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Tang Dynasty Emperors
Four Most Noteworthy Tang Emperors
Around a score of emperors reigned in the Tang Dynasty, of whom four are better known to the common Chinese populace.
On the top of the list is certainly the founder of the Tang – Emperor Gao-Zu (private name: Li Yuan, r. 618~626). A cousin to Emperor Yang of Sui (r. 604~617) (as the two shared the same maternal grandparents), Li Yuan was created Duke of Tang and appointed governor of Taiyuan. The Sui Empire was bogged down in the mire of peasant uprisings and rebellions caused by Emperor Yang’s abuse of power. Li Yuan raised his own troops and rebelled against Emperor Yang, who was later murdered during his “inspection tour” in Jiangdu (modern-day Yangzhou), proclaimed the founding of Tang in 618, and reunified China through a series of military campaigns.
Li Yuan, founding emperor of Tang Dynasty.
Emperor Tai-Zong, a model ruler of ancient China.
In his successful rebellion, Li Yuan was ably assisted by a group of capable generals and advisors. These included his second son Li Shiming, who later ascended to the throne and was to be more popularly known as Emperor Tai-Zong of Tang (r. 626~649). The most capable of Li Yuan’s sons, Li Shiming’s contribution to the Tang’s founding far outweighed those of his brothers. He staged a coup d’etat in which his force killed his elder brother, the crown prince, and forced Li Yuan to “retire”, passing the throne to himself. However, such a blot on his reputation would not prevent him from being recognized as one of the most respectable “model emperors” of China’s imperial times. His reign, named “Zheng-Guan”, was to be held as an exemplary model period throughout the rest of Chinese history. Besides military success against invasions from the Turks in the north, peace and prosperity were to follow in the ensuing century and more. Emperor Tai-Zong is notable for his readiness to endure criticisms which too many other rulers would find hard to accept while refraining from abusing power. He filled his administration with capable ministers with integrity. Even his wife, Empress Zhangsun, proved a most well-liked model empress, too.
Thirdly comes a most “unique” emperor of the entire Chinese history. It is a female sovereign – Empress Wu Zetian (r. 690~705). Forcing her sons to abdicate in her favour, Wu Zetian became the only de jure ruling Empress Regnant. Traditional Chinese order of succession banned women from succeeding to the throne. Wu managed to quash the opposition and broke the precedents. On her way to power, she resorted to murdering her own daughter and eldest son (the crown prince who posed a threat to her ascension). Despite controversies, she proved a competent ruler with a convincing track record in administration.
Empress Wu Zetian, the only recognized female sovereign of the entire Chinese ancient history.
Emperor Xuan-Zong, who brought the Tang Empire to a pinnacle and then let it plunge into chaos and decline.
The fourth acclaimed Tang emperor is Emperor Xuan-Zong (r. 712~756). As his temple name “Xuan” (玄, meaning “confusing, hard to understand”) implies, this is, again, a controversial ruler. The first half of his reign saw him appoint capable chancellors such as Yao Chong and Song Jing, and the Tang Empire came to a pinnacle of culture, economy, and power (known as the “Period of Prosperity under Kai-Yuan”). Confusingly, in the latter half, he would over-trust Li Linfu, Yang Guozhong, and An Lushan, and the golden age ended in the An Lushan Rebellion (755~763). Today’s Chinese populace tend to remember him for his tragic love story with Consort Yang (Yang-Gui-Fei, one of the four most beautiful women of ancient China).
Tang Emperors and “Elixir of Life”
Seeking immortality seems a shared concern of all Chinese emperors. The interest in seeking an elixir of life was particularly strong with the Tang emperors. At least half of them were recorded to take elixir of life (alchemical medicines, mostly made by smelting natural mineral substances such as lead, sulfur, mercury, gold, etc, all harmful to the body). The deaths of five Tang emperors could be directly attributed to taking it, including Emperor Tai-Zong.
A furnace used by ancient Chinese alchemists to make pills of immortality.
Tang Emperors and Eunuchs
A more startling, and lasting, phenomenon with later Tang Dynasty emperors was the dominance of the eunuchs in court politics. Similar circumstances occurred in other dynasties, too, for instance, Han and Ming. But in no other times were the eunuchs as powerful as those in the late Tang. After the An Lushan Rebellion, which was waged by a general from the frontier regions, Tang emperors seemed to have developed a nagging misgiving about delegating too much power to the military. Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712~756) set the precedent of assigning eunuchs to the armies as royal inspectors to monitor and curb the power of the generals.
By the time of his great grandson Emperor De-Zong (r. 779~805), the Imperial Garrison (the finest imperial army stationed to defend the imperial capital Chang’an) began to be controlled by eunuchs appointed by the emperor. This proved a disastrous move. Eunuchs had become so powerful as to not only influence the personnel installation of the bureaucracy, but dictate the very position and security of the emperors. Emperor Shun-Zong, who succeeded Emperor De-Zong, reigned for merely six months plus before being forced to abdicate in favour of his crown prince, the later Emperor Xian-Zong (r. 805~820). This represents a retaliation of the eunuchs for Emperor Shun-Zong’s support for the reformists who aimed to rid the Garrison of eunuch control. And Emperor Xian-Zong would be poisoned to death by the eunuchs fifteen years later, while his successor Emperor Mu-Zong (r. 820~824) did not even dare to inquire any further into the incident. A culminating incident of the eunuchs’ power struggle with the Tang emperors took place in 835. Prime ministers of Emperor Wen-Zong (r. 809~840) drew up a plan to kill the leading eunuchs, which was, unfortunately, seen through by the latter. The outcome of this abortive coup was a massacre of over one thousand pro-emperor officials, though the emperor himself was spared. In fact, from Emperor Xian-Zong until the final collapse of the Tang Empire, all emperors but one had been chosen by the eunuchs.