TANG EMPERORS: GAOZU (LI YUAN), TAIZONG, XUANZONG AND XIANZONG

TANG DYNASTY EMPERORS


Emperor Gaizu (Li Yuan)

Tang Dynasty rulers: Gaozu (Li Yuan, A.D. 618–626); Taizong (626–650); Gaozong (649–683); Zhongzong (684, 705–710); Ruizong (684–690); Wu Zetian (690–705); Xuanzong (712–756); Suzong (756–762); Daizong (762–779); Dezong (779–805); Shunzong (805); Xianzong (805–820); Muzong (820–824); Jingzong (824–827); Wenzong (826–840); Wuzong (840–846); Xuanzong (846–859); Yizong (859–873); Xizong (873–888); Zhaozong (888–904); Aidi (Zhaoxuan) (904–906). [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

There is some debate as to when the Tang dynasty began. Most historians argue that it was inaugurated by a Sui official named Li Yuan (later known as Gaozu) who took power after the last Sui emperor was assassinated in 618. The Tangs had Turkic influences and a little Turkish blood.

One of the most famous Tang ruler was Xuangzong (685-761), who was also known as the "Radiant Emperor" (Minghuang). He developed Chang'an into a center of art and culture. His court drew scholars and artists from all over Asia

The Tang dynasty had its share of corrupt, incompetent and decadent leaders. One 8th century Tang emperor spent nearly all of his time hunting and kept 5,000 chows and a staff of 10,000 huntsmen. In the later years of his reign it is said, Xuangzong was so distracted by a concubine named Yang Guifei it led to the catastrophe of 755.

Good Websites and Sources on the Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everday Life in the Tang Dynasty by Charles Benn books.google.com/books; Empress Wu womeninworldhistory.com ; Good Websites and Sources on Tang Culture: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Tang Poems etext.lib.virginia.edu enter Tang Poems in the search; Chinese History: Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia Books: “Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty”by Charles Benn, Greenwood Press, 2002; "Cambridge History of China" Vol. 3 (Cambridge University Press); "The Culture and Civilization of China", a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); "Chronicle of the Chinese Emperor" by Ann Paludan.

Daming Palace Site

Daming Palace Site (78 Xuanwu Road, northeast Xian) was the imperial palace complex of the Tang Dynasty (618-906), serving as the imperial residence of the Tang emperors for more than 220 years. The site has been rebuilt and was opened to the public in 2010. About two thirds of the park is free to get in. The other one third features cultural heritages and exhibition and requires the payment of an admission fee. Daming Palace was the grandest and most significant palace complex in Chang'an (Xian) during Tang Dynasty. It was where Tang emperors lived, dealt with state affairs and met with officials. It is not so impressive looking today. Most of the site consists of foundations and platforms with a few models.

Daming Palace (also known as Hanyuan Palace, Yuan Palace and Penglai Palace) was the main palace, where grand ceremonies were held. It was also an important international exchange center. On every New Year's Day, ambassadors from various countries came and participated in the grand ceremonies held here. The majestic palace not only reflects Tang Dynasty (618-906)'s prosperity, but also represents the highest architectural level of that time. It is said that the Forbidden City in Beijing was built after the layout of Daming Palace.

Daming Palace was built in the early 7th century not long after the Tang Dynasty came to power. The former royal residence was Taiji Palace, built by the previous Sui dynasty. Chang’an suffered from humidity, dampness and heat during the summer and location of Taiji Place was deemed too inhospitable because it was built on low-lying lands. In 634, Emperor Taizong launched the construction of the Daming Palace at Longshou Plateau as a summer palace for his retired father, Emperor Gaozu, as an act of filial piety. Emperor Gaozu grew ill and never witnessed the palace's completion before his death in 635, and construction halted. Empress Wu commissioned the court architect Yan Liben to design the palace and construction commenced once again in 662. In 663, the construction of the palace was completed under the reign of Emperor Gaozong. Emperor Gaozong had launched the extension of the palace with the construction of the Hanyuan Hall. In 663, the imperial family relocated from the Taiji Palace into the yet to be completed Daming Palace, which became the new seat of the imperial court and political center of the empire. [Source: Wikipedia]

Location: 78 Xuanwu Road; Admission: 60 yuan; Tel:+86 29 86708192 Getting There: Bus 2, 216, 262 to Tongjia Lane; Bus 16, 17, 22, 38, 46, 104, 209, 801 to Taihua Road

Components of Daming Palace Site

"Three Great Halls" — Hanyuan Hall, Xuanzheng Hall, and Zichen Hall — were respectively part of the outer, middle, and inner court, beginning from the south and ending in the north, on the central axis. The central southern entrance of Daming Palace is the Danfeng Gate. The gate consisted of five doorways. After passing through the Danfeng Gate, there is a square of 630 meters long with at the end Hanyuan Hall. [Source: Wikipedia]

Hanyuan Hall was connected to pavilions — namely the Xiangluan Pavilion in the east and the Qifeng Pavilion in the west — by corridors. The pavilions were composed of three outward-extending sections of the same shape but different size that were connected by corridors. The elevated platform of Hanyuan Hall is approximately 15 meters high, 200 meters wide, and 100 meters long. Hanyuan Hall served as the main hall for hosting foreign ambassadors during diplomatic exchanges and was where many state ceremonies were conducted.

Xuanzheng Hall (300 meters north of the Hanyuan Hall) is where state affairs were usually conducted. The office of the secretariat was located to the west of Xuanzheng Hall and the office of the chancellery was located to the east. From this area, the Tang bureaucracy — the Three Departments and Six Ministries system, the Department of State Affairs, the Chancellery, and the Secretariat — handled the central management of the Tang empire.

Zichen Hall (in the Inner Court) is approximately 95 meters north of the Xuanzheng Hall. It housed the central government offices. For officials, it was considered a great honor to be summoned to Zichen Hall. Taiye Pool, also known as the Penglai Pool, is north of Zichen Hall. The former gardens that surround the pond and island have been recreated, based on the historical record, with peony, chrysanthemum, plum, rose, bamboo, almond, peach, and persimmon gardens.

Linde Hall (the west of Taiye Poo) served as a place for banquets, performances, and religious rites. It consisted of three halls—a front, middle, and rear hall—adjacent to each other. An imperial park was located north of the palace complex. The Sanqing Hall was located in the northeast corner the Daming Palace and served as a Taoist temple for the imperial family.

Li Yuan (Gaozu)

The Tang dynasty was founded by Li Yuan, a military commander who proclaimed himself emperor in 618 after suppressing a coup staged by the attendants-turned-assassins of the Sui emperor, Yangdi (reigned 614-618). The Sui dynasties unified China under indigenous Chinese rule for the first time since the end of the Han period, and the Tang inherited this legacy. [Source: John D. Szostak, University of Washington washington.edu+|+]

Li Yuan belonged to the Li family, a northwest military aristocracy that had a strong presence during the Sui dynasty and claimed to be descendants of the Taoist founder Lao zi, the Han dynasty General Li Guang, and Western Liang ruler Li Gao on their paternal side. The family had Xianbei (proto-Mongol) blood on their maternal side. The mother of the first Tang Emperor (Gaozu) — Duchess Dugu — was Xianbei. This family was known as the Longxi Li lineage which includes Li Bai. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “There are various theories as to the origin of his family, the Li. The family itself claimed to be descended from the ruling family of the Western Liang. It is doubtful whether that family was purely Chinese, and in any case Li Shimin's descent from it is a matter of doubt. It is possible that his family was a sinified Toba family, or at least came from a Toba region. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Li Yuan was Duke of Tang and governor of Taiyuan during the Sui dynasty's collapse, which was caused in part by the Sui failure to conquer the northern part of the Korean peninsula during the Koguryo–Sui War. He had prestige and military experience, and was a first cousin of Emperor Yang of Sui (their mothers were sisters). Li Yuan rose in rebellion in 617, along with his son and his equally militant daughter Princess Pingyang (d. 623), who raised and commanded her own troops. In winter 617, Li Yuan occupied Chang'an, relegated the Sui Emperor Yang-di to the position of Taishang Huang or retired emperor, and acted as regent to the puppet child-emperor, Emperor Gong of Sui, a grandson of the Sui Emperor Yang-di. . On the news of Yang-di's murder by General Yuwen Huaji on June 18, 618, Li Yuan declared himself the emperor of a new dynasty, the Tang. +

Li Yuan and Leader of Tang China

In 618 puppet child-emperor, Emperor Gong of Sui, was dethroned and Li Yuan was made emperor, of the Tang dynasty. Internal fighting went on until 623, and only then was the whole empire brought under the rule of the Tang.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Great reforms then began. A new land law aimed at equalizing ownership, so that as far as possible all peasants should own the same amount of land and the formation of large estates be prevented. The law aimed also at protecting the peasants from the loss of their land. The law was, however, nothing but a modification of the Toba land law (chun-t'ien), and it was hoped that now it would provide a sound and solid economic foundation for the empire. From the first, however, members of the gentry who were connected with the imperial house were given a privileged position; then officials were excluded from the prohibition of leasing, so that there continued to be tenant farmers in addition to the independent peasants. Moreover, the temples enjoyed special treatment, and were also exempted from taxation. All these exceptions brought grist to the mills of the gentry, and so did the failure to carry into effect many of the provisions of the law. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Li Yuan Displaced By Son Taizong


Taizong

Li Yuan, known as Emperor Gaozu of Tang, ruled until 626, when he was forcefully deposed by his son Li Shimin, the Prince of Qin. Li Shimin had commanded troops since the age of 18, had prowess with bow and arrow, sword and lance and was known for his effective cavalry charges. Fighting a numerically superior army, he defeated Dou Jiande (573–621) at Luoyang in the Battle of Hulao on May 28, 621. In a violent elimination of royal family due to fear of assassination, Li Shimin ambushed and killed two of his brothers, Li Yuanji (b. 603) and Crown prince Li Jiancheng (b. 589), in the Xuanwu Gate Incident on July 2, 626. Shortly thereafter, his father abdicated in his favor and Li Shimin ascended the throne. He is conventionally known by his temple name Taizong. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Although killing two brothers and deposing his father contradicted the Confucian value of filial piety, Taizong showed himself to be a capable leader who listened to the advice of the wisest members of his council. In 628, Emperor Taizong held a Buddhist memorial service for the casualties of war, and in 629 he had Buddhist monasteries erected at the sites of major battles so that monks could pray for the fallen on both sides of the fight. This was during the campaign against Eastern Tujue, a Göktürk khanate that was destroyed after the capture of its ruler, Illig Qaghan, by the famed Tang military officer Li Jing (571–649), who later became a Chancellor of the Tang dynasty. With this victory, the Turks accepted Taizong as their khagan, a title rendered as Tian Kehan in addition to his rule as Emperor of China under the traditional title "Son of Heaven". +

Gaozu is said to have peed In scholars’ hats. Mark Oliver wrote in Listverse: “Emperor Gaozu wasn’t the biggest supporter of education. He believed in military might and obedience to a strong, centralized government, and he didn’t really see any point in wasting time learning to read or discussing philosophy. “All I possess I have won on horseback,” he told one of his advisors. “Why should I bother with [the Books of] Odes and History?” This wasn’t just simple disinterest; education actively enraged him. In Gaozu’s time, most scholars were followers of Confucius, and they walked with pointy hats. He spent most of his time launching into curse-filled tirades about how awful they were. When he actually saw a scholar, he’d rip off the scholar’s hat and pee in it. When his advisor, Lu Jia, wrote a flattering book about his victories, though, Gaozu changed his tune. In one of history’s rare instances of someone admitting they were wrong, Gaozu set up Confucian schools across the empire and made it the state ideology. [Source: Mark Oliver. Listverse, January 12, 2017]

Taizong

Taizong (Tai-tsung, 597-649), the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty, is one the most admired Chinese leaders and is known for his love of art. He so admired the calligrapher Wang His-chi he took his famous work “Preface to the Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion” with him to his grave. Taizong coveted Wang’s original manuscripts were so greatly reportedly tried to obtain them by trickery from monk who was sworn to destroy them. Tang Dynasty China under Emperor Tang Taizong was a period of peaceful development of the Chinese economy, when the emperor put the emphasis in the welfare of his subjects, promoting a policy of low taxes and good treatment to the frontier minorities.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Li Shimin reigned as Taizong, second emperor of the Tang dynasty (618-907), from 626 until his death in 649. An energetic ruler, Tang Taizong had played a major part in the military campaigns that brought his father (Li Yuan, Tang Gaozu, r. 618 -626) to the throne as the first emperor of the Tang dynasty. Having eliminated his two competitors for the throne (his brothers Li Jiancheng and Li Yuanji) in an ambush at the capital city’s Xuanwu Gate in 624, Li Shimin forced his father into retirement in 626 to take the throne for himself. As the second emperor of the Tang dynasty, Li Shimin gave shape to the administrative structure of the empire. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]


Taizong

According to Silk Road Foundation: “A unified country, a strong central government, efficient communications and wide economic and cultural contacts made the Tang dynasty one of the most brilliant epochs in Chinese history. Li Shimin or emperor Taizong played a major role in the success. Tang emperor Taizong enthroned in 626, proved to be one of the greatest emperors of China.” [Source: “Exoticism in Tang (618-907), Silkroad Foundation”, Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com ]

Taizong“was just the man for the times. He was open-minded, brave and extremely intelligent. Under his powerful leadership, Taizong brought the Turks and the oases of the Gobi within his sphere. With his advent China was revealed to the astonished peoples of Asia, who tremble at the sound of his name. The emperor's home land lay along the Turkish frontier, so he was familiar with the problem of raids. In 630 Taizong crushed the nomadic Eastern Turks who had been pressing southward from their base in Mongolia. Many northwest tribes in Central Asia sent envoys to seek Tang protection and presented the emperor with the title of Heavenly Khan, or the Khan of Khans, thus marking the beginning of a remarkable political-military alliance with territory extended to East, Central and South Asia. He was well respected not only in China but also in the Turkic regions.

“As the trade became vitally important to Tang, Taizong was anxious to clear the trade routes to India and Persia. He moved westward to conquer the Western Turks and other smaller states in Central Asia. The Chinese court now had diplomatic relations to the west of Pamirs. He directly ruled an area larger than that of the Han dynasty.

Rise of Li Shimin (Taizong)

Li Shimin was the the hero of the Turkish siege that set the stage for the establishment of the Tang Dynasty. He had allied himself with the Turks in 615-16. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: There were special reasons for his ability to do this. In his family it had been a regular custom to marry women belonging to Toba families, so that he naturally enjoyed the confidence of the Toba party among the Turks. He continued the policy which had been pursued since the beginning of the Sui dynasty by the members of the deposed Toba ruling family of the Northern Zhou—the policy of collaboration with the Turks in the effort to remove the Sui. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Li Shimin played a key role in ousting the Sui leadership, paving the way for his father, Li Yuan, to became the first Tang ruler. Li Shimin oversaw much of military activity that ousted the Suis. At the end of 617 he was outside the first capital of the Sui, Ch'ang-an, with a Turkish army that had come to his aid on the strength of the treaty of alliance. Li Shimin, however, was not named as heir to the throne because he was not the eldest son. The result of this was tension between Li Shimin and his father and brothers, especially the heir to the throne. When the brothers learned that Li Shimin was claiming the succession, they conspired against him, and in 626, at the very moment when the western Turks had made a rapid incursion and were once more threatening the Chinese capital, there came an armed collision between the brothers, in which Li Shimin was the victor. The brothers and their families were exterminated, the father compelled to abdicate, and Li Shimin became emperor, assuming the name Taizong (627-649).

Taizong’s Reign

The reign of Taizong (627-649) marked the zenith of the power of China and of the Tang dynasty. Their inner struggles and the Chinese penetration of Turkestan had weakened the position of the Turks; the reorganization of the administration and of the system of taxation, the improved transport resulting from the canals constructed under the Sui, and the useful results of the creation of great administrative areas under strong military control, had brought China inner stability and in consequence external power and prestige. The reputation which she then obtained as the most powerful state of the Far East endured when her inner stability had begun to deteriorate. Thus in 638 the Sassanid ruler Jedzgerd sent a mission to China asking for her help against the Arabs. Three further missions came at intervals of a good many years. The Chinese declined, however, to send a military expedition to such a distance; they merely conferred on the ruler the title of a Chinese governor; this was of little help against the Arabs, and in 675 the last ruler, Peruz, fled to the Chinese court.

Taizong — considered by many historians the greatest of China's imperial rulers — issued a series of sweeping reforms According to the Middle Ages Reference Library: He put into place a complex but efficient bureaucracy divided into three branches for making, reviewing, and implementing policy. The review board was allowed to criticize the emperor's decisions, and the policy-making branch exercised further checks on imperial authority by making suggestions as well. In a land where strong emperors enjoyed near-absolute power, it was highly unusual to see a regime exercise such a great degree of openness. [Source: Middle Ages Reference Library, Gale Group, Inc., 2001]

“In the area of policy implementation, or carrying out the work of the government, the Tang system had few rivals. Along the highways and waterways of the empire, the government placed monitoring stations to oversee taxation, review local grievances, police commercial activities, and even provide accommodations for travelers. Overseeing this smooth-running machine was one of the most talented and highly trained groups of civil servants China had ever seen. Even after Tang power receded, its administrative system would prevail for several centuries.

Taizong also instituted badly needed land reforms, redistributing property to reflect changes in the size of peasant families. Though taxes on farmers were high, peasants now felt a sense of ownership over their lands, which could no longer be snapped up by feudal lords. The Tang government also greatly extended the canal network put in place by the Sui, thus aiding the transport of goods from north to south in a land where most major rivers flowed eastward.

“The last years of Taizong's reign were filled with a great war against Korea, which represented a continuation of the plans of the Sui emperor Yang-di. This time Korea came firmly into Chinese possession. In 661, under Taizong's son, the Korean fighting was resumed, this time against Japanese who were defending their interests in Korea. This was the period of great Japanese enthusiasm for China. The Chinese system of administration was copied, and Buddhism was adopted, together with every possible element of Chinese culture. This meant increased trade with Japan, bringing in large profits to China, and so the Korean middleman was to be eliminated.

“Taizong's son, Gaozong (650-683), merely carried to a conclusion what had been begun. Externally China's prestige continued at its zenith. The caravans streamed into China from western and central Asia, bringing great quantities of luxury goods. At this time, however, the foreign colonies were not confined to the capital but were installed in all the important trading ports and inland trade centres. The whole country was covered by a commercial network; foreign merchants who had come overland to China met others who had come by sea. The foreigners set up their own counting-houses and warehouses; whole quarters of the capital were inhabited entirely by foreigners who lived as if they were in their own country. They brought with them their own religions: Manichaeism, Mazdaism, and Nestorian Christianity. The first Jews came into China, apparently as dealers in fabrics, and the first Arabian Mohammedans made their appearance. In China the foreigners bought silkstuffs and collected everything of value that they could find, especially precious metals. Culturally this influx of foreigners enriched China; economically, as in earlier periods, it did not; its disadvantages were only compensated for a time by the very beneficial results of the trade with Japan, and this benefit did not last long.

Consolidation of the Tang Dynasty Under Taizong

While Gaozu (Li Yuan) was the first of the Tang emperors, it was under his son Taizong (reigned 624-649) that the Tang dynasty consolidated its power and began to achieve a domestic peace that would last for virtually unbroken for three centuries, interrupted only by the nine-year-long An Lushan rebellion (755-763). [Source: John D. Szostak, University of Washington washington.edu+|+]

Unlike the Sui emperors, Taizong was of part Turkic ancestry, born and raised on the frontier, so he was intimately familiar with the problem of nomadic raiders who were pressing on the Tang northern borders. By 630 Taizong had defeated the first eastern Türkic nomads and resettled them north of the Ordos in Inner Mongolia. Other Central Asian peoples and minor kingdoms in northwestern China submitted to the Tang court, naming Taizong and his heirs their "supreme Khan." This brought the important Hexi corridor and Gobi oases under imperial Chinese control, and Taizong enlisted garrisons of Turkic and Central Asian soldiers to protect the trade routes, facilitating a renewed flow of trade goods transported by Central Asian, Indian and Near Eastern merchants, who also brought along with them their religion and their culture. +|+

The famous Tang-era poet Du Fu (712–770) wrote:
Good fortune falls on the gold-pillared gateway...
The prophecies of Taizong are supreme
The empire is firmly established and reaches the sky!

Taizong, the Artist


Taizong calligraphy

“Ode on Pied Wagtails” by Tang Emperor Xuanzong (685-762) is a handscroll, ink on paper (24.5 x 184.9 centimeters): According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In the autumn of 721, about a thousand pied wagtails perched at the palace. Emperor Xuanzong (Minghuang) noticed pied wagtails give out a short and shrill cry when in flight and often wag their tails in a rhythmic manner when walking about. Calling and waving to each other, they seemed to be especially close, which is why he likened them to a group of brothers demonstrating fraternal affection. The emperor ordered an official to compose a record, which he personally wrote to form this handscroll. It is the only surviving example of Xuanzong's calligraphy. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“The brushwork in this handscroll is steady and the use of ink rich, having a force of vigor and magnanimity in every stroke. The brushwork also clearly reveals pauses and transitions in the strokes. The character forms are similar to those of Wang Xizhi's (303-361) characters assembled into "Preface to the Sacred Teaching" composed in the Tang dynasty, but the strokes are even more robust. It demonstrates the influence of Xuanzong’s promotion of Wang Xizhi's calligraphy at that time and reflects the trend towards plump aesthetics in the High Tang under his reign.” \=/

Xuanzong

Xuanzong (ruled 712–56) ruled the Tang dynasty at the height of its power. Tristan Shaw wrote on Listverse: “Xuanzong’s 43-year reign is considered the high point of the Tang dynasty (618–907), a time in Chinese history renowned for its beautiful poetry and cosmopolitan culture. Not all of Xuanzong’s time on the throne was great, however, and the later half of his reign also marked the beginning of the Tang’s decline. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016 +]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: A Tang prince finally succeeded in killing empress Wei and her clique. At first, his father ascended the throne, but was soon persuaded to abdicate in favour of his son, now called emperor Xuanzong (713-755), just as the first ruler of the Tang dynasty had done. The practice of abdicating—in contradiction with the Chinese concept of the ruler as son of Heaven and the duties of a son towards his father—seems to have impressed Japan where similar steps later became quite common. With Xuanzong there began now a period of forty-five years, which the Chinese describe as the second blossoming of Tang culture, a period that became famous especially for its painting and literature. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The emperor Xuanzong gave active encouragement to all things artistic. Poets and painters contributed to the elegance of his magnificent court ceremonial. As time went on he showed less and less interest in public affairs, and grew increasingly inclined to Taoism and mysticism in general—an outcome of the fact that the conduct of matters of state was gradually taken out of his hands. On the whole, however, Buddhism was pushed into the background in favour of Confucianism, as a reaction from the unusual privileges that had been accorded to the Buddhists in the past fifteen years under the empress Wu.

Emperor Xuanzong is said to have had 40,000 concubines. Mark Oliver wrote in Listverse: “Traditionally, in Xuanzong’s time, emperors would release their concubines when their reign came to an end. Since it often only took a couple of years for someone to get fed up and assassinate the king, that meant that being a concubine was only a temporary position. Xuanzong, however, stubbornly refused to die. His reign went on for 44 years, and his harem just kept getting bigger. By the end, he had over 40,000 women. Xuanzong almost certainly didn’t have time to meet them all, so instead, they just sat around learning poetry, mathematics, and the classics and taking care of mulberry trees. That doesn’t mean he stopped adding to his harem, though. When he was 60 years old, Xuanzong made his own son divorce his wife so that he could make his daughter-in-law one of his concubines. [Source: Mark Oliver. Listverse, January 12, 2017]

Xuanzong's Rise to Power


Xuanzong

There were many prominent women at court during and after Wu's reign, including Shangguan Wan'er (664–710), a poetess, writer, and trusted official in charge of Wu's private office. In 706 the wife of Emperor Zhongzong of Tang, Empress Wei (d. 710), persuaded her husband to staff government offices with his sister and her daughters, and in 709 requested that he grant women the right to bequeath hereditary privileges to their sons (which before was a male right only). Empress Wei eventually poisoned Zhongzong, whereupon she placed his fifteen-year-old son upon the throne in 710. Two weeks later, Li Longji (the later Emperor Xuanzong) entered the palace with a few followers and slew Empress Wei and her faction. He then installed his father Emperor Ruizong (r. 710–712) on the throne. Just as Emperor Zhongzong was dominated by Empress Wei, so too was Ruizong dominated by Princess Taiping. This was finally ended when Princess Taiping's coup failed in 712 (she later hanged herself in 713) and Emperor Ruizong abdicated to Emperor Xuanzong. [Source: Wikipedia +]

During the 44-year reign of Emperor Xuanzong, the Tang dynasty reached its height, a golden age with low economic inflation and a toned down lifestyle for the imperial court. Seen as a progressive and benevolent ruler, Xuanzong even abolished the death penalty in the year 747; all executions had to be approved beforehand by the emperor himself (these were relatively few, considering that there were only 24 executions in the year 730). Xuanzong bowed to the consensus of his ministers on policy decisions and made efforts to staff government ministries fairly with different political factions. His staunch Confucian chancellor Zhang Jiuling (673–740) worked to reduce deflation and increase the money supply by upholding the use of private coinage, while his aristocratic and technocratic successor Li Linfu (d. 753) favored government monopoly over the issuance of coinage. After 737 most of Xuanzong's confidence rested in his long-standing chancellor Li Linfu, who championed a more aggressive foreign policy employing non-Chinese generals. This policy ultimately created the conditions for a massive rebellion against Xuanzong.

Xuanzong's Reign

Shaw wrote: “For most of his time on the throne, Xuanzong was a very competent ruler. After becoming emperor in 712, Xuanzong embarked on a number of successful reforms, cleaning up the bloated imperial bureaucracy and keeping the frontiers of the empire well-protected with military governors who commanded professional armies. In his later years, Xuanzong’s interest in governing declined. He used much of his time to dote on Yang Guifei, a concubine who was initially his son’s wife. Yang used her powerful influence over the emperor to advance her friends and family, helping her cousin Yang Guozhong to become prime minister. Her adopted son, An Lushan, was also made a military governor. +\

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “At the beginning of Xuanzong's reign the capital had been in the east at Loyang; then it was transferred once more to Ch'ang-an in the west due to pressure of the western gentry. The emperor soon came under the influence of the unscrupulous but capable and energetic Li Linfu, a distant relative of the ruler. Li was a virtual dictator at the court from 736 to 752, who had first advanced in power by helping the concubine Wu, a relative of the famous empress Wu, and by continually playing the eastern against the western gentry. After the death of the concubine Wu, he procured for the emperor a new concubine named Yang, of a western family. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“By 755, An Lushan had a falling out with Yang Guozhong and launched a rebellion to topple the Tang government. As the rebels began to close in on the capital city of Chang’an, Xuanzong and Yang Guifei had to flee the city for safety. After stopping at a remote village, the Imperial Army came to a halt and demanded that the emperor execute Yang Guifei and her cousin for their role in instigating An Lushan’s rebellion. Faced with a revolt from his own troops, Xuanzong realized that there was no way out but to have Yang Guifei killed. The historical record varies about what happened next, but Yang either voluntarily hanged herself or was strangled to death by an imperial official. Xuanzong, devastated by his lover’s death, then gave up his throne and left the job of putting down An Lushan’s rebellion to his son.” +\

Yang Guifei and Emperor Xuanzong

Xuanzong was dominated by his concubine, Yang Guifei. . According to the “Middle Ages Reference Library: A fascinating character, Yang was one of the only obese women in Chinese history also considered a great beauty. She started out as concubine of Xuanzong's son before the emperor decided he wanted her for himself—along with her two sisters. The soap opera did not end there: later she took the general An Lu-shan (703–757) under her wing as her student, adopted son, and (according to palace rumors) lover. [Source: Middle Ages Reference Library, Gale Group, Inc., 2001]

Yang Yuhuan (A.D. 719-756), an imperial concubine of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty, is commonly called “Imperial Concubine Yang” (Yang Guifei), with “Guifei” being the highest rank for imperial consorts during her time. She was born in an old, well-known official family. She was naturally beautiful with a docile character. She was gifted in music, singing, dancing and playing lute. These talents, together with her education, made her stand out among the imperial concubines and win the emperor's favor. Jade ("yu") was considered so precious that it was often used in women's names. Yang Yuhuan means "jade ring."

In 745, after Emperor Xuanzong gave the daughter of the general Wei Zhaoxun to Li Mao as his new wife and princess, he officially made Taizhen an imperial consort — with the newly created rank of Guifei, which was even greater than the previously highest rank of Huifei, carried by Consort Wu. He bestowed posthumous honors on her father Yang Xuanyan and granted her mother the title of Lady of Liang. He also gave high offices to her uncle Yang Xuangui and cousins Yang Xian and Yang Qi. Her three older sisters were conferred the ranks of Ladies of Han, Guo, and Qin, and it was said that whenever the noble women were summoned to imperial gatherings, even Emperor Xuanzong's highly honored sister Li Chiying the Princess Yuzhen did not dare to take a seat more honorable than theirs. Emperor Xuanzong also gave his favorite daughter Princess Taihua (born of Consort Wu) to Yang Qi in marriage. The five Yang households — those of Yang Xian, Yang Qi, and the Ladies of Han, Guo, and Qin — were said to be exceedingly honored and rich, and all of the officials fought to flatter them. Also around the same time, her second cousin Yang Zhao (whose name was later changed to Yang Guozhong) was also introduced to Emperor Xuanzong by Consort Yang, and Yang Zhao began to be promoted due to his flattery of the emperor. [Source: Wikipedia +]

An Lushan's Rebellion


Yang Guifei

Yang Guozhong and An Lushan soon were in conflict with each other, and Yang Guozhong repeatedly tried to provoke An into rebelling, by actions including arresting and executing staff members at An's mansion in Chang'an. In 755, An finally reciprocated. In order to try to placate the populace, which believed that Yang Guozhong had provoked the rebellion, Emperor Xuanzong considered passing the throne to his crown prince Li Heng. Yang Guozhong, who was not on good terms with Li Heng, feared this development, and persuaded Consort Yang and the Ladies of Han, Guo, and Qin to speak against it. Emperor Xuanzong, for the time being, did not abdicate the throne. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In 756, General Geshu Han was defeated by An's forces, after being forced by Yang Guozhong to engage An out of fear that Geshu Han himself might usurp the throne, and Tong Pass, the last major defense, fell to An's forces. Yang Guozhong suggested fleeing to Chengdu, the capital of Jiannan Circuit. On 14 July, Emperor Xuanzong, keeping the news secret from the people of Chang'an, took the imperial guards to escort him, Consort Yang, her family, and his immediate clan members, and exited Chang'an, heading toward Chengdu. Attending him were Yang Guozhong, his fellow chancellor Wei Jiansu, the official Wei Fangjin, the general Chen Xuanli, and some eunuchs and ladies in waiting close to him. +

On 15 July, Emperor Xuanzong's cortege reached Mawei Courier Station in modern Xianyang, Shaanxi). The imperial guards were not fed and became angry at Yang Guozhong. Chen also believed that Yang Guozhong had provoked this disaster and planned to accuse him; he reported his plans to Li Heng through Li Heng's eunuch Li Fuguo, but Li Heng was hesitant and gave no approval. Meanwhile, Tufan emissaries, who had followed Emperor Xuanzong south, were meeting with Yang Guozhong and complaining that they also had not been fed. The soldiers of the imperial guard took this opportunity to proclaim that Yang Guozhong was planning treason along with the Tufan emissaries, and they killed him, along with his son Yang Xuan, the Ladies of Han and Qin, and Wei Fangjin. Wei Jiansu was also nearly killed, but was spared at the last moment with severe injuries. The soldiers then surrounded Emperor Xuanzong's pavilion, and refused to scatter even after Emperor Xuanzong came out to comfort them and order them to disperse. Chen publicly urged him to put Consort Yang to death — which Emperor Xuanzong initially declined. After Wei Jiansu's son Wei E and Gao Lishi spoke further, Emperor Xuanzong finally resolved to do so. He therefore had Gao take Consort Yang to a Buddhist shrine and strangle her. After he showed the body to Chen and the other imperial guard generals, the guard soldiers finally dispersed and prepared for further travel. Meanwhile, Yang Guozhong's wife Pei Rou, son Yang Xi, the Lady of Guo, and the Lady of Guo's son Pei Hui tried to flee, but were killed in flight. Consort Yang was buried at Mawei, without a coffin, but with masses of fragrances, wrapped in purple blankets. +

In 757, Prince Li Heng, who had taken the throne as Emperor Suzong, recaptured Chang'an and welcomed ex-Emperor Xuanzong, then Taishang Huang (retired emperor) back to the capital. Emperor Xuanzong went through Mawei on his way back to Chang'an. He wanted to locate Consort Yang's body and rebury her with honor. The official Li Kui spoke against it, pointing out that the imperial guard soldiers would still be prone to reprisals if he did so. However, Emperor Xuanzong secretly sent eunuchs to rebury her with a coffin. When they found the body, it had decomposed, but the fragrance bag buried with her was still fresh. The eunuchs returned with the fragrance bag, and upon its presentation to Emperor Xuanzong, he wept bitterly. When he returned to Chang'an, he had a painter create a picture of Consort Yang in a secondary palace, and often went there to view the portrait. +

Xianzong

The last great ambitious ruler of the Tang dynasty was Emperor Xianzong (r. 805–820), his reign period aided by the fiscal reforms of the 780s, including the government monopoly on the salt industry. He also had an effective well trained imperial army stationed at the capital led by his court eunuchs; this was the Army of Divine Strategy, numbering 240,000 in strength as recorded in 798. Between the years 806 and 819, Emperor Xianzong conducted seven major military campaigns to quell the rebellious provinces that had claimed autonomy from central authority, managing to subdue all but two of them. Under his reign there was a brief end to the hereditary jiedushi, as Xianzong appointed his own military officers and staffed the regional bureaucracies once again with civil officials.

Xianzong's successors proved less capable and more interested in the leisure of hunting, feasting, and playing outdoor sports, allowing eunuchs to amass more power as drafted scholar-officials caused strife in the bureaucracy with factional parties. The eunuchs' power became unchallenged after Emperor Wenzong's (r. 826–840) failed plot to have them overthrown; instead the allies of Emperor Wenzong were publicly executed in the West Market of Chang'an, by the eunuchs' command.

Image Sources: Empress Wu, AllPosters.com; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021


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