controlled the non-Chinese by expedient measures.”229

Emperor Taizong’s Meddling with Koguryŏ

Appropriateness and efficacy, however, did not always lead China to adopt a sensible foreign policy. This was hardly surprising. Tang officials often used these two concepts, which were multilayered in meaning, to justify competing policy advice. Some unrealistically insisted on China’s centrality in the world; others stubbornly adhered to China’s moral obligations to its vassals. Moreover, both Emperor Gaozu and Emperor Taizong were shrewd pragmatists, not dogmatic believers in any doctrine. They were willing to use whatever means they saw fit to tackle complex international issues and unpredictable crises. As Sons of Heaven, they could decide what constituted appropriate international behavior for China and what course of action was in the best interest of China and its neighbors. This sometimes resulted in miscalculation of Tang’s real interests and the adoption of a disastrous (p.267) foreign policy. One notable case was Emperor Taizong’s failed campaign against Koguryŏ.

In 625, Pei Ju and Wen Yanbo urged Emperor Gaozu not to leave Koguryŏ insubordinate to China: “If China treats Koguryŏ as a peer, other foreign countries will despise China.”230 After enthronement in 627, Emperor Taizong willingly assumed the role of mediator for Korean affairs. He told the Paekche king: “As the sovereign, I have inherited the mandate of Heaven to govern the universe, to promote love and the sages’ way, to nurture the common people, and to spread righteousness and peace to every corner in the world.” He instructed the king to cease hostilities against Silla immediately: “The Silla king is my outer subject and your neighbor. … You’d better understand how I feel about this and treasure your neighborliness [with Silla].”231 Here the emperor appeared neutral in Korean affairs, but he was to change his stance in the 640s.

In 643, Deng Su, the Tang envoy sent to attend the Koguryŏ king Yŏngnyu’s funeral, suggested that Tang deploy more soldiers at the Huaiyuan Garrison (present-day Huaiyuan County, Liaoning province) to exert military pressure on Koguryŏ. Rejecting the idea, Emperor Taizong lectured his envoy: “If people in remote regions are insubordinate [to the Tang], we should cultivate civil culture and virtue to attract them. I have never heard that several hundred frontier soldiers could subdue these people.”232 In private, however, he was contemplating a punitive action against Koguryŏ when he learned from his envoy that the death of the Koguryŏ king was a murder, that the man behind the scheme was Yŏn Kaesomun, who had since usurped the king’s power by making himself Minister of War and Secretariat director, and had also put a puppet king on the throne.

Zhangsun Wuji, however, considered the intended punishment unjustifiable because neither the Koguryŏ royal house nor its officials had lodged any complaint or requested the Tang to act against Kaesomun. He advised the emperor to turn a blind eye to the usurper and to recognize the puppet king: an approach that would offer comfort and support to the king, and eventually win him over. Emperor Taizong acted on Zhangsun’s advice. He decided to recognize the status quo in Koguryŏ by conferring on its king the title Supreme Pillar of State, Commandery Prince of Liaodong, King of Koguryŏ. He used the sage kings’ exemplary practice to justify this move: nonaggression on a country mourning its deceased ruler.233

In 644, Xiangli Xuanjiang, aide to the chief minister of the Court of the National Granaries, delivered to the Koguryŏ court an edict of conferment, the opening of which reads: “Winning over people in distant lands with kindness is an established practice listed in our former kings’ (p.268) institutions. Sustaining a ruling house is a righteous act recorded in the successive dynasties’ history.” This was perhaps the most duplicitous of all edicts that the Tang court had so far issued, since Emperor Taizong would himself lead an invasion of Koguryŏ in the same year.234 Xiangli was, however, kept in the dark. He tried hard to persuade Kaesomun to abandon efforts to recover from Silla the lost territories: “You should not pursue past matters. Places in Liaodong used to be China’s prefectures and counties. But we have not said anything [about taking them back]. Why should you be so determined to recover them?”235 His host categorically rejected the advice.

Kaesomun’s refusal provided Emperor Taizong with the pretext for open hostility toward Koguryŏ: “Kaesomun has murdered his lord, terrorized the ministers, and brutally mistreated the people. Now he has also disobeyed my edict and invaded his neighbor Silla. How can I not punish him?”236 Many Tang courtiers disagreed with his assertion that the campaign against Koguryŏ was a righteous action. Chu Suiliang called it an operation of “an angry army.” He also worried that the emperor’s personal involvement would subject him to danger.237 But Emperor Taizong brushed aside Chu’s opinion. He believed that a quick victory was within his grasp and that the time for action was approaching: “Commoners [in Koguryŏ] are craning their necks and eagerly waiting [for China] to save them. This is the time to destroy Koguryŏ.”238 As a message to Kaesomun, Emperor Taizong accorded harsh treatment to Kaesomun’s envoy, who had arrived in Chang’an with Xiangli. He not only rejected the gifts from Kaesomun, but also denounced the envoy himself: “You once served King Yŏngnyu and held an official title. When Kaesomun assassinated his lord and rebelled, you could not revenge the king. Now you are here to speak for the traitor and to cheat China. Is there any crime more serious than this?” He ordered the Court of Judicial Review to detain the envoy.239

Before leaving the capital for Korea, Emperor Taizong received some elders, whose sons and grandsons would participate in the campaign as soldiers. He granted them a large amount of cloth and grain so as to boost the morale of his troops and promised them that he would take good care of his soldiers: “You have nothing to worry about.” In private, however, Emperor Taizong was not so sure about the campaign. He admitted that this operation would amount to “attending to trivialities but neglecting the fundamentals, rejecting what is grand but seeking what is ignoble, and pursuing the faraway at the expense of the near at hand.” But he insisted that his dissenting subjects had failed to see that the Koguryŏ people were eagerly waiting for the Tang troops to free them from a usurper’s arbitrary rule.240

In the tenth month of 644, Emperor Taizong set his campaign in (p.269) motion by promulgating an edict, which opened with an angry denunciation: “Kaesomun of Koguryŏ has murdered his lord and brutally slaughtered the ministers. He now illegally occupies a remote corner [of the world] and acts without restraint like a wasp and a scorpion. If I do not eradicate this immoral person from afar, how could I warn and punish [similar] people in China?” To dispel the misgiving that his campaign would be too costly and would fail just as had Sui’s disastrous invasions of Koguryŏ, Emperor Taizong announced that his trip to Koguryŏ would dispense with all unnecessary formalities.

Emperor Taizong was confident that Tang military prowess, his talent at military strategy, and the favorable domestic situation would ensure him success in Korea:

I have thought about past events and examined my own conscience. I was entrusted with the task of dispelling chaos and restoring order by an expedition. The operations sometimes lasted for more than a year, but supplies for my troops could barely last for a month. I even lacked authority to grant rewards or mete out punishments [to my soldiers]. But my troops enjoyed uninterrupted success. … They stabilized China and its people. It is no exaggeration to say that millions of commoners witnessed the way I commanded troops. … I then eliminated the Xiongnu tribes as if breaking a dead branch off a tree, and I destroyed the Tuyuhun and Gaochang in the west as if it were easier than picking up trifles. I incorporated remote deserts [into Tang territories] as if they were my gardens; I crossed shifting sands as if they were ponds. People disobedient to the Yellow Emperor and countries insubordinate to [the sage king] Yao have now offered tributes [to China]. … This is also known in the world. Moreover, we have enjoyed bumper harvests for years. Families have adequate supplies, and people live contentedly. … Even though the surplus grain is more than enough for army provisions, I shall not burden my people with transporting the grain. Instead I shall [order the troops] to bring along cattle and sheep as their provisions. … Isn’t this arrangement much better than before?

The edict ended by listing five advantages that would ensure the Tang troops a victory. The campaign was waged by a large country against a smaller one, by a righteous country against an evil one, by a stable country against one torn by internal chaos, by energetic troops against a fatigued enemy, and by a force of happy soldiers against one of grumbling soldiers. “Why should we worry that we cannot conquer Koguryŏ? This should be announced to the common people so as to dispel their doubts and fears.”241

Emperor Taizong, however, failed to convince many of his courtiers (p.270) to support his operation. After reaching the eastern capital, Luoyang, on his way to Koguryŏ, he availed himself of the advice of Zheng Yuanshu, a veteran of the Sui dynasty campaign against Koguryŏ. Zheng highlighted two tactical difficulties for his master: the logistics for the Tang troops and the stubborn Koguryŏ defense. But Emperor Taizong paid no heed to his opinions: “Times have changed, my chamberlain. You just wait for the news [of victory].”242

Also in Luoyang, Li Daliang, who had earlier used the “trunk and branches” metaphor to analyze Tang’s external relations, considered the Korea campaign a grave strategic mistake. Seriously ill, Li managed to memorialize the emperor from his deathbed, urging him to abort the operation: “I sincerely hope Your Majesty would focus your attention on the Guanzhong area. That is where the royal ancestral shrine is located.”243 His words also fell on deaf ears.

The emperor was increasingly driven by thoughts of revenge, not by rationality. He told his entourage in Dingzhou (present-day Dingzhou, Hebei province): “The Liaodong area used to be China’s territory. But the Sui court could not recover it after four campaigns. Embarking on an eastern expedition, I now want to revenge the sons and younger brothers [whose fathers and elder brothers were killed in Koguryŏ] as well as the Koguryŏ ministers and commoners [whose lord was murdered].” In Emperor Taizong’s mind, conquest of Koguryŏ would leave his successors a secured eastern frontier and thus be his great service to the country.244

The way events unfolded in Koguryŏ surprised Emperor Taizong, however. Kaesomun’s rivals in western Koguryŏ did not welcome Taizong as a liberator, nor did they revolt against the usurper. Instead, they staged a stubborn resistance at the city of Anshi and frustrated Taizong’s first attempt to subjugate Koguryŏ.

Returning to the capital, Emperor Taizong reflected on his setback in Koguryŏ. He acknowledged tactical errors,245 but he refused to admit that his plan of conquering and transforming Koguryŏ into Chinese territory was fundamentally flawed. His mentality of denial was apparent in a conversation with the crown prince in the first month of 648, when he gave the prince a copy of How to Be an Emperor (Difan), which he had recently completed. He told his successor: “You should model yourself on the sage kings, not me, because I have made many mistakes since my enthronement.” He then mentioned such misconduct as his luxurious lifestyle, wasteful construction projects, extravagant hunting tours, and expensive travel arrangements but said not a single word about his failure in Koguryŏ.246

In fact, Emperor Taizong had criticized warmongers in “Reviewing Preparations for War,” section 11 of his work. He wrote: “Weapons and (p.271) armor are baleful instruments of the state. Though his territories be extensive, if a ruler loves warfare, then his people will be weakened. Even if his kingdom is at peace, if the ruler anxiously engages himself in warfare, then his people will be endangered.”247 The emperor certainly did not consider himself such a warmonger. But many Tang courtiers, including his favorite and outspoken concubine, Xu Hui, believed that their master had blundered in Koguryŏ because the operation was a case of excessive military aggression. In a memorial, she criticized her husband for “having used the exhaustible [resources derived from] farming to satisfy insatiable desires and having attempted to subjugate the insubordinate foreigners, thus causing casualties to our own army.” She concluded: “We have learned territorial expansion is not the way [to maintain] peace; an excessive burden on people is the cause for instability.”248

Emperor Taizong tolerated his concubine’s criticism, treating her with respect, but refused to change his mind about Koguryŏ.249 He soon started preparations for the second invasion of Koguryŏ. Fang Xuanling, an elder statesman who had served Emperor Gaozu and Emperor Taizong as chief minister for thirty-two years, became deeply worried. In the sixth month of 648, with his health fast deteriorating, he told his sons: “Now the whole world is in tranquillity, and everyone enjoys himself. The only exception to this state of affairs was the eastern expedition against Koguryŏ. And this will spell trouble for our country. Our master has made his decision out of indignation. But no one at the court has the courage to admonish him. I know [the campaign will fail]. If I do not speak up, I shall regret it even after my death.” Fang submitted a strong-worded memorial urging the emperor to cancel the campaign:

Your Majesty should be satisfied with your prestige and achievements, and stop territorial expansion. A remote barbarian country, Koguryŏ and its people are worthless scamps. They are unworthy of benevolent and righteous treatment. And we should not blame them for violating common rites. Since olden times, China has reared them as fish and turtles. Tolerance is the appropriate way to deal with them. If we exterminate them, they might fight to the death in desperation.

Fang argued that only the following situations would justify using force against Koguryŏ: should the Koguryŏ ruler violate Tang’s code of conduct for its outer subjects, should his troops harass the Tang people, and should his country became a constant source of worry for China. But “Koguryŏ is guilty of none of these three crimes. Yet we allow this country to burden China for nothing. [Our campaign] would merely avenge the former Koguryŏ king’s death and help Silla recover its lost (p.272) territories. Is this not losing the greater to obtain less?”250 Unfortunately, Fang could not stop the campaign. It was Taizong’s death in 649 that aborted his campaign.

Posthumous Canonization Titles as an Evolving Assessment of Emperor Taizong’s Rule

Taizong’s death left his successor, Emperor Gaozong, with a vast empire and a rich legacy of domestic and foreign policies. To address the deeds and accomplishments of his predecessor, the new emperor conferred upon Emperor Taizong the posthumous canonization title Cultured Emperor (Wen huangdi).251 At first glance this may seem to have attributed to Emperor Taizong an overarching moral goodness. But, in fact, the opposite was the case. In Tang dynasty political criticism, the word wen had been applied to such human personal qualities as “achieving order between Heaven and Earth (jingwei tiandi); being conversant with the Way and its power (daode bowen); being industrious in study and fond of inquiry (qinxue haowen); being kind, compassionate, and loving to people (cihui aimin); being graceful to people and in favor of ritual (minmin huili); and granting titles and ranks to the worthy (cimin juewei).”252 This sort of “culturedness” actually carried some of the sense of de, as in “to gain proper arrangement in affairs.” Furthermore, huang and di in the canonization title were similar words in that they described a ruler who “pacified people and acted on law” (jingmin zefa) and was “as virtuous as Heaven and Earth” (de xiang tiandi).253 The posthumous canonization title for Emperor Taizong thus praised mainly his political resourcefulness, his omniscience, his accommodation of the opinions of subordinates, and his manipulative use of ritual. To Emperor Gaozong, the achievements of his predecessor were to be found in pragmatic and utilitarian management of the Chinese and the non-Chinese, not in his personal moral excellence. The dynastic violence surrounding Emperor Taizong’s rise to the throne would in any event have mitigated the use of terms like “loyal and filial.”

In 674, Emperor Taizong became Wenwu sheng huangdi. This title recognized Emperor Taizong as a powerful emperor, able to put down rebellion by force (wu), make people obey by law (wen), appoint the right people for the right office, publicize the merits of his subordinates, and make taxation simple (sheng).254 The term wu, however, was also a criticism for overt ambition and eagerness in using force.255 Once again there was no praise of Emperor Taizong’s personal moral excellence. In 749, at a century’s distance, the character “great” (da) appeared in his title. And finally in 754, the character “filial” (xiao) was added,256 but its overall impact seems to have been relatively light. In assessing Emperor (p.273) Taizong via the formal system of canonization, successive Tang emperors chose not to refer to such Confucian moral standards as trustworthiness, righteousness, and loyalty.

It was Song dynasty scholars who first subjected Emperor Taizong to the prism of Confucian morality. The renowned historian Sima Guang (1019–1086) accused Emperor Taizong of lacking trustworthiness when he canceled the promised marriage alliance with the Xueyantuo in 643: “Tang Emperor Taizong already knew that he would not marry off a Tang princess to the Xueyantuo. This would have been acceptable if he had not promised the marriage in the first place. But he did, and then, relying on Tang military strength, violated his promise. He should have been ashamed of himself, even though he eventually destroyed the Xueyantuo. Alas, how could an emperor be so careless when he spoke and issued orders?”257 Fan Zuyu similarly blamed Emperors Gaozu and Taizong for their disregard of righteousness because they had once recognized the Turkic ruler as their overlord in exchange for Turkic support. “How could they account for this to their posterity?” He even criticized Emperor Taizong for having accepted the title Heavenly Qaghan in 630. To him, this was “an action that deviated from tradition.”258

The moral indignation of Sima and Fan was, however, misplaced. They failed to perceive that the background ideology for the foreign policy of Emperors Gaozu and Taizong was based on a very different set of moral principles.259 In their value system, efficacy, appropriateness, expedience, and mutual self-interest played prominent roles, not trust-worthiness and honesty.

Strategic Reorientation from the Northeast to the Northwest under Emperor Gaozong

Following in his father’s footsteps, Emperor Gaozong, who came to power in 650, focused attention almost entirely on Korean matters. His letters to Korean rulers were full of blunt instructions to advance Tang’s own agenda in Korea. In 651, he issued an edict to the Paekche king, instructing him to return the lands and people seized from Silla. The edict threatened: “You’d better ponder my words carefully. For the sake of your country’s well-being, you should weigh the circumstances and develop good plans that you will not regret later.”260 This edict was an ultimatum to Paekche. The emperor had concluded that he must first eliminate Paekche, the foe of Silla, in order for the latter to render full support to Tang’s ambition of annexing Koguryŏ. Tang forces destroyed Paekche in 660.

Sandwiched between Tang troops in the north and Tang-Silla joint (p.274) forces in the south, Koguryŏ was now doomed. Emperor Gaozong was delighted at this development, thinking that he could finally accomplish his father’s goal of destroying Koguryŏ. And he decided to personally participate in the campaign. Empress Wu was against her husband’s idea out of concern for his safety.261 It was Li Junqiu, prefect of Weizhou (present-day Lingqiu, Shanxi province), who was able to see the long-term strategic implication of this war to China: “Why should we use all our resources to engage Koguryŏ, a country that behaves like a rough-neck? If we destroy Koguryŏ, we must deploy soldiers to defend it. If we send in a small force, we are unable to demonstrate our army’s might. If we send in a large one, we will burden our people, who have to transport army provisions and to serve as frontier guards. It is better that we stop the expedition and leave Koguryŏ alone.”262

Emperor Gaozong never expected any negative consequence from occupying Koguryŏ. For him, a final victory over the enemy was too tempting an achievement to resist. Taking advantage of Koguryŏ’s internal disputes, he ordered massive military operations in the Liaodong area in 667. Many officials enthusiastically supported the campaign. They never questioned the legitimacy of the war.

Two months into Tang’s operation, however, something considered a bad omen for the emperor occurred. A comet appeared near the Wuche constellation, which Chinese astrologists associated with Chinese rulers. Emperor Gaozong regarded this as a sign of Heaven’s displeasure with his governance. He stopped holding court at the main audience hall, scaled down his daily meals, and canceled musical performance as gestures acknowledging his wrongdoings.263

It would have been better had the reflective emperor considered this comet a bad omen for his operation in Korea. Having conquered Koguryŏ in 668 and established an administrative apparatus to rule the acquired lands, the Tang troops now faced a new challenger: Silla, which had been Tang’s ally in destroying Koguryŏ but was now trying to expel the Tang forces in order to unify Korea on its own terms. Emperor Gaozong wanted to teach Silla a lesson. But Zhang Wenguan, a palace attendant who was on sick leave, felt compelled to stop the emperor from doing so. In 675, Zhang asked his servants to bring him to the palace in a palanquin, and he memorialized the emperor: “Tibet raided our frontiers recently. [After beating back the Tibetans], we have stationed troops in their territories. [In contrast,] Silla, though disobedient [to us], has never invaded China. If we launch campaigns in both the east and the west, I am afraid that our people will be overburdened. I wish [Your Majesty] would cease military actions [overseas] and cultivate virtue so as to pacify our people.”264 Emperor Gaozong accepted Zhang’s suggestion and scaled down China’s presence in Korea in 676.

(p.275) Zhang’s memorial conveyed an important message: Tibet was becoming a new threat to Tang. Similarly, the emperor’s decision to curtail Tang military operations in Korea signaled a new focus of Tang military strategy: from the northeast to the northwest. The root of these two important developments was China’s excessive involvement in Korea. To ensure sufficient forces for the massive operation in Korea and to avoid spreading the Tang forces too thin in the Western Regions, Emperor Gaozong had abandoned the Anxi protectorate as soon as he ascended the throne in 650. With Tang’s reduced military presence in these regions, Ashina Helu, the last Western Turkic ruler who had just surrendered to Tang in 648, rebelled in 651, subjecting local Tang authorities to a renewed Turkic threat. This development also encouraged Tibet to extend its influence into and eventually to become a major player in the Western Regions.

Tang’s new strategic orientation was thus a response to the new situation. It was also a tacit and reluctant acknowledgement of China’s inability to fight two major wars simultaneously: one in Korea and the other northwest of China. But this reorientation generated no immediate and effective measures to stop Tibet’s aggression.

In 678, an anxious Emperor Gaozong consulted officials from the Secretariat on the matter: “A bunch of contemptible wretches, the Tibetans have repeatedly attacked our frontiers. I have so far tried to pacify them rather than immediately eliminate them. Those cruel and evil barbarians, however, know nothing about gratitude. If I ignore them, they will continue harassing our borders. If I try to engage them, I do not have a good plan. You’d better speak your mind and deliberate the pros and cons [of your ideas].”265 His subjects proposed three options: a marriage alliance with Tibet, a consolidation of frontier defenses with-out directly engaging Tibet, and war.

The emperor was not keen on war with Tibet. “In the past few years,” he said, “we launched campaigns to eliminate Koguryŏ and Paekche. I still regret it because [these operations] greatly disturbed our country. Now Tibet has invaded us. What should be our strategy?” Liu Yizhi, a drafter from the Secretariat, advised his master to endure the humiliation: “The Tibetans now often raid our frontiers. And they are just like birds and beasts. If we acquire their lands, we cannot live there. If they humiliate us, we should not feel ashamed.” He urged the emperor not to take any immediate actions against Tibet. Guo Zhengyi, another drafter, was of the same opinion: “If we mount only a short counterattack, we shall damage our army’s image; if we launch a long-distance strike, we shall not be able to reach the Tibetans’ lair. I recommend we just conscript and dispatch a small number of soldiers to guard the frontiers. This will show [the Tibetans] where our beacon towers and outposts are, (p.276) thus deterring them from border raids. We will wait until our revenue is sufficient and our people are of one heart and one mind. After tolerating them for a few years, we will wipe out the Tibetans in one blow.” But Xue Yuanchao, the vice-director of the Secretariat, disagreed: “If we indulge the enemy, they will become real trouble. It is better that we attack them.” The participants of the meeting failed to produce a comprehensive policy toward Tibet.266

Without a well-conceived court strategy toward Tibet and the Western Turks, local Tang officials resorted to expedience (quan) to manage the situation. And they often did so under the pretext of appropriateness. Luo Hongyi, prefect of Xiyzhou, removed the moral gloss of righteousness from policy deliberation and based his proposal purely on China’s self-interest. He told the court: “We should stabilize China by trust but control foreign countries by expedience. We should modify principles in light of specific conditions and not always handle matters by established rules.”267 The lack of consensus on a Tibet policy led to further deterioration of the situation in the Western Regions. In 679, Tang forces managed to recover the Anxi protectorate from Tibet. But, in the same year, the Western Turkic leader, Ashina Duzhi, linked up with the Tibetans and subjected the protectorate to a joint attack. The Tang presence in the regions was in jeopardy. Some Tang courtiers proposed a punitive campaign to repel the invaders. But Pei Xingjian, vicedirector of the Ministry of Personnel, expressed his misgivings: “[Liu] Shenli has just died [in battles with the Tibetans at Lake Kokonor]. While fighting [with Tibet] continues, how can we send another force to the west?” Accepting Pei’s argument, Emperor Gaozong took no action to remedy the situation. The Four Garrisons soon fell again.268

This incident impelled the pacifist courtiers to defend their stance. Chen Zi’ang, a Presented Scholar of 681, came up with a new argument: “China can enjoy eternal peace without terminating the foreigners” (Rongdi buzu mie, Zhongguo ke yongning). He petitioned the court to cease all military operations abroad so as to lighten ordinary people’s burden:

Successive wars, excessive taxes, and unbearable labor and military services [imposed on people] are the most pressing issues for our country. Your Majesty always wants to bring peace and spread culture to the people but has been unsuccessful in doing so. Why? [This is because] when troops are assembled, supplies must be provided for them. And before they engage enemies 10,000 li away, provisions need to be transported thousands of li [to feed them first]. If we station one hundred thousand soldiers in a place, one million locals will be unable to live and work in peace and contentment. When they need to offer labor (p.277) services [to the army], how could they find peace? For more than a decade, our country has engaged the northern barbarians in numerous campaigns but has reaped no real benefit [from these actions]. Does China have no strategy to subdue the enemy? Does the court have no officials capable of brilliant planning? My answer is positive.

The problem is that the [previous] court plans [miaosuan] are based on careless calculation. … The Turks are merely contemptible wretches. They are unworthy of our effort to terminate them. … Now our country will launch yet another campaign [against them]. I hope that Your Majesty will scrutinize the court plan, weighing its gains and losses, and its advantages and disadvantages. … My humble opinion is that [the campaign] will exhaust our people and destroy tranquillity. It is my hope that, when deliberating the court plan, Your Majesty will carefully consider my words: China can enjoy lasting peace without terminating the foreigners.

Chen Zi’ang distilled his arguments into one issue: a ruler’s ability to handle a situation competently. He wrote: “Potential crises always exist in the world. [How the ruler] handles the situation will result in either misfortune or good fortune [for his country and people]. If he avoids rash actions in a crisis [jijing], good fortune will follow. However, if he reacts to the crisis in a reckless way [jidong], misfortune will result.”269

Chen’s argument bore the strong influence of Wei Zheng’s idea concerning rash actions (dong) and refraining from such actions (jing). His thinking was typical among Tang courtiers who were struggling to come to terms with Tibet’s presence in the Western Regions.

From Containment to Negotiation: Empress Wu’s Evolving Approach to Tibet

When she came to power in 684, Empress Wu Zetian faced a strong and vast Tibetan empire that had annexed Yangtong in the west, the Four Garrisons in the northwest, and the Dangxiang tribe in the northeast. Formulating appropriate and effective policies to handle this rival became a crucial test of her ability to rule. In court deliberations, the empress and her courtiers used appropriateness as the most important criterion to evaluate all policy proposals.270 A case in point was the scrutiny of a decision that the empress made in 685. This concerned a general and his 30,000 cavalrymen conscripted from the ten surrendered Western Turkic tribes in the Altai Mountain region. After crushing a local rebellion, the Turkic chieftains requested a court reception in the capital, hoping to receive a generous reward from the court. The empress, however, refused their request because they had disobeyed her (p.278) order not to attack the Uighurs during the campaign. She ordered them to disband in Liangzhou before returning home.

Chen Zi’ang, who was now a proofreader in the Editorial Service of the Palace Library, considered this decision inappropriate: the rejection unnecessarily disappointed the Turks, who had not only supported the court in suppressing the rebels, but had also provided themselves with horses and provisions during the operation. Chen even worried that the Turks might rebel. Allowing the relations with the Turks to deteriorate for no good reason was obviously an inappropriate move.271

One year later, in 686, the empress designed a containment strategy for Tibet. As the first step, the court would appoint a surrendered Koguryŏ ruler Commandery Prince of Chaoxian, a move designed to secure China’s eastern frontiers and to allow China to concentrate its efforts on Tibet.272 In the next step, the court would open a new front against Tibet in western Sichuan. A road would be built in mountainous Yazhou. Troops would then be sent to subjugate the local tribes, transforming their places into a springboard for targeting Tibet.273 But Chen Zi’ang considered this scheme self-defeating:

Since the founding of Tang, tribes in Yazhou have never caused us any trouble. If we attack those innocent tribesmen, they will hate us profoundly. And their fear of elimination will impel them to rebel. When that happens, frontier [officials] in Shu [Sichuan] will have to organize defenses, which they will have to maintain for a long time. In your stupid subject’s opinion, trouble in western Shu will start right from this [policy].

I have learned that Tibet has always wanted to seize richly endowed Shu but has not made any move because high mountains, deep rivers, and narrow passes will hinder [their] operation. Now we want to disturb these tribesmen and open a route in the mountains. This will cause them to flee and to become guides to the Tibetans. [These developments] will amount to sending soldiers to the Tibetans, opening a route for them, and handing the entirety of Shu to them. Shu has been a treasure vault for China. To obtain advantages by sheer luck, some powerful courtiers now want to engage these tribes. But even if we acquire their lands, we cannot till them; even if we seize their valuables, we will not become [enormously] rich. These moves will merely waste our resources and damage Your Majesty’s moral virtues. Besides, we are unsure whether the operation will succeed.

Shu counts on its natural barriers [for defense]. The locals have been peaceful because we have not imposed on them any labor services. Now we want to force its people to labor to make the place accessible. But this accessibility will benefit only the Tibetans, and causing (p.279) the locals to labor will waste our money and manpower. … If we engage the local tribes and the Tibetans for no good reason, your subject [dares] predict that Shu will become Tibet’s territory within a century.

In the last section of his memorial, Chen Zi’ang persuaded Empress Wu not to open a second front in Yazhou because people in Shandong, the metropolitan area, Qinghai, and Gansu suffered from hunger and were destitute. He warned the empress: if she were to “follow ambitious officials’ suggestions, mobilize the soldiers, and burden the people with laborious services,” China’s decline would be inevitable. He pleaded: “From antiquity, a country’s fall has always been due to excessive use of force. Your Majesty, please consider this very carefully!”274

Other officials shared Chen’s opinion: China should concentrate on fighting the Tibetans in Gansu and Qinghai, not divert its forces to western Sichuan or to the Western Regions. They even wanted the court to abandon the Four Garrisons, which the Chinese forces had just recovered at great cost in 692. They believed that this act would cause China no harm, just as Emperor Gaozong had forgone the Tang protectorates in Korea in the 670s. But they badly misjudged the situation. While Silla posed no threat to Tang’s northeastern frontier after Tang had given up its protectorates in Korea, China’s retreat from the Four Garrisons was an entirely different matter. It would certainly invite Tibet to take these garrisons over, thus jeopardizing China’s interest in the Western Regions. Cui Rong strongly objected to these officials’ suggestion. He compared their idea to “undermining one’s own achievements and abandoning a perfect strategy.”275

Empress Wu now faced a difficult choice: to contain Tibet, Chinese military needed to maintain its presence both at the Four Garrisons and in the Gansu-Qinghai region. China’s limited resources, however, could not support such a grand plan. This dilemma compelled the empress and her courtiers seriously to consider nonmilitary solutions to its conflicts with Tibet. Out of spirited debates came a new policy: treating Tibet as a peer state and using appropriateness to guide negotiations with the Tibetans.

Playing the Game of Constructive Ambiguity

The first instance of this new policy was Guo Yuanzhen’s mission to Tibet in 696. The instruction Guo received from Empress Wu was to find “the appropriate way” to handle Tibet’s request for a marriage alliance with China. He came back in 697 to inform the court that Tibet’s request for marriage was only part of its overall peace proposal, which consisted of two other important terms: China should forgo control of (p.280) the Four Garrisons and of the areas where the ten Western Turkic tribes lived. China should also cede the Qinghai region to Tibet. The empress and her court were in a quandary: accepting the proposal would adversely affect China’s interest in the Western Regions. But a blunt refusal would be diplomatically imprudent.

In a memorial submitted to the throne, Guo strongly argued against any move that would “drag China into war with foreigners and let external affairs exhaust the country.” He advised the court to play the game of constructive ambiguity to handle the thorny situation: “We should not deliver Tibet a blunt rejection even if we want to turn down its requests. Otherwise, they will feel frustrated and cause trouble for us. In your subject’s humble opinion … we’d better keep Tibet’s hope for peace alive so that they will not immediately turn hostile [toward] us.”276

Guo urged the empress to employ three criteria to assess policy proposals: the impact of a policy on internal and external affairs; the losses and gains the policy in question would incur; and the convenience and inconvenience to the people should the policy be implemented. To Guo, an experienced ruler should always “take as his priority [proper] management of domestic affairs so as to effectively fend off external threats. He should not let his ambitions about foreign soils adversely affect domestic matters.” And his ultimate goal should always be “bringing benefit to the common people.”277

Di Renjie’s Strategy of “Passive Military Response and Active Consolidation of Defense”

Di Renjie, vice-director of the Chancellery, held an opinion similar to Guo Yuanzhen’s: any foreign policy must be constructed on the principle of “strengthening China’s fundamentals and pacifying its people” (guben anmin). The core of Di’s foreign policy was passive response to aggression and active consolidation of China’s defenses. In 697, Di wrote in a long memorial:

If we march our soldiers to territories beyond China in order to achieve military aims, we will deplete our resources in such battles for barren lands. Though we capture the local people, they will not contribute to our tax revenue. And if we seize their lands, our people will not [migrate there to] till and weave. We will merely seek the empty reputation of having Sinicized the non-Chinese in remote regions, while ignoring the policy of strengthening China’s fundamental needs and pacifying its people. … Recently we have frequently initiated campaigns at great expense. We have defended the Four Garrisons in the west and the Andong (p.281) protectorate in the east. The number of soldiers and the amount of goods sent [to the frontiers] increase daily. Our people are exhausted. Now the people in the Guandong region suffer from hunger, and those in Shu and Han flee from their homes. In areas south of the Yangzi River and the Huai River, excessive levies have driven people to abandon their occupations and become bandits. When the fundamental requirements [of the country] have been weakened, catastrophic disasters follow. And this is due to our desire for the barren foreign lands and to our deviation from the sage kings’ way of nurturing all people in the world.

To help the court cut defense spending, Di suggested an alternative arrangement: this was to appoint a pro-China Turkic leader as the new qaghan responsible for protecting the Four Garrisons and similarly to revive the Koguryŏ royal house and put its head in charge of defending the Andong protectorate.278 To Di, eliminating the Turks and the Tibetans was beyond China’s ability. China should therefore be content with securing the borders with them:

We should instruct frontier officials to strengthen their defenses, construct more watchtowers, and conserve goods and supplies. They should wait for the enemy to make the first move before launching a counterattack. Waiting for the enemy to exhaust themselves will double our soldiers’ strength. Resisting an invading force will put us in an advantageous position. When we strengthen our defenses and clear our fields, the invaders will gain nothing. If they launch a deep attack, they have to worry about the difficulties awaiting them. If they harass our borders, they benefit little from the action. With this strategy in place for a few years, we would not need any operation before the Turks and the Tibetans surrender to us.

Many contemporaries of Di considered his proposal well conceived, but the empress ignored it. Nevertheless, she acknowledged the importance of Di’s idea regarding “fundamental needs” in decision making. And she agreed with him that her envoys, in the name of forging friendly ties, should travel to Tibet to sow seeds of distrust between dovish and hawkish Tibetan officials. This stratagem worked brilliantly. The Tibetan ruler purged a leading Tibetan hawk, forcing his younger brother and sons to flee to China.279

Just as had Guo Yuanzhen and Di Renjie, many officials at Empress Wu’s court harbored deeply entrenched distrust of the Tibetans and the Turks. Some even considered normal contacts with foreigners detrimental (p.282) to Tang’s security. Xue Deng, Assistant Director of the Left in the Department of State Affairs, submitted a memorial in 695 to express his concern over two court practices: keeping foreign princes as attendants (i.e., hostages) to the empress and allowing foreign visitors unrestricted access to Chinese culture. He wrote:

Some Turks, Tibetans, and the Khitan have become well versed in Chinese language and laws. … They have learned from our national histories the lessons of governance and of national security. They know the real conditions of our border defenses and the accessibility of our mountains and rivers. We have [even] entrusted some of them with pacification tasks, allowing them to offer to serve [our court]. We have also sympathized with those wishing to observe mourning for their parents, permitting them to leave for home. Although these practices have won our country the reputation of Sinicizing the barbarians, they have also broadened the barbarians’ knowledge of our alliances and strategies. We may derive a temporary pleasure from their visit and their admiration of our country. But they soon become ungrateful after their visit. They often wage war against us as soon as they return home. The troubles along our borders originate precisely from these practices.280

This distrust grew into hostility after the Turks had subjected northern China to repeated assaults. Even Di Renjie, who had once voiced a strong objection to military actions beyond the Chinese borders, changed his stance. He took part in a major military operation in 698. A main Chinese striking force and a reinforcement of 300,000 and 150,000 soldiers respectively first engaged the Turks in Zhaozhou (present-day Zhaoxian, Hebei province) and Dingzhou, and then pursued them to the Gobi Desert, but to no avail.281

China now had better control of its northern frontiers, although its relations with the Tibetans and the Turks remained unstable. Reflecting on early Tang’s external relations and examining the status quo, officials at Empress Wu’s court came up with their own understanding of China’s geopolitical environment. They identified eight countries and their relations with China as having direct impacts on China’s interests: Korea in the east; Bosi (Iran), Jiankun (a tribe active at the upper reaches of Yenisei River, Central Siberia), and Tubo in the west and the southwest; Zhenla (Cambodia) in the south; and the Turks, the Khitan, and the Malgal in the north and the northeast.282 However, they remained deeply divided on how China could best advance its interests in this complex international environment.

(p.283) Emperor Xuanzong’s “Ambition to Annex Foreigners in All Quarters”

After his ascendency to the throne in 712, Emperor Xuanzong took two years to ponder his foreign policy. In the tenth month of 713, he consulted Yao Chong on state affairs. Yao raised ten policy issues, one of which was foreign relations. He put this question to the emperor: “Since the Chuigong reign period [685–688], our court has lost many troops [in battles with Tibet] in Qinghai. But the court never regretted having conducted these burdensome and wasteful campaigns. I hope that in the following three to ten years, Your Majesty will not seek any military exploits on the frontiers. Can you follow my advice?” The emperor gave him a positive reply.283 But merely one year later, Emperor Xuanzong broke his promise. He made it clear that military force, not diplomacy, was his preferred way of handling foreign rivals. In an edict issued in the sixth month of 714, the emperor praised Xue Na, defense commissioner of Longyou, for having expelled the Tibetans from Tang borders. He also expected Xue to exterminate the Tibetans soon.284

Four months later, the news of a recent Tibetan raid on Weiyuan reached the court. The emperor immediately issued a strongly worded edict to denounce the aggressor and to announce that he would personally lead a counterattack. To Emperor Xuanzong, sending a punitive force against Tibet was an entirely righteous action.285 Later, in the twelfth month, the emperor canceled his participation in the campaign. But he reiterated that “if the barbarians cause trouble, we must eliminate them.”286

Tang generals regarded these edicts as proclamations of their master’s desire to achieve military gains during his reign. Acting on this message, Guo Qianguan, Grand Protector of the Anxi protectorate, requested permission to conscript ten thousand soldiers from the Guanzhong area and send them to Anxi to put down local insurgencies. On their way to Anxi, these soldiers, their battle horses, and their pack animals were also to receive prepared food and forage from the local authorities. Guo soon received the permission.

Wei Cou, Chamberlain for the Palace Buildings, questioned this decision. He wrote in a petition: “Foreigners in the Western Regions have been [generally] submissive [to Tang], even though they have [some-times] engineered minor disturbances. Tang soldiers [stationed in Anxi] should be able to handle them. … The campaign [that Guo suggested] lacks a righteous cause.” Moreover, the proposed conscription would weaken the defenses of the Guanzhong area, where the capital, Chang’an, was located. Guo’s proposal thus seriously violated the basic (p.284) military principle that Chang’an’s security should always hold top priority in all strategy. Wei cautioned the court: “We must be mindful of possible danger in a time of peace. We must base good governance on preparedness. And good governance starts from the center and expands outward. [And this governance is like a tree that has] a strong trunk and weaker branches.” Wei belittled the proposed campaign as entirely inappropriate. He suggested that court officials should carefully calculate the expenses the campaign would incur. “The advantages and disadvantages [of launching the operation] will then become apparent immediately.” Yao Chong, now a chief minister, also supported Wei’s objection. But the emperor turned a deaf ear to them. The costly campaign went ahead but achieved no significant result.287

The disappointing outcome of the operation in Anxi alerted Song Jing, another chief minister. He considered the operation a selfish means for Guo Qianguan to gain imperial favor. He was concerned that other Tang generals would follow Guo’s suit. They might exaggerate or even engineer border incidents and then wage wasteful and unnecessary battles to establish their own military merit. To discourage generals from taking such reckless actions, Song sent them a signal by according an unconventional treatment to Hao Lingquan, a general from the Anxi protectorate who had managed to obtain the head of the Turkic leader Mochuo, killed by Bayirku tribesmen in 715. Presenting the head to the court, Hao believed that he had performed a great service to the emperor, thus deserving a generous reward. But Song Jing bitterly disappointed him. Song not only drastically reduced Hao’s reward, but also decided to delay his promotion to Commandant of the Right Military Guard for more than a year. An enraged Hao staged a hunger strike to protest and died soon afterward.288

Although high-handed, Song Jing’s treatment of Hao had nothing to do with a personal feud. It was based on a legitimate concern: to restrain the hawkish generals from unnecessary operations so that the military budget would not balloon beyond control. And Song’s concern was well justified.

As China entered into a period of bumper harvests and tranquillity in the late 710s, Emperor Xuanzong began to crave success in grandiose schemes.289 On the foreign front, he developed “an ambition to annex foreigners in all quarters” (tun siyi zhi zhi).290 Tang forces conducted extensive campaigns to enhance the Tang presence in the Western Regions. In 715, the protector-general of Anxi organized and marched local tribesmen in Qiuci westward to sack hundreds of fortresses. This operation stunned countries in the Western Regions. Eight of them submitted to Tang.291 Another campaign in 721 subjugated the rebellious tribes in Lanchi (near present-day Lingwu county, Gansu province).292 (p.285) And in 726 the Tang troops scored a major victory over Tibet at Dafeichuan. Zheng Qing, a contemporary Tang author, vividly described the situation: “Merely six to seven years into the Kaiyuan reign period [713–741], Tang has reached great stability and prosperity. … [The court] has transformed various states in the Anxi region into prefectures and counties. If one leaves the Kaiyuan Gate [of the capital Chang’an] and journeys to the west for 10,000 li, he would still be within the Tang territories.”293 In fact, an announcement was posted on the gate to inform travelers: “This road extends for 9,900 li to the west.”294

Emperor Xuanzong was now convinced that using force was the best approach to bring foreigners to heel.295 This mentality manifested itself prominently in the emperor’s remarks on Tibet and other tribes deemed hostile to China. Using derogatory rhetoric, he called Tibet “a minor barbarian country” and denegrated its ruler as “a contemptible wretch.”296 In a threatening tone, he told his subjects in 727: “The elimination of Tibet can be expected.”297 And in 740 he reiterated: “The barbarians will be soon destroyed.”298 The emperor’s edict concerning an expedition against the Yuexi tribe was equally frightening. He instructed his general: “You must strike directly at [the enemy’s] den and prevent them from fleeing. Your operation will ensure that they will be totally eliminated.”299

The Antiwar Voice

Emperor Xuanzong’s hawkish approach to external relations invited strong criticism from some of his senior officials. In the early 710s, Su Ting, a Manager of Affairs, jointly with the Secretariat-Chancellery, voiced a strong objection to the emperor’s decision to personally lead a campaign to punish the Tibetans who had repeatedly raided the Tang borders. Su believed that the best way to manage the Tibetans was to “keep them out when they invade [China] but not to pursue them when they retreat.” He advised the emperor to treat military operations as hunting tours: “A [true] king would not [bother to] shoot a bird whose feathers cannot be used [as decoration for] his costume; nor would he kill a beast whose flesh cannot be used as sacrifice to the ancestral altar. We know that a heavy crossbow should not be employed to shoot a mouse. [Similarly,] a king, commanding tens of thousands of chariots, should not bother to compete over supremacy with dogs and sheep, or mosquitoes and gadflies. And the Son of Heaven should not treat foreigners’ [unruly] behavior as a real insult to him.”300

Emperor Xuanzong, however, did not consider Tibet’s aggression as a negligible mosquito bite. He insisted on personal participation in the campaign. Su Ting memorialized again that “a king’s troops should (p.286) launch only a punitive expedition, not [a full-scale] war. When a foreign ruler neglects his tributary duties, the king’s troops will descend on the suburbs [of his capital] but will not advance any further if he offers an explanation [for the negligence]. A king should never put on armor and personally lead an army to intimidate his enemy to surrender.” Su wanted his master to learn from the legendary Yellow Emperor, who, having stabilized China, “lived in leisure, devoted himself to self-cultivation, and practiced nonaction in governance.” Su listed three reasons for abandoning the campaign: first, the destitute Hexi and the Longyou regions could not support a large military operation. Second, the Tang force would have difficulty engaging the Tibetan forces, which were highly mobile and would just disperse before being attacked. And third, the hardship that the emperor had to endure during the campaign would adversely affect his health. To Su, “a good plan” to manage Tibet was for the emperor “to choose [suitable] generals to strengthen border defenses, to attend to state affairs, and to cultivate their own moral characters diligently.”301 Emperor Xuanzong eventually gave up his participation in the campaign. But the campaign proceeded as planned.

The Tang troops soon scored a major victory over Tibet. This further convinced Emperor Xuanzong that “kings and emperors must show their prowess when the barbarians disturb China.”302 During a court audience, the emperor penned a poem for Zhang Yue, Minister of War, and entrusted him with a “grand plan” of organizing an operation in Shuofang: “You will pacify the remote countries by spear and sword, and order our generals to appease the frontiers.”303 In support of the emperor’s plan, Zhang Yue responded in his poem: “After successive major campaigns, a society of well-to-do families can be expected.”304 Other officials present at the audience wished him success in fulfilling his duties.305 But Zhang Jiuling, an outspoken Secretariat director, availed himself of this audience to raise his objection: “Stopping all warfare should be the court’s grand plan.”306

Huangfu Weiming was another antiwar senior official. In a court discussion in 730, he argued that operation against Tibet merely offered Tang frontier officials and generals a chance to embezzle public funds, to steal official goods, and to advance their careers by exaggerating their achievements: “These [campaigns] benefit only treacherous officials. Protracted wars are no blessing to our country. They have cost the court a thousand pieces of gold a day, and they have brought destitution to people in the Hexi and Longyou regions.”307

Du Fu (712–770), the great Tang poet, perhaps best captured the horrifying impact of war on common people in a poem. He also angrily denounced the expansionist emperor: “Our lord is already rich in lands; yet how wide he extends the frontiers!”308 To both Huangfu and Du, (p.287) peace with Tibet through forging a marriage alliance was the way to “bring tranquillity to the frontiers and the way to stabilize our people for generations to come.”309

Soft Power in Emperor Xuanzong’s Strategy

Although prone to using force in external relations, Emperor Xuanzong understood the limits of sheer force and the need to forge a more comprehensive form of power to achieve his goals abroad. This power would combine the hard power of military might and the softer powers of the moral influence of the Son of Heaven, the attractiveness of Chinese material culture and political institutions, and marriage alliances with foreign rulers, among other methods.

As a result of this understanding, the emperor released foreigners kept at the court as hostages. This gesture was meant to “promote virtue untiringly to soften the non-Chinese, and to employ inner truth [zhongfu] to gain their trust.”310 This gesture was necessary because in Chinese tradition “inner truth” was a state of mind that was “free of prejudices and open to truth.” It was “from this state of mind [that] springs the correct attitude toward the outside world.” Inner truth was thus part of the foundation of appropriate foreign policy.311 This gesture was also a display of “Great Tang’s grandest virtue,” the gist of which was “When foreigners come, we accept their tribute-paying courtesy. When they want to leave, we allow them to fulfill their desire to return to and live in their own countries. We are utterly sincere in our dealings with them. And we praise their full obedience.”312

This idea of “grandest virtue” was also behind Emperor Xuanzong’s decision to pardon a group of Tibetan prisoners of war in 724. He told them: “According to Tang law, you should all be sentenced to death. But I take pleasure in the welfare of all living things and frown upon killing. [This is my way to] nurture everything in the world. Although you are foreigners, you [as human beings] are the same as the Chinese. I have decided to spare your life so as to show [my intention of] benefiting all people.”313 Before recovering the important fortress of Anrong from Tibet in 740, the emperor emphasized that the military operation must go hand in hand with efforts to “win over foreigners’ hearts.”314

While resorting mainly to force to subjugate Tibet, Emperor Xuanzong did not give up diplomacy. The marriage alliance with Tibet that his predecessor, Emperor Zhongzong, had formed in 710 was still in place. And the Princess of Jincheng continued to play the role of an intermediary in the negotiations between the Tang and Tibet that eventually led to a peace agreement between the two countries in 730. From 713 to 745, Emperor Xuanzong also married Tang princesses to rulers (p.288) of the Turks, the Khitan, the Xi, and the Tuqishi so as to stabilize Tang’s northeastern and northwestern borders.315

Emperor Xuanzong’s use of comprehensive power achieved impressive results, of which compilers of the New Dynastic History of the Tang (Xin Tang shu) provided a vivid description:

Rulers of all places under Heaven swore their allegiance [to the Tang]; all the territories within the four seas became [Chinese] prefectures and counties. [Foreign rulers] respected the [Chinese] Son of Heaven and addressed him as the Heavenly Qaghan. Since the three sage kings’ time, no other Chinese emperors had ever managed to amass these achievements. Rulers in remote regions could not claim [to be the legitimate leaders of their respective] countries before they received official [Tang] seals.316 As soon as they failed to fulfill their obligations [to China, the Tang court would] eliminate or subjugate them. As a result, foreign envoys came one after another to present treasures and valuables [to China].317

These brilliant achievements abroad, however, came with an exorbitant price tag. From the 710s to the early 740s, Tang’s annual military expenditure was about 2 million strings of copper cash. This figure increased sixfold in the following decade. From 742 to 756, every year the court used more than 10 million bolts of cloth for military uniforms and almost 2 million dan of grain as provisions for soldiers. The annual military budget now amounted to 12 million strings of copper cash.318 The political advantages of keeping closer ties between China and foreign countries also imposed a huge financial burden on China. In receiving foreign visitors, the Tang court needed to provide them with lavish gifts, provisions, and relay station services. The court also needed to dispatch envoys to attend such costly events as the investitures or the funeral ceremonies for foreign rulers.

Moreover, this excessive expansionist policy exposed the Tang court to considerable domestic risks. Military campaigns offered frontier generals opportunities to augment their power. This eventually led to the outbreak in 755 of the An Lushan Rebellion, which would last for seven years. This domestic turmoil drastically reduced Tang’s comprehensive power and brought Emperor Xuanzong’s expansionist policy to an abrupt end. The court hurriedly withdrew its main forces from the Western Regions to defend the capital and instructed other frontier generals to fight the rebels. The rebellion was eventually put down with the help of the Uighurs and the Tibetans.319

The withdrawal of Tang forces from the Western Regions left China’s northwestern borders vulnerable. It also fundamentally altered the (p.289) power relationship between the Tang and its western neighbors. China was now strategically on the defensive. With a few exceptions, the strategic thinking of successive Tang emperors and their courtiers from the late 750s until the collapse of the Tang was oriented toward maintaining the status quo along Chinese borders. The Tang court also reluctantly resorted to the help of friendly foreign forces to tackle domestic unrest and to defend its borders.

Some one hundred years later, Emperor Xuanzong (r. 847–859) described this saddening situation in an edict: “Toward the end of the Tianbao reign period [742–756], the barbarians took advantage of our crises at home and our inability to fend off devils abroad. They [invaded China], bringing their goatish odor to places near the metropolitan region. During the following ten emperors’ reigns of almost a century, the Presented Scholars spared no effort to form a permanent strategy [to handle the situation] when their abilities were tested [by the emperor]. The court also instructed its officials to speak their minds when deliberating [defense matters]. They all concluded that the perfect plan was to take no initiative along the borders and that the obvious principle was to defend Tang’s territories [but not try to recover lost lands].”320

Indeed, formulating a “permanent” and holistic strategy that would balance the competing needs of domestic and foreign affairs was a real challenge for any Tang emperor and his subjects. It was perhaps just as the Chinese saying goes: “Only a sage can properly manage both his own and other people’s matters.”321

Enlisting Foreign Help to Crush Domestic Rebels under Emperors Suzong and Dezong

During his short reign of six years, Emperor Suzong adopted a conciliatory foreign policy that would allow him to concentrate on the urgent task of crushing the rebels at home. He entertained Tibet’s repeated requests for negotiation of a peace agreement, although Tibet soon revealed its insincerity by its subsequent raids on the Tang.322 The emperor also formed a close relationship with the Uighurs, whose military services were now indispensable to China in suppressing the domestic insurgents. But the Uighur assistance came at an exorbitant price: they requested endless rewards. While offering their military services, they abducted local people. When staying in the capital, they beat some court officials to death. They even humiliated the Tang crown prince, the future Emperor Daizong.323

After Emperor Dezong ascended the throne in 780, his court worked hard to enhance central authority over local governments and the military governors who had disproportionally augmented their (p.290) power during the suppression of domestic insurrection. Tang China entered a period of reform and resurgence. On the foreign front, the emperor employed a dual tactic of force and pacification to deal with Tibet. In an edict issued in 780 to Tang generals stationed in Sichuan, the emperor wrote: “When the barbarians raid our fortresses, we are to attack them. When they surrender to us, we are to repatriate them. By attacking them we show our power; by repatriating them we show our trustworthiness. Without power and trustworthiness, how will we be able to pacify the remote barbarians?”324 The last sentence in this edict was not just a new emperor’s superficial gesture of reconciliation toward Tibet. One year later, in 781, the emperor made it clear that he was serious about peace with Tibet when he consented to Tibet’s territorial requests. New domestic developments forced him to make this decision: from 781 to 784, the military governors of four garrisons east of the capital rebelled. One of them, Zhu Ci, even briefly seized Chang’an and declared a new dynasty. Emperor Dezong realized that his court could not afford a war with Tibet when it was preoccupied with handling this domestic emergency. The emperor promised Tibet cession of Xi Yizhou and Beiting in exchange for its assistance in fighting the rebels. The court would take four years to eventually subjugate the rebels in 784.325

The foreign policies of Emperors Suzong and Dezong invited bitter criticism from Song dynasty scholars. They described these policies as “countering internal chaos with an external calamity” and as “satisfying one’s hunger with a poisonous vine.” In their eyes, the two emperors were cowardly and fatuous, and their policies had caused endless troubles for China.326 These harsh remarks about Emperors Suzong and Dezong were, however, misplaced. These two emperors entered into compromising relationships with the Uighurs and the Tibetans out of necessity: to secure assistance indispensable for crushing renegade Tang frontier generals and tribal chieftains. They had no other choice.

Accepting Fluidity as the Norm of International Relations

Emperor Dezong’s foreign policy was based on an understanding that the world had changed. Secure borders and effective control over external relations was China’s past glory. In this new world, China needed to accept uncertainty and fluidity as the norm of foreign relations. In managing these intricate relations, the Tang court could no longer rely mainly on China’s questionable military power to confront enemies but had to rely increasingly on forging alliances with unpleasant, opportunistic, and expensive foreign partners.

Many Tang courtiers supported Emperor Dezong’s assessment of the international scene. Lu Zhi, a Hanlin academician, submitted a memorial (p.291) to the court in 793 in which he thoroughly analyzed the pros and cons of traditional strategic ideas before proposing a way of managing frontier matters:

Those who support the established [world] order assert that virtue should be used to edify people in remote regions. They, however, fail to realize that virtue without [the backing of effective military] power cannot subdue [the foreigners]. Those who prefer military solutions argue that without force ruffians cannot be suppressed. But they fail to understand that one cannot rely solely on force without cultivating virtue. Those keen on forging marriage alliances claim that such alliances would create harmony with one’s neighbors. But they do not under-stand that, although we may initiate an alliance, they [the foreign rulers] could always abandon it. Those who admire the Great Wall believe that fortifying natural barriers would enhance the country’s defense and deter invaders. But they fail to see that no one can hold on to a natural barrier with insufficient strength and a poorly trained army. And those who place high value on punitive expeditions insist that expelling and deterring [invaders would] stop their harassment and violence in the future and free [people from the burden] of the labor services and taxes [needed for an all-out war]. They, however, do not realize that without well-trained soldiers and well-built fortresses, they would succeed in neither deterring nor expelling [the enemy].327

Lu Zhi believed none of these ideas was to be taken as the ultimate principle for foreign policy since each was biased in its own way: “If we believe in one idea, we can always [find isolated incidents to] prove its credibility. However, if we examine the implementation [of a specific idea] in the past [as a whole], we find that the outcomes of it vary. The idea in question sometimes succeeded but sometimes failed.” The problem was that advocates of a specific idea “regarded [their own way of thinking] as the convention, which they then used to handle dynamic situations. Stubbornly adhering to their respective ideas, they failed to give their contemporary situations due consideration.”328

This observation led Lu Zhi to conclude that one must carefully weigh the situation and act in an appropriate manner in external relations: “China sometimes enjoys prosperity but suffers decline at other times. The same holds true with foreign countries. The unfolding of an event could therefore bring about either advantage or disadvantage [to China] depending on the occasion. [Similarly,] the way to tackle an event can result in either safety or danger. There is neither a norm to follow nor an ever-victorious strategy to adopt [in managing foreign relations]. If we understand only a specific matter, not the [whole] context of its occurrence, (p.292) we shall fail [in managing it properly]. But if we [adapt our policy] according to the contemporary situation, we shall succeed. How can we abide by only one idea when events occur in different contexts?”329

Lu Zhi’s “Three-Scenario” Analysis of the World

Lu Zhi envisaged three possible scenarios in China’s external relations and proposed a solution to manage them. In the first scenario, China enjoys hegemony. Foreigners “bend their knees to become our subjects and are willing to pay us allegiance and be ruled by us.” Under such circumstances, peace with and acceptance of foreigners should be China’s policy. This should be the case because

refusal will frustrate their willingness [to adopt] our culture. If we terrorize them by force, we will be guilty of killing captives. How can we not accept and comfort them, and incorporate them into our system? … Should they break faith with us, by turning their back on the alliance and becoming ungrateful and aggressive toward us, we can always admonish and reprehend them. If they refuse to change [their course of action], can we not take advantage of the ensuing chaos to eliminate them, to comfort our people, and to stabilize the frontiers?330

In the second scenario, foreign countries are in a dominant position. This unfortunate situation would compel China not to “take [the initiative against] these countries when there is no sign of [imminent] hostilities. When inferior military strength renders China unable to defend itself, must we not employ humble words and condescend ourselves when dealing with foreign countries?331 Must we not request and strive to maintain friendly ties with them? Must we not lure them into marriage alliances so as to relieve us from repeated harassments? We can never trust foreigners but can only hope [that these stratagems will] avert major invasions. Though far from the best defense, the current situation dictates that we have no other choice.”332

In the third scenario, China’s ability to neither pacify nor subjugate its enemies results in a military equilibrium. This situation implies that China should “strive for safety but not take the initiative.” China should “fortify the natural barriers to strengthen its defense and train and ready the troops for a foreign invasion. Should the barbarians attack, we then can counterattack and prevent them from penetrating deep into our territory. When they retreat, we can expel them but should not pursue them too far.”333

Lu Zhi’s “three-scenario” analysis of international power relations, so far the most comprehensive, was based on the idea of appropriate action. (p.293) “Act according to the moment and make good use of the occasion” was Lu’s cardinal principle for policy making. He explained: “When we have the capability to beat back the barbarians but decide to form a marriage alliance [with them], we expose our weakness and waste our resources. When we need to swallow an insult and accept humiliation but attempt to exterminate the enemy, we invite trouble and subject ourselves to great danger.”334 Lu regarded “weighing the situation” (liang shishi) to prioritize China’s external and internal goals as the ultimate task for any policy maker. The court, for example, should not hesitate to tackle a difficult foreign task with force when China enjoys an advantageous position, because such an operation, although a temporary burden on the people, would lead to permanent peace. If, however, China is in a weak position, the court should then aim primarily at stabilizing the domestic situation. Should military action ever become necessary, Tang troops should react only to an enemy attack.335

Lu Zhi’s idea of appropriateness was also seen in the catchy phrase “what is proper to each one” (wuyi) that he used to describe policies based on objective assessment of China’s strength and weakness relative to those of its enemy:

The customs of peoples in five directions have their strength and weakness. … Insisting on using our weakness to attack the enemy’s strength, we condemn ourselves to danger. Using our strength to exploit the enemy’s weakness, we enjoy safety. Foreigners’ strength lies in their [lifestyle] of living beside water and grassland, and hunting for animal flesh and blood as food and drink. Their numerous horses facilitate mobile warfare. They are willing to die [in battle] but are not ashamed of defeat. Their strength is exactly our weakness. We will be using our shortcomings to attack the enemy’s strong points if we increase the number of soldiers and battle horses, wrestle with the enemy to expel them, cross swords with them in open fields, and wage decisive battles in an ordinary way. … [These operations] go against the trend of the times and violate the principle of [doing] “what is proper to each one.”336

Lu believed that China’s strength with respect to strategic defense was not its military force but its ability to capitalize on an enemy’s disadvantages and to win a war without striking a blow. China needed to strengthen its border defenses, develop agriculture to secure its food supply, and train its soldiers to enhance its military capability. When faced with a minor assault, Tang troops should stage but a pompous show of power to deter an enemy from penetrating Chinese territory. When a major conflict developed, the court then needed to use a different stratagem to persuade the enemy to withdraw. Tang troops in the (p.294) meantime needed to avail themselves of natural barriers and attack an enemy when it was off guard. They needed also to mislead an enemy with misinformation. These tactics were intended to render an enemy despondent and unable to utilize its strength. As a result, invaders would gain nothing from raiding Tang, nor could they score a victory. If they tried to penetrate the Tang frontier, they risked being attacked front and rear. And if they retreated, they also risked having their vanguard cut off from the rear.337

Lu Zhi criticized sharply the advocates of preemptive operations that aimed at “attacking an enemy’s hinterland, recovering lands lost to an enemy, and seizing well-fortified towns.”338 Should these risky operations fail, hitherto unfriendly foreigners would grow even more aggressive toward China. Such failure would provide a further blow to China’s prestige. He warned: “Should my strategy be rejected, [our enemy] will take advantage of us. This would be like holding a spear or a lance back-wards—handing its butt end to the enemy.”339

Stable Borders and a Chinese-Foreign Cultural Dichotomy in Du You’s Thinking

Du You (734–812), a senior courtier who would eventually serve six Tang emperors from Xuanzong (r. 712–756) to Xianzong, formulated a foreign policy similar to Lu Zhi’s. Instead of trying to recover lost territories, Tang China should aim at minimizing border conflicts and eventually establish stable, if not permanent, border demarcations with its neighbors. In his monumental work The Encyclopedic History of Institutions (Tong dian), completed in 801, Du wrote: “The five legendary kings [of ancient times] started demarcating territories and frontiers. … They used a ‘loose rein’ policy when dealing with foreigners. We should not judge their achievements by the size of their territories.” He cautioned Emperor Dezong not to forget the lessons of the past: the speedy fall of the Qin and the Sui caused by excessive territorial expansion. He was particularly critical of those pre-Tang emperors who mistook “heavy taxes for a nation’s wealth, numerous soldiers for strong military power, expanded territories as grand achievements, and tributary offerings from remote countries as expressions of their own grand virtue.”340

At the core of Du You’s thinking was the traditional notion of a Chinese-foreign cultural dichotomy, the conviction that foreigners should always be kept at arm’s length and the belief that no efforts should be made to edify them because these efforts would all end in failure. “Their lands are out-of-the-way and their people, obstinate,” Du wrote. “A sage will never be born among these people. And their old customs will never change. Neither our proclamations and instructions (p.295) nor our rites and righteousness could ever transform them. We should regard them as outsiders, not insiders, and keep them at a distance without alienating them.”

Du advocated passive defense in the face of foreign hostility: “When the barbarians invade us, we should withstand them; when they retreat, we should guard against them.” Unfortunately, many Chinese emperors had failed to follow this course of action. They waged sanguinary wars against the non-Chinese, causing horrible disasters to China. Instead of praising Emperor Xuanzong’s military achievements, Du You singled out the bellicose Tang generals during the Kaiyuan and the Tianbao reign periods for criticism: “Our country was peaceful and tranquil then. But these frontier generals competed with one another for permission to launch expeditions in order to gain imperial favor.” Du listed the battles with the Tibetans at Lake Kokonor in the west, with the Xi and the Khitan at Mount Tianmen in the northeast, with the Arabs at the Talas River (at Atlakh, west of Tokmak) in the Western Regions, and with the Nanzhao Kingdom in the southwest as examples of wasteful and unnecessary operations. These expeditions not only resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Tang soldiers on foreign soil, but also eventually lost Emperor Xuanzong his reign. Du lamented: “Alas, one should be content when the fullest extent is reached. This is the fundamental principle not just for self-conduct, but also for governing a country.”341

Du You was already in his early seventies when Emperor Xianzong ascended the throne in 806. Du learned that earlier in the same year some frontier generals had petitioned the court for a counterattack against Tibet, which had invaded the Hexi region. As a senior official holding the appointment of chief minister, Du felt compelled to gather his strength to voice his disapproval and to admonish the new emperor. He denounced the generals for holding “the opinion of an ordinary person who does not understand the situation.”342 He rebuked the generals for their appetite for territorial expansion. And he also cautioned the new emperor: “When the ugly barbarians are growing stronger, our border defense remains unsound. It is indeed appropriate that [the court] should carefully choose good generals, order them to improve and complete [border defenses], urge them to be honest and trustworthy, and prohibit them from extracting bribes [from the non-Chinese]. This is how to express our conciliatory policy.”343

Bai Juyi’s Concept of Foreigners’ Rights of Existence and His Reconciliation Policy

In the same year, 806, Bai Juyi also pondered defense matters while preparing for a court examination. Living in seclusion at a Daoist temple, (p.296) he penned seventy-five essays, one of those being “Resisting the Foreigners: An Explanation of What Needs to Be Done Now Based on the Previous Dynasties’ Policies.” Written in the format of answers to the emperor’s hypothetical questions, this essay reads:

Question: Many have suggested ways to manage the foreigners who have been troublesome to China for generations. … However, the ways of the past vary from those of today. The advantages and disadvantages [resulting from implementing a past idea] may not be the same for today. Which is the suitable plan for us? … Please suggest a superior and well-conceived strategy with detailed descriptions.

Before answering this question, Bai Juyi first emphasized foreigners’ right to exist: “Your subject has learned that foreigners are born of a vital energy and thus cannot be exterminated. We can neither convert the aliens in the five directions into our subjects nor keep them [in our system].” This understanding of the correlation between China and its neighbors led Bai to remark in great detail on the fallacious Han foreign policies represented by Wang Hui, Jia Yi, Liu Jing, and Chao Cuo. He concluded: “[Han’s external relations show that] using force against the non-Chinese is [a policy] inferior to seducing them with baits; seduction is inferior to forging a marriage alliance; and a marriage is inferior to constantly remaining prepared for war. … We should certainly examine these policies in the [context of] current situations, choose those that are effective, and ignore those that are ineffective. But, in your subject’s opinion, these policies are all shallow, short-sighted, and far from the superior strategy that would enable an emperor to stabilize the frontiers permanently.”

Bai Juyi then proposed his foreign policy: “We shall rear the aliens as we would dogs and sheep, or treat them just as we would wasps and scorpions. We shall not rely on force or wage war against them when our soldiers are well-trained and our horses are strong. Nor shall we take them lightly and withdraw our garrison forces when our frontiers are peaceful and tranquil. We need only to guard against their invasion and to stop their violence. When they retreat, we shall not pursue them. When they attack, we shall not tolerate them. We shall ignore the petty stratagems of the four [Han dynasty] officials and promote the three sage kings’ grand ideal [for China]: successful governance, far-reaching virtue, contented people, and a powerful army.” Bai was confident that what he described in his essay was “a superior and well-conceived [foreign] strategy” and that, if the strategy was implemented, “the intractable aliens in the remote regions will crawl to our court within five years. And we, with confidence and ease, will recover the lost lands in the Helong region [from the Tibetans].”344

(p.297) One year later, in 807, Bai Juyi passed the court examination and subsequently became a Hanlin academician, a Left Reminder, and a trusted courtier of Emperor Xianzong. During Bai’s tenure at the court, his early prediction of Tibet’s submission to China never became reality. But his ideas apparently influenced the court’s foreign policy.

From 808 to 810, Bai Juyi drafted four edicts to be presented to Tibet’s chief ministers and area commanders respectively. Reconciliatory in tone, those diplomatic letters addressed such specific issues as return of three prefectures to China, repatriation of Tang officials detained in Tibet, and Tang troops’ recent movement on the borders. These letters promoted honesty and trustworthiness in bilateral relations. They reiterated China’s wish to establish rapprochement with Tibet. And they informed the addressees of the Tang court’s instruction to its frontier generals: their duty was to guard the borders only, not to invade Tibet.345 This court policy toward Tibet lasted uninterrupted until the end of Emperor Xianzong’s reign, even though Tibet sometimes instigated border incidents.

The Weizhou Incident and Li Deyu’s Changing Approach to Foreign Issues

Tang China’s pacifistic stance toward Tibet continued throughout Emperor Wenzong’s reign (826–840). The court even refused an opportunity to take back Weizhou at no cost. Located some 100 kilometers northwest of Chengdu in Sichuan province, Weizhou had been a key link in Tang’s defense against Tibet until it fell into Tibetan hands in the 770s. In 801, the court had attempted, but to no avail, to recover it. Then, thirty years later, in the ninth month of 831, Li Deyu, military commissioner of Jiannan West Circuit, received a surprising message from Xidamou, the Tibetan general stationed at Weizhou: he wished to surrender to China. A delighted Li readily granted the request. He disarmed the Tibetan soldiers before temporarily settling them in Chengdu. Li then dispatched a memorial, seeking official permission for the settlement arrangement. He also requested that three thousand local tribesmen be enlisted for an attack on Tibet.

Most court officials supported Li’s proposal. But chief minister Niu Sengru argued that taking Weizhou back would not significantly weaken the vast Tibetan kingdom; besides, the peace treaty of 821 between the two countries would render such a move illegitimate. Niu believed that, under these circumstances, the best way of handling the Weizhou incident was to “keep the promises we made [in the treaty].” He worried that Tibet would use this incident as a pretext for organizing an operation to threaten the Tang capital: “If the situation deteriorates to that stage, what is the use of recovering one hundred prefectures (p.298) such as Weizhou?” Convinced by Niu, Emperor Wenzong ordered the deportation of Xidamou, and his three hundred followers and their families. Upon arrival at the Tibetan border, they were brutally massacred by order of the Tibetan king, who apparently wanted to use Xidamou as a warning for his generals and soldiers: no defectors would be pardoned.

The outcome of the Weizhou incident outraged Li Deyu’s supporters at the court. They alleged that a personal feud motivated Niu Sengru to reject Li’s settlement plan and that turning back defectors was a morally unsound policy that would discourage foreigners from offering loyalty to China in the future.346 The emperor made a gesture of reconciliation to calm the criticism. He regretted the decision and blamed it on Niu’s poor advice.347 But Li remained bitter twelve years after the incident. In 843, he mentioned this incident again. As the chief minister under Emperor Wuzong, he claimed that deporting Xidamou for the sake of a temporary peace with Tibet was a serious mistake. He suggested that the court correct this mistake by granting Xidamou a posthumous military title.348

The Weizhou incident confused some Song dynasty scholars. Sima Guang wrote: “People doubt whether [Tang] should have taken back Weizhou. They are unable to judge the policies of Niu and Li.” But Sima himself had a straightforward answer: “[Li] Deyu’s argument was all about advantage, but [Niu] Sengru’s was about righteousness. Even a common man, not to mention the Son of Heaven, will feel ashamed if he gives up righteousness for advantage!”349

Sima Guang’s glowing praise of Niu Sengru, unfortunately, missed the point. He judged Niu’s action as a display of righteousness, honesty, and trustworthiness. But Niu was not a moralist but a cool-headed pragmatist. Niu advised his master to comply with the peace treaty of 821 because he knew China could ill afford to provoke Tibet by retaining Weizhou and accepting Xidamou. It was in this context that he told the emperor: “Giving up honesty and trustworthiness brings about disadvantage, not advantage.”350 Niu’s chief concern was apparently not the moral implication of this action but the actual benefit it would bring to China.351

Li Deyu indeed appeared to be a short-sighted local official when he claimed in 831 that recovering Weizhou was “in the best interest” of China.352 But having become the chief minister at Emperor Wuzong’s court, Li developed new perspectives on internal and external matters, although he insisted that his approach to the Weizhou incident was correct. This change in Li was evident in his handling of a request from the Kirghiz in 843 to stage a joint operation to take back Anxi and Beiting. The proposal appealed very much to Emperor Wuzong. But Li Deyu (p.299) had other considerations: earlier in the same year the court had just started a campaign against the Uighurs. Tang forces could not take on another arduous task. “We should not entertain this proposal,” Li told the emperor. “Anxi and Beiting are 7,000 li and 5,000 li from the capital respectively. If we take back Anxi, we need to reestablish a protectorate there and send ten thousand soldiers to guard it. Where should we enlist the soldiers? Which prefectures should provide provisions and transportation [for them]? … Your subject believes that [Anxi and Beiting] are useless even if we can recover them.”353

Li Deyu’s handling of the request by the Kirghiz proved a sensible and appropriate decision. Coming up with such a decision was tricky, however, because of the difficulty of objectively assessing the situation at the time. Nobody could always get it right. Some court decisions were controversial at the best and some altogether wrong. But every Tang emperor and his courtiers would all claim that appropriateness was the basis of their decision or policy proposal. How Li Deyu justified a shift in Tang China’s stance toward Tibet was a case in point.

Li drafted a secret edict for frontier generals in 845, when the Tang operation against the Uighurs had proceeded smoothly and an internal power struggle had significantly weakened Tibet. He believed that the time had come for the Tang court to ignore the peace treaty with Tibet and to prepare for an offensive against the enemy. To justify this policy shift, Li wrote: “It is not this emperor’s ambition to conquer remote places and to expand [Tang’s] borders. But he realizes that timing determines the rise and fall [of a country]. An ancient saying goes: the sages used no gimmicks but observed one rule: change with the times. [They did so] because they valued timing [of their actions].” Using the recent successful operation against the Uighurs as an example, Li reasoned: “Destroying them is as easy as pushing over a rotten stump. Is this not because the timing [of our action] is right?” Li then carefully examined the situation in Tibet since its king’s death in 842 and concluded that the country had also been reduced to a rotten stump: “Tibet has not had a king for three years. Suspicion among their generals and ministers has led them to attack one another and to withdraw most of their frontier troops [to the hinterland]. Some of their cities and garrisons are either empty or short of proper defenses. If the internal strife continues, feuds between rival factions [will intensify]. When the country is engulfed in suspicion and fear, its frontier generals will harbor disloyalty [to the Tibetan court].”

As preparatory measures for a grand plan to defeat Tibet, the edict instructed Tang frontier generals to select and send trustworthy people knowledgeable of border matters to spy on Tibet and to bribe its officers stationed at strategic places:

(p.300) The Tibetans’ morale is shaken. Taking advantage of this crisis, we should easily work out a plan [against them]. By setting up numerous schemes to sow distrust among them and secretly implementing note-worthy plans against them, we shall compel the Tibetans to surrender without raising an army. We shall act to provoke them and take over [their garrisons like] picking up lost articles. … This is revenging wrong with right, not violating an alliance of peace. My chamberlains, as loyal and patriotic as you are, I am sure you will understand my intention.354

Emperor Wuzong’s death in 846 rendered his grand plan abortive. His analysis of Tibet, however, remained relevant during Emperor Xuanzong’s reign (846–859). In 847, Tibet launched a major attack on Tang borders, but an internal feud left the Tibetans unable to constitute a further threat to Tang China. As Emperor Wuzong had correctly predicted, Tibetan frontier generals started to surrender to Tang authorities in southern Gansu and northern Shaanxi provinces. But Tang China missed this opportunity to recover more of the territories it had lost to Tibet because the court was bogged down by domestic insurgencies and the conflict with the Nanzhao Kingdom. Large-scale military action on its northwestern front was beyond Tang’s military capability. Late-ninth-century Tang courtiers had all but abandoned the ambition of reestablishing Chinese preeminence in Asia. To them, “the long-term plan [for China’s defense] is to avoid border conflicts, and the clear principle is to defend [the current Tang] borders.”355 This mentality came into full play in 863, when a Kirghiz envoy visited Chang’an, proposing a joint action to attack the Uighurs and to bring Anxi back to Chinese control. The court turned him down flat.356

Culture as Diplomacy for a Declining Empire

With Tang military prowess waning, Chinese culture assumed a prominent role in Tang China’s international politics. Some Tang courtiers wanted to use their culture as an alternative means by which to influence and to control foreigners. This idea was not new. The ancient political wisdom was always that foreigners were willing and capable of accepting Chinese culture. The Tang people had never insisted on a cultural dichotomy between the Chinese and the non-Chinese. And Chen An, a ninth-century scholar, added a new layer to that wisdom by coining the term “the Chinese heart” (huaxin). He suggested that a person’s upbringing and cultural inclination, not his place of birth, determined whether he had a Chinese heart: “Those born in China who act against ritual and righteousness are Chinese [only] in physique but barbarian at heart. Those born in foreign lands who act on ritual and righteousness (p.301) are foreign [only] in physique but Chinese at heart.” Chen further based his foreign policy on this notion: the Tang court should aim at “Sinicizing [foreigners’] hearts, not seizing their land.”357

Foreign policy of this sort was perhaps the only viable option for a disunited and militarily weakened China. Although questionable in its effectiveness, this policy received enthusiastic praise from Wang Qi, a Presented Scholar of 862. In a lengthy piece of prose titled “Display Virtue Not Military Prowess,” Wang wrote: “Foreigners will settle down by themselves if we edify them by Chinese moral influence.” In this wishful thinking, a Chinese emperor would “gain the respect [from foreign rulers simply] by cultivating civil culture.”358

However, Sikong Tu, also a Presented Scholar of the 860s, held Wang Qi in low regard. He saw Wang as one of those courtiers who was completely out of touch with reality. Their thinking was rigidly bound by traditions. And they often overemphasized the efficacy of Chinese cultural influence in international politics. In contrast, there were also officials who were impetuous and unyielding in action but lacked sophisticated planning skills. They claimed that military prowess alone would achieve China’s external goals. To Sikong, none of them was able to help the court “seize the opportunity in dangerous situations.” For anyone to have that ability, he needed “to supplement virtue with stratagems and to complement stratagems with deceit. Only this [approach],” he said, “could bring longevity to our country.”359 Unfortunately, Sikong’s approach did not save the Tang dynasty, which collapsed in 907, one year earlier than Sikong’s own death.

The mastery of appropriateness in policy making was always an elusive matter in Tang China’s external relations. This held true for both a decaying China and a united and powerful Middle Kingdom. As a result, controversies rather than consensus often characterized policy deliberations. This controversy, however, was not a sign of intellectual weakness but of the mental vigor of Tang officials. They came to realize that the situations in both China and its neighbors were dynamic in nature and that this dynamism would shape and reshape their power relationships from time to time. China’s external policy therefore needed constant adjustment. There was no formula for permanent peace nor were there permanent solutions to conflicts in international relations. But there was one guiding principle for international politics: foreign policy had to be appropriate to the contemporary situation. It was the appropriateness of its policies that determined the fate of a country (qi xing ye yi zai, qi wang ye yi zai).360 (p.302)


(2.) These zones were: the Royal Domains (dianfu), the Princely Domains (houfu), the Pacifications Zone (suifu), the Zone of Allied Foreigners (yaofu), and the Zone of Savagery (huangfu), collectively known as the “Five Zones” (wufu). The total number and the names of these of zones differ in primary sources. Some mentioned six and some nine. See Jia Gongyan et al., comps., Zhou li zhushu (SSJZS edn.), 29, p. 835; 37, p. 892; Guo yu (SBCK edn.), 1, pp. 3a–b; SJ, 2, pp. 75–77. For a discussion, see Loewe, “China’s Sense of Unity as Seen in the Early Empires,” p. 12. See also his “The Heritage Left to the Empires,” pp. 995–997.

(3.) The frequency for paying these tributes varied, from yearly, to once every two years, to once every six years, depending on the specific zone in which a Chinese subject or a foreign ruler lived. See Jia Gongyan et al., comps., Zhou li zhushu (SSJZS edn.), 37, p. 892; Guo yu (SBCK edn.), 5, pp. 14b–15a; Xing Bing et al., comps., Er ya zhushu (SSJZS edn.), 1, p. 2570. For tribute paying during the Zhou dynasty, see Liu Heng, “Guanyu Shangdai nagong de jige wenti,” pp. 6–7.

(13.) This term first appears in Gongyang Gao, Chunqiu Gongyang zhuan (SSJZS edn.), 1, p. 2196. Dong Zhongshu, a Han dynasty scholar, further promoted the idea; and the Han court made “great unity” part of the state-sponsored ideology. See his Chunqiu fanlu (SBCK edn.), 6, p. 3a. For discussions of this issue, see Yang Xiangkui, Da yitong yu rujia sixiang, pp. 43–55; Pines, “‘The One that Pervades All’ in Ancient Political Thought,” pp. 208–234; Ran Guangrong, “Zhongguo gudai ‘da yitong’ guojia guan yu minzu guanxi,” pp. 25–32.

(20.) Ji Tianbao, Sunzi jizhu (SBCK edn.), 3, pp. 5b–6b: “Thus the highest realization of warfare is to attack the enemy’s plans; next is to attack their alliances.” The English translation is from Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, p. 161. See also HS, 45, p. 2183. For discussions of the relations between various Chinese regional states, see Walker, The Multi-state System of Ancient China.

(21.) Gongyang Gao, Chunqiu Gongyang zhuan (SSJZS edn.), 18, p. 2297: “The Chunqiu treats its state [i.e., Lu] as internal, and all the Xia as external; it treats all the Xia as internal and the Yi and the Di as external.” The English translation is by Pines in his “Beasts or Humans,” p. 83.

(22.) Guo yu (SBCK edn.), 2, p. 3b. Han dynasty thinkers further elaborated this argument. See Dong Zhongshu, Chunqiu fanlu (SBCK edn.), 4, pp. 4a–b; Wang Liqi, Yantie lun jiaozhu, p. 206. For an English translation of the last record, see Gale, Discourses on Salt and Iron, pp. 100–101.

(23.) Gongyang Gao, Chunqiu Gongyang zhuan (SSJZS edn.), 1, p. 2199; 18, p. 2297: “The true king’s desire is to unite all under Heaven.” The English translation can be found in Pan Yihong, Son of Heaven and Heavenly Qaghan, p. 19, and in Pines, “Beasts or Humans,” p. 83. The Han dynasty historian Sima Qian traced the idea of “All under Heaven” back to the Yellow Emperor and to the Xia dynasty. See SJ, 1, pp. 11–12, 14; 2, pp. 75–77.

(27.) Xing Bing, Lun yu zhushu (SSJZS edn.), 2, p. 1463; 7, p. 1481; 12, p. 2504; 17, p. 2526. The term “righteousness” (yi) appears twenty-four times in the Lun yu. See Yang Bojun, Lun yu yizhu, p. 291.

(p.374) (28.) Confucius once said: “The mind of the superior man is conversant with righteousness; the mind of the mean man is conversant with gain.” Xing Bing, Lun yu zhushu (SSJZS edn.), 4, p. 2471; Legge, The Chinese Classics, 1, p. 170. See also Yang Guorong, “Cong ‘yi li zhi bian’ kan rujia jiazhi guan,” pp. 6–20.

(32.) Confucius strongly condemned those who acquired “riches and honors by unrighteousness.” Xing Bing, Lun yu zhushu (SSJZS edn.), 7, p. 2482; Legge, The Chinese Classics, 1, p. 200.

(33.) Confucius said: “He who acts with a constant view to his own advantage will be much murmured against.” “Looking at small advantages prevents a great affair from being accomplished.” See Xing Bing, Lun yu zhushu (SSJZS edn.), 4, p. 2471; 13, p. 2507; Legge, The Chinese Classics, 1, pp. 169, 270.

(38.) Mo Di, Mozi (SBCK edn.), 10, pp. 1b–2a: “loyalty would benefit the sovereign; filial piety would benefit the parents.”

(39.) Ibid., 9, p. 2a.

(40.) Ibid., 1, p. 8b; 9, p. 3b; 4, pp. 4a–b, 8a: “They ought to practice universal mutual love and the interchange of mutual benefits. This was the law of the sage beings; it is the way to effect the good government of the nations; it may not but be striven after.” See also ibid., 4, p. 13b; Legge, The Chinese Classics, 2, p. 107.

(43.) Ibid., 2, pp. 9a–b.

(44.) Ibid., p. 14a.

(51.) There were, of course, non-Chinese who desired Chinese lands. This would leave a Chinese state with the choice of either ceding territory to the enemy or fighting until the last man. See Zhao Qi and Sun Bi, Mengzi zhushu (SSJZS edn.), 2b, p. 2682; Legge, The Chinese Classics, 2, pp. 175–177.

(53.) Chunqiu Zuoshi zhuan (SSJZS edn.), 31, p. 1951. The English translation, with my revision, is from Legge, The Chinese Classics, 5, p. 453.

(55.) Chunqiu Zuoshi zhuan (SSJZS edn.), 16, p. 1821; Legge, The Chinese Classics, 5, p. 196. This policy is in line with Xunzi’s argument that, because human nature is evil, a ruler should restrain his subjects by punishment. See Xun Kuang, Xunzi (SBCK edn.), 17, p. 7a.

(64.) Other Han dynasty scholars referred to these regions as “places where no [Chinese] fiefdom should be established” (bushi zhi di). See Wang Liqi, Yantie lun jiaozhu, p. 205.

(65.) Liu Xiang, Xin xu (SBCK edn.), 10, p. 15b. Earlier, the Qin minister Li Si had reached the same conclusion: acquiring the land of the Xiongnu and subjugating their tribesmen would bring no real benefit to China. See HS, 64a, p. 2800.

(67.) See his Shangzi (SBCK edn.), 1, p. 2b. Lü Buwei, minister of the State of Qin, held a similar opinion. See Sellman, Timing and Rulership in Master Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals (Lüshi chunqiu), p. 115. Zhong Changtong (179–220) (p.376) elaborated this point in his essay titled “On Gains and Losses”: “[A policy] has to be changed if it worked in the past but fails today. [A policy] needs to be resumed if its amendments have led to unsatisfactory results or failures.” HHS, 49, p. 1650.

(71.) Jia Yi, Xin shu (SBCK edn.), 4, pp. 61a–62b. Chao Cuo (200–154 B.C.E.) supported Jia’s suggestion. He further suggested that the Han court could form alliances with foreign groups, encourage one group to attack another group, sow seeds of distrust among those groups, and learn their military skills. See HS, 49, p. 2281.

(73.) For a debate at the court in the early years of the Eastern Han, see HHS, 18, p. 695.

(77.) Ban Gu criticized Jia’s proposal to make use of the non-Chinese groups as “ill-conceived.” See HS, 48, p. 2265.

(78.) HS, 94b, pp. 3830, 3833–3834. The English translation, with my own revisions, is based on Pines, “Beasts or Humans,” pp. 79–80. Chinese courtiers and historians of later times concurred with Ban Gu in his analysis of the non-Chinese. Song Yi, an official of the Eastern Han, once remarked that “foreigners treat propriety and righteousness as unimportant. And they do not have a sense of hierarchy. The powerful would be the master. [But as soon as] he loses his power, he will submit [to the new master].” See HHS, 41, pp. 1415–1416. Fan Ye, author of the Hou Han shu, remarked: “The Xiongnu are greedy for profits, and they do not observe propriety and righteousness. When they are in a desperate situation, they submit themselves [to China]; when they enjoy [domestic] peace, they invade and raid [China].” See HHS, 18, p. 695.

(81.) HHS, 89, p. 2946. Xiao Wangzhi (?–47 B.C.E.) used the Xiongnu ruler Shanyu to elaborate the policy in question: “He did not follow the calendar promulgated by the court of China, and therefore his nation was referred to as (p.377) a ‘peer state.’ He should not be treated as a vassal of China … but should be assigned a rank above that of the feudal kings and the marquis. If the tribes of foreign lands bow their heads and offer to declare themselves tributaries, then China should modestly decline to accept and should not treat them as vassals. In such a case one may reap the benefits of a ‘loose rein’ and enjoy the blessing of a modesty that prevails.” HS, 78, p. 3282; 94b, p. 3814. English translation is based on Watson, Courtier and Commoner in Ancient China, pp. 212–213.

(85.) The two sides made a deal: Emperor Gaozu promised to release the former Tuyuhun chieftain who had fled from the Sui capital and was staying in the Tang capital, Chang’an, and in return the Tuyuhun agreed to engage Li Gui’s force. A Tuyuhun envoy soon arrived in Chang’an not to pay tribute, but to urge the Tang court to fulfill its promise. ZZTJ, 187, p. 5841.

(87.) In 622, he reiterated his goodwill in an edict to the king of Koguryŏ: “How splendid it would be if both China and Koguryŏ could maintain their territorial integrity.” See JTS, 199a, pp. 5320–5321; CFYG, 170, p. 10a. For Tang-Silla and Tang-Paekche relations during this period, see Bielenstein, Diplomacy and Trade in the Chinese World, pp. 121–122, 125–127. For Tang China’s relations with its major Asian neighbors, see Cohen, East Asia at the Center, pp. 66–82.

(96.) For a summary of the major teachings of Daoism, see SJ, 130, p. 3292. Yan Shigu, a Tang scholar, offered his interpretations of the major Daoist principles in his annotation to the Han shu. See HS, 62, pp. 2708–2710.

(104.) Huili and Yancong, Da cien si Sanzang fashi zhuan, 1, p. 7. It was two years into his reign, in 628, that Emperor Taizong announced: “What I prefer is the way of Yao, Shun, the Zhou [kings], and Confucius. I regard [their way] as wings are to birds and water is to fish, without which they will die. [The way] cannot be dispensed with, not even for a moment.” ZZTJ, 192, p. 6054. In the same year, Emperor Taizong also consulted Wang Gui on the issue of governance. Wang told him: “Governance and moral influence have declined in recent times because there was an emphasis on literary achievements and a disregard of Confucian teachings.” Emperor Taizong agreed with Wang’s observation. In 629, Emperor Taizong engaged Kong Yingda in a discussion of sentences from the Confucian Analects (Lun yu). See ZZTJ, 193, pp. 6058, 6067. To provide his master with guidelines and lessons of governance, Wei Zheng compiled the Extracts from Various Books (Qunshu zhiyao), into which sections of the Laozi were included. Wei Zheng, Qunshu zhiyao (SBCK edn.), 34, pp. 1a–16b. Emperor Taizong wrote an edict to praise Wei’s effort. See QTW, 9, p. 41.

(106.) JTS, 194a, p. 5158; ZZTJ, 191, p. 6020. Emperor Taizong’s ideas were closely in line with the thinking of Laozi: “The people are difficult to govern: It is because those in authority are too fond of action.” See Li Er, Laozi dejing (SBCK edn.), 18b. The English translation is from Lau, Tao Te Ching, p. 109.

(107.) QTW, 10, p. 48. In 628, Emperor Taizong emphasized: “Inaction of the ruler will bring about happiness to his people.” In his annotations to the Shi ji, Zhang Shoujie, a Tang scholar, equated inaction with the “practice of tranquillity.” See SJ, 130, p. 3292. Yan Shigu, another Tang scholar, made the same interpretation in his annotations to the Han shu. See HS, 62, pp. 2708–2710. For the Daoist influence on Tang politics, see Lü Xichen, Daojia Daojiao yu Zhongguo gudai zhengzhi, pp. 282–319; Li Dahua et al., comps., Sui Tang Daojia yu Daojiao, a, pp. 4–16; Shen Shipei, “Tang Taizong zhengzhi sixiang tanyuan,” pp. 103– (p.379) 104; and Barrett, Taoism under the T’ang, pp. 29–45. See also Lagerwey, “Taoist Ritual Space and Dynastic Legitimacy,” pp. 87–94.

(111.) TDZLJ, 113, p. 537; Daoxuan, Guang hongming ji (SBCK edn.), 25, pp. 11a–b. To Emperor Taizong, however, “inaction” did not mean “doing nothing” but “doing nothing against the way.” In one of his poems, he revealed that, in his policy thinking, the prerequisite for “a tranquil universe resulting from inaction” was to “hold the commander’s tally and pacify the three frontiers” and “to enforce the law and govern the common people.” See Peng Dingqiu, Quan Tang shi, 1, p. 3. For annotations to this poem, see Wu Yun and Ji Yu, Tang Taizong quanji jiaozhu, pp. 16–19.

(112.) ZZTJ, 193, p. 6075. Tang ministers had minor disagreements on where and how to settle the surrendered Turks. See, for example, the opinions of Yan Shigu, Li Baiyao, and Dou Jing in ZZTJ, 193, pp. 6075–6076, and XTS, 95, p. 3849. Pan Yihong has summarized the three major opinions expressed during the debate. See her “Early Chinese Settlement Policies towards the Nomads,” pp. 61–66. For discussions of the Tang settlement of the Turks, see Iwami Kiyohiro, “Tō no Tokketsu imin ni taisuru sochi o megutte,” pp. 109–147; Im Daeheui, “Tōdai Taisō Kōsō ki no seiji shi e no ichi shikaku,” pp. 21–22; Wu Yugui, “Tōchō ni okeru Higashi Tokketsu no kōshū no anchi mondai ni kansuru ichi kōsatsu,” pp. 58–67; Skaff, Sui-Tang China and Its Turko-Mongol Neighbors, pp. 53–59.

(114.) Two years previously, in 628, when Emperor Taizong commented on Xieli’s recent surrender to the Tang court, the emperor showed a good under-standing of the intricate relations between the two countries: “Our frontiers will be tranquil only when the Turks are weak. … But I am afraid that disasters will happen to China as they have to the Turks if things develop beyond my control.” JTS, 194a, p. 5160; ZZTJ, 192, p. 6049. Wei Zheng, Linghu Defen (583–666), and Li Yanshou held the same opinion. See Wei Zheng et al., comps., Sui shu, 84, pp. 1833–1834; Linghu Defen et al., comps., Zhou shu, 49, p. 899; and Li Yanshou Bei shi, 99, p. 3304. For a discussion of this issue, see Niu Zhigong, “Tangchu shixuejia de minzuguan,” p. 38.

(119.) Li Yanshou once explained why China should not let matters concerning foreigners burden its people: “The useless [i.e., foreigners and their land] should not harm the useful [i.e., the Chinese people].” He further warned that excessive territorial expansion would lead to the collapse of a dynasty. See his Bei shi, 94, p. 3138; 97, pp. 3239–3240.

(122.) JTS, 66, p. 2466. A good example was the incident of 630 when an envoy from Linyi presented the Tang court with a memorial. Some Tang officials considered the document’s language offensive and urged the emperor to act against the country. Using a passage by Laozi, Emperor Taizong refuted their argument: “Arms are instruments of ill omen. One uses them only when compelled to do so. [The letter from Linyi] is only a matter of words; it is not worth bothering about.” See Xie Baocheng, Zhenguan zhengyao jijiao, p. 475; ZZTJ, 193, pp. 6078–6079. For Tang-Linyi relations, see Bielenstein, Diplomacy and Trade in the Chinese World, pp. 36–38.

(126.) ZZTJ, 198, p. 6246. Emperor Taizong also referred to the sages’ ruler-ship in antiquity to further elaborate this point: their success was due to the ability to “identify their interests with those of the people” (yu min tong li). The desires and benefits of the Chinese and the non-Chinese did not always match one another, however. In the eyes of Zhenzhu Pijia (Bilgä) qaghan, a Turkic leader from 716 to 734, Tang’s loose rein was merely a sweet poison: “Deceiving by means of [their] sweet words and soft materials, the Chinese are said to cause the remote peoples to come close in this manner. After such a people have settled close to them, [the Chinese] are said to plan their ill will there. [The Chinese] do not let the real wise men and real brave men make progress. If a man commits an error, [the Chinese] do not give shelter to anybody [from his immediate family] to the families of his clan and tribe. Having been taken in by their sweet words and soft materials, you Turkic people were killed in great numbers.” The English translation is from Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic, pp. 261–262. For a discussion of this issue, see Wright, “The Northern Frontier,” pp. 68–69.

(134.) ZZTJ, 195, pp. 6155–6156; Xie Baocheng, Zhenguan zhengyao jijiao, p. 507. Chu Suiliang saw Karakhoja as “the hands and feet of other people” and the Longyou region as the “chest and abdomen” of China. This idea is in line with the Tang court’s overall strategy that saw the metropolitan area and the Longyou region as central to China’s security. See Chen Yinke, “Waizu shengshuai zhi lianhuan xing ji waihuan yu neizheng zhi guanxi,” pp. 133, 136–137.

(136.) JTS, 62, p. 2388; ZZTJ, 193, p. 6081. On a separate occasion in 639, Emperor Taizong also used the same analogy. See ZZTJ, 195, p. 6149.

(140.) JTS, 195, p. 5216. Cai Yong, a Han dynasty scholar, was the first to use the “itching scabies” analogy. See his Cai zhonglang wenji (SBCK edn.), 6, p. 14b.

(147.) JTS, 198, p. 5371. Ancient Chinese scholars understood this point well. Han Fei said: “[A state of] strength will receive many tributes; [a court of] weakness will have to offer tributes [to other states].” See his Han Fei zi (SBCK edn.), 19, p. 9b. Zuo Qiuming was reported to have had the same opinion: “It is by severity that the wild tribes around are awed.” See Chunqiu Zuoshi zhuan (SSJZS edn), 16, p. 1820; Legge, The Chinese Classics, 5, p. 196. Han dynasty officials made similar remarks on the relationship between the Qin court and its neighbors. See Wang Liqi, Yantie lun jiaozhu, p. 497.

(150.) JTS, 71, p. 2551. A term of multiple connotations, the exact meaning of de thus has to be defined in the specific context in which it is used. The term xiongde (bad behavior) is another example. This term is associated with theft, villainy, harboring a thief, and accepting the gifts of a traitor. See Chunqiu Zuoshi zhuan (SSJZS edn.), 20, p. 1861; Legge, The Chinese Classics, 5, p. 282. For xiongde, see also Kong Yingda et al., comps., Shang shu zhengyi (SSJZS edn.), 9, p. (p.382) 172. For the meaning of de in the Chunqiu Zuoshi zhuan, see Ogura Yoshihiko, Chūgoku kodai seiji shisō kenkyū, pp. 62–72, 73–79.

(154.) Li Yanshou, Bei shi, 96, p. 3196. See also his Nan shi, 79, p. 1987. Fang Xuanling (579–648) had a similar opinion on this issue. See THY, 99, pp. 1775–1776.

(155.) Kong Yingda, Li ji zhengyi (SSJZS edn.), 37, p. 1528; Xing Bing, Lun yu zhushu (SSJZS edn.), 2, p. 2461; Liu Xi, Shi ming (SBCK edn.), 4, p. 25a. Compiled by an unknown author probably of the Han dynasty, a record in the Huangshi gong su shu (SKQS edn.), p. 1b, states: “Virtue refers to what people acquire. [Virtue] covers everything in the world and allows them to get what they want.” The ultimate goal of de was to achieve “goodness of government, and the government is tested by its nourishing of the people.” See Kong Yingda et al., comps., Shang shu zhengyi (SSJZS edn.), 4, p. 125; Legge, The Chinese Classics, 1, pp. 55–56. The British Museum and Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris each preserves a handwritten copy of the Baixing zhang, a Tang dynasty work by Du Zhenglun. In chapters 1 and 16, the character de (virtue) was replaced with de (get). See Lin Congming, Tang Du Zhenglun jiqi Baixing zhang, pp. 53–54, 75; Fukui Kōjun, “Hyakkō shō ni tsuite no sho mondai,” pp. 1–23.

(158.) Waley, The Analects of Confucius, p. 33; Sailey, “A. C. Graham’s Disputers of the Tao and Some Recent Works in English on Chinese Thought,” pp. 36–41. See also Fung Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, 1, p. 179. One good example in early Chinese writing is the expression wu you qi de (military prowess has seven efficacies), namely: “the repression of cruelty, the calling in of weapons of war, the preservation of the great appointment, the firm establishment of one’s merit, the giving of repose to the people, the harmonizing of all the states, and the enlargement of the general wealth.” See Chunqiu Zuoshi zhuan (SSJZS edn.), 23, pp. 1882–1883; Legge, The Chinese Classics, 5, p. 320.

(161.) Even murder, usually considered a capital crime in Chinese society, can be justified if a person killed a perpetrator who had humiliated his parents, brothers, or elders. See Jia Gongyan et al., comps., Zhou li zhushu (SSJZS edn.), 14, p. 732.

(177.) QTW, 8, p. 39. Emperor Taizong also used this idea to judge foreign rulers’ actions. He praised the Tuli (Tölish) qaghan for having pledged loyalty to the Tang when natural disasters and famine devastated the northern steppe. This enabled the Turkic leader to “turn a misfortune into blessing” and was thus “an appropriate and truly commendable action” (jueyi kejia). QTW, 4, p. 15.

(182.) Du Qin, a Han dynasty official, compared foreign countries to “the reverse side of China” (Zhongguo zhi yin). See HS, 60, p. 2671.

(183.) Linghu Defen et al., comps., Zhou shu, 50, p. 921. A comment on Tang-Turkic relations in JTS, 196b, p. 5266, explains: “When they are strong, they assault our borders. However, they [pretend to] accept our culture when they are weakened.” Li Yanshou came to a similar observation of the nomads: “Examining the history of the previous dynasties, they sometimes rebelled against and sometimes submitted themselves to China. It is probably their nature always to keep an eye on the direction of the wind and to hesitate over their course of action.” See his Bei shi, 96, p. 3196. See also Yates, “Body, Space, Time, and Bureaucracy,” pp. 56–80; Chan, “Territorial Boundaries and Confucianism,” pp. 61–84.

(194.) ZZTJ, 194, pp. 6097, 6105; CFYG, 109, pp. 17b–18a. Emperor Taizong was aware of his quick temper. In 628, he talked about his need to “suppress impulse and desire, and to practice self-restraint and self-discipline.” Wei Zheng repeatedly reminded him not to “indulge his passions and hold others in contempt.” See Xie Baocheng, Zhenguan zhengyao jijiao, p. 424.

(197.) ZZTJ, 95, pp. 6137–6138. In 639, Wei listed ten matters that the emperor had failed to carry through. See ZZTJ, 195, pp. 6129, 6147. In fact, the emperor still sought criticism in 637 when the River Luo flooded, affecting more than six hundred families. But whether he accepted any criticism was another matter. See JTS, 37, pp. 1351–1352.

(203.) JTS, 199b, p. 5346. Emperor Taizong was also known as the “parent of the Chinese and the non-Chinese” (Huayi fumu). In 629, Emperor Taizong referred (p.385) to himself as “lord of the four seas” (sihai zhizhu). See ZZTJ, 193, pp. 6070, 6088–6089. For discussions of this issue, see Ochi Shigeaki, “Ka I shiso to tenka,” pp. 1–40.

(205.) The mother of Li Yuan was from the Dugu clan, and the wife of Li Shimin from the Zhangsun clan.

(208.) ZZTJ, 197, pp. 6215–6216; THY, 94, p. 1690. Fang Xuanling suggested that those who followed the path of benevolence and righteousness could all be regarded as “Chinese.” See his Jin shu, 97, p. 2550. For Tang China’s changing attitude toward foreigners, see Fu Lecheng, “Tangdai Yi Xia guannian zhi yanbian,” pp. 210–214; Ran Guangrong, “Zhongguo gudai ‘dayitong’ guojia guan yu minzu guanxi,” pp. 25–32; and Ochi Shigeaki, “Ka I shisō no seiritsu,” pp. 43–137.

(212.) In 733, this “whole world” consisted of fifteen circuits, which was expanded in 742 to include 331 prefectures and 800 loose rein prefectures. See JTS, 38, p. 1385; ZZTJ, 215, p. 6847. For sample usages of tianxia by officials at the Ministry of War, the Ministry of Rites, and the Ministry of Revenue, see TLD, 4, p. 125; 5, pp. 161–163; ZZTJ, 217, p. 6269. Tianxia appeared some sixty times in the TLD. See Watanabe Shinichirō, Chūgoku kodai no ōken to tenka chitsujo, pp. 33–39, 46, 53–60.

(213.) Tianxia lost its cosmopolitan connotation after the 750s, when domestic uprisings in China reduced its influence in Asia. See TD, 171, p. 907; JTS, 196b, p. 5247; XTS, 216b, p. 6107; Han Yu, Changli xiansheng ji (SBCK edn.), 31, p. 3a.

(216.) Luo Guowei, Ricang hongren ben Wenguan cilin jiaozheng, p. 247. Emperor Taizong also claimed in the same edict that he “pacifies and possesses the whole world” and that he was “fond of fostering all living kinds” irrespective of when they became his subjects.

(p.386) (224.) QTW, 4, p. 15. See also a poem by Emperor Taizong in Peng Dingqiu, Quan Tang shi, 1, p. 4.

(234.) Compilers of The Dynastic History of Tang and The New Dynastic History of Tang apparently considered the edict too superficial to be included in their works, but a Korean primary source and a Qing dynasty work faithfully recorded the edict. See Kim Pusik, Samguk sagi, 21, pp. 1b–2a; QTW, 7, p. 31.

(243.) JTS, 62, p. 2390; ZZTJ, 197, p. 6215. Zhang Liang was another Tang official who expressed his objection to the war against Koguryŏ. See JTS, 69, p. 2515.

(247.) Song Gang and Xiu Yuan, eds., Difan, p. 199. The English translation, with a minor revision of my own, is from Twitchett, “How to Be an Emperor,” p. 83.

(249.) Emperor Taizong’s single-mindedness in recovering Liaodong from and occupying Koguryŏ was so obvious that compilers of the Jin shu, who started their work in 646, decided not to touch on this controversial topic. There was no discussion of Koguryŏ in chapter 97 of the work, which was devoted to “foreign countries in the East.” See Huang Yuese, Xue Rengui, p. 74.

(251.) THY, 1, p. 2. In Tang political culture, a posthumous canonization title (shihao) summarized the actions (shi xing zhi ji ye) and achievements (hao zhe gong zhi biao ye) of the deceased. See Kong Chao, Yi Zhou shu (SBCK edn.), 6, p. 5b; Wang Shoukuan, Shifa yanjiu, pp. 1–10.

(258.) See Fang Zuyu, Tang jian, 1, pp. 1a–2b; 2, p. 4a. For other criticisms of Emperor Taizong by Song scholars, see Li Tao, Xu zizhi tongjian changbian, 35, p. 13b.

(259.) Standen points out that instead of adhering to a definite interpretation of loyalty and trustworthiness, people in the tenth century seem to have used a wide range of understandings of these concepts to guide their action. See his Unbounded Loyalty, pp. 62–63. In my view, this was also the case during the Tang dynasty. For diplomatic and foreign policy ideas in the early Tang, see also my article “Ideas Concerning Diplomacy and Foreign Policy under the Tang Emperors Gaozu and Taizong,” pp. 239–285.

(267.) XTS, 215b, p. 6061; QTW, 186, p. 844. The seventh-century literary genius Luo Binwang was of the same opinion. See his Luo Binwang wenji (SBCK edn.), 9, p. 7a.

(270.) In fact, ten years previously, in 674, she had already used appropriateness to assess her husband’s policies. See ZZTJ, 202, p. 6374.

(272.) JTS, 199a, p. 5328; XTS, 200, p. 6198. This policy was in place until the end of Empress Wu’s reign. See JTS, 199a, p. 5328; XTS, 220, p. 6198.

(276.) Accommodating the Tibetans’ requests as much as possible and not frustrating them unnecessarily was to become thinking popular among Tang officials. In 702, Zhang Zhuo drafted a reply to the Court of State Ceremonial: “We should allow [the Tibetans to purchase silk, bows, and arrows in the capital]. … It is appropriate that we go with what [the Tibetans] desire, not against it.” See QTW, 172, p. 784.

(280.) Yue Shi, Taiping huanyu ji, 200, pp. 4a–6b; QTW, 281, pp. 1277–1278. Earlier, in 686, Xue expressed the same concern when a Silla envoy wanted to acquire some Chinese books. For this incident, see Wang Zhenping, Ambassadors from the Island of Immortals, p. 197.

(304.) Ibid., 88, p. 961.

(305.) See Peng Dingqiu, Quan Tang shi, 111, pp. 1138, 1139, 1143, for the poems written by Zhang Jiazhen, Lu Congyuan, Xu Zhiren, and Xi Yu.

(313.) CFYG, 42, p. 17a. Yang Guozhong praised Emperor Xuanzong for “having extended the virtue of nurturing to both the Chinese and the non-Chinese.” See QTW, 346, p. 1573. Du Fu summarized the emperor’s foreign policy in two sentences: “Harmonizing the foreigners so that they would cherish our kindness” and “launching punitive expeditions to pacify and stabilize foreign lands.” See Peng Dingqiu, Quan Tang shi, 225, p. 2406.

(315.) For more information on these marriages, see the chart in Cui Mingde, Zhongguo gudai heqin shi, p. 658.

(316.) Thirty-eight foreign rulers accepted the title “king” from the Tang court during Emperor Xuanzong’s reign. See Zhang Qun, Tangdai fanjiang yanjiu, pp. 7–8.

(318.) TD, 6, p. 34; 172, p. 911; JTS, 38, p. 1385; ZZTJ, 215, p. 6851; Fan Zuyu, Tang jian, 5, p. 4b. For the amount of rations, military uniforms, and fodder provided for soldiers and their horses during the Tianbao reign period (742–756), see Li Jinxiu, Tangdai caizheng shi gao (shang), pp. 1219, 1231, 1257.

(p.390) (327.) JTS, 139, pp. 3804–3805. For a study of Lu Zhi and his pragmatist approach to policy issues, see Chiu-Duke, To Rebuild the Empire, pp. 63–96.

(331.) Lu Zhi himself was a good example. He drafted several edicts that refer to Tibet as “The Great Tibet.” See his Tang Lu Xuangong hanyuan ji (SBCK edn.), 10, pp. 5a, 7a, and 10a.

(357.) See QTW, 767, p. 3584. For an English translation of this record, see (p.391) Ch’en Yüan, Western and Central Asians in China under the Mongols, pp. 8–11. Cheng Yan, a late-ninth-century official, held a similar opinion regarding the distinction between Chinese and non-Chinese. See QTW, 821, p. 3882.