Governing Principles of Ancient China

At the beginning of the Zhenguan Era, Emperor Taizong (599–649) of the Tang dynasty decreed that Qunshu Zhiyao (The Compilation of Books and Writings on the Important Governing Principles) be compiled. At the tender age of sixteen, Taizong enlisted himself in the army, and joined his father’s forces to try to stop the turmoil that was going on in the society. For more than ten years, he dwelt himself in military matters. After he ascended to the throne at the age of twenty-seven, he laid down his armor and began to promote culture and education, paying particular attention to the principles of governing and bringing peace to the country. He sought to rejuvenate the nation from the aftermath of civil strife by restoring order to life, lessening the burdens of ordinary people, and increasing prosperity. 

Although Taizong was an intelligent, brave, and eloquent man, he regretted that his earlier military expeditions had prevented him from obtaining much formal education. He also learned from the mistakes made by the fallen Sui dynasty and realized that to start a new dynasty was no easy task, and to sustain it would be even harder. Hence during his reign, he encouraged his ministers to point out his mistakes and to candidly criticize his imperial policies. To make up for lost time, Taizong ordered two advisors, the honorable Wei Zheng and Yu Shinan, to comb through all the historical records on imperial governing principles from the Six Classics, the Four Collections of History and the Hundreds of Schools 1 , and to extract the most important lessons related to the cultivation of oneself, management of family, good government, and ways to bring about peace in the world. The result was a collection, titled Qunshu Zhiyao, carefully excerpted from 14,000 books and 89,000 scrolls of ancient writings—500,000 words in all, and covering sixty-five book categories—dating from the era of the Five Legendary Emperors 2 to the Jin dynasty 3.

This truly is a treasured compilation on governing principles that can bring about peace and order, which “when used in the present, allows us to examine and learn from our ancient history; when passed down to our descendants, will help them learn valuable lessons in life.” Those were the words written by Advisor Wei Zheng in he preface of the completed compilation. Emperor Taizong was extremely pleased with the broad yet concise compilation and would not let the books out of his sight. He said: “The collection has helped me learn from the ancients. When confronted with issues, I am very certain of what to do. This is all due to your efforts, my advisors.” From here we can see that the subsequent peace and prosperity of the Zhenguan Era was attributed greatly to this compilation! This treasure is truly a must-read for all politicians.

However, by the beginning of the Song dynasty, Qunshu Zhiyao disappeared from circulation. This is due to the fact that Chinese woodblock printing was not well developed at that time. The History of Song also did not show any record of this compilation. Fortunately, the Japanese Kanazawa Bunko museum collection had a complete manuscript hand-copied by Japanese monks during the Kamakura period (1192–1330). The Japanese returned the books to China in the 60 th year of the reign of Emperor Qianlong, and they became the master copy for the Four Series Books published by the Commercial Press (Shanghai) as well as publications used by Taiwan. 

At the end of 2010, I was fortunate to obtain a copy of Qunshu Zhiyao. I read the work repeatedly, and I was filled with immense joy that eternal stability and peace to the entire world can be brought about by the cultural teachings of our ancient saints and sages. I deeply feel this is so. The most important thing is that the Chinese people themselves must truly comprehend and embrace this traditional culture, to stop doubting and start believing. The teachings of the saints and sages constitute an embodiment of the true self-nature of all beings that transcends time and space. Even now, they still hold true. The key learning point hinges on two words: “sincerity and respect.” The article “Summary of the Rules of Propriety” says: “Always and in everything let there be reverence.” Emperor Kangxi of the Qing dynasty said: “When a ruler interacts with his people, the element of respect is fundamental.” He also said: “All the teachings that have been passed down through thousands of years is no more than sincerity and respect.” The prominent Song scholar Chengzi said: “Respect triumphs over all evils.” These sayings illuminate the fact that in order to cultivate ourselves, advance our virtues, help people, and benefit the world, only sincerity and respect can enable us to perfectly achieve these. If we lack respect and sincerity toward the teachings of ancient sages and virtuous emperors, little benefit will be gained even if we have read the ancient texts extensively. Confucius stressed that he only cited the teachings of others and created nothing of his own. He believed in and loved the teachings of the ancients. The honorable Dr. Sun Yat Sen, in his speech on the Three Principles of the People (Principle of Nationalism, Fourth Lecture), said: “The advancement in science and material civilization in Europe only happened mostly in the last 200 years. But when it comes to the essence of political philosophy, Europeans still need to look to China for answers. Gentlemen, you all know that our world’s best scholars come from Germany. But today’s German scholars are studying Chinese philosophies as well as Buddhism
from India to correct the bias in science.” 

British historian Professor Arnold Toynbee asserted: “In order to resolve the social problems of the twenty-first century, we must rely on the teachings of Confucius and Mencius, and on Mahayana Buddhism.” Look at the chaos and uncertainties that we face today. If we truly want to save the world and save China, only traditional Chinese cultural education will provide the answers we seek. The wisdom, the ideas, the methods, the experience, and the results of governing, which are all in Qunshu Zhiyao, are crystallized from thousands of years of trials and tribulations. They are indeed precious! If we can fully comprehend and apply these principles, world peace and individual bliss can be achieved naturally. If we do not follow these principles of governance, we will be inviting endless catastrophes and tragedies. I realized that the reappearance of Qunshu Zhiyao indicates the sacred mission of this compilation. I am happy to print 10,000 copies, to be published by the World Book Company, to be given away to political parties and various leaders in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and around the world, for them to learn about the essence of governing. This way, a harmonious society and a peaceful world will not be far away. I am pleased to know that Qunshu Zhiyao will soon be circulated again in the near future. At the invitation of Ms. Yan Chu I wrote these few words to express my heartfelt praise for the realization of this project.

Chin Kung
December 28, 2010
Hong Kong