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Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Li Longji — A Controversial Reign Marked by Extreme Accomplishments and Destruction

Li Longji (685 — 762), respected as Emperor Xuanzong of Tang or Tang Ming Huang, was one of the most controversial monarchs in the history of China.

He was a brave prince who obtained the throne through his courage and talent, an intelligent monarch who brought his people one of the most prosperous eras in Chinese history, the Great Reign of Kaiyuan.  

Besides, he was an outstanding calligrapher and poet with masterpieces and a great musician who was an expert in many types of instruments and left many excellent compositions behind. 

However, at the peak of his reign and the empire's prosperity, the eight-year-long An-Shi Rebellion erupted, resulting in devastating losses. This rebellion marked a turning point for the Tang Dynasty, initiating its decline.

This war also took away almost everything from Emperor Xuanzong of Tang: his power, beloved woman, family, loyal friends, dignity, respect, and freedom.

Part of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang's Calligraphy Work "Ji Ling Song", Which Recorded Close Relationship Among His Brothers

Part of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang's Calligraphy Work "Ji Ling Song" that Recorded Close Relationship Among His Brothers — Taipei Palace Museum

Unstable and Turbulent Childhood of Prince Li Longji

Li Longji’s father was the fourth son of Empress Wu Zetian and Emperor Li Zhi.

When Li Longji was born, his father had already ascended to the throne but was practically imprisoned by Empress Wu. Before his father’s enthronement, his uncle had already been abolished from the throne by Empress Wu.

Five years later, Wu Zetian abrogated Longji’s father and claimed herself the emperor. 

Hence, Longji and his whole family were isolated in a palace and lived an unstable, worrisome life.


When he was eight years old, his mother was framed and then secretly executed by Empress Wu. No one knew how she ended up or where she was buried. 

Painting of Queen Wu Zetian Patrolling in the Royal Palace, by Court Artist Zhang Xuan of the Tang Dynasty

Painting of Queen Wu Zetian Patrolling in the Royal Palace, by Court Artist Zhang Xuan of the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China

Prince Li Longji was finally set free when he was 14, after which he was able to meet with more people and was assigned some political positions.

During that period, he married a noble girl named Wang, who accompanied him in his hardest times and supported him in whatever happened. 

A few years later, when Empress Wu Zetian was old and sick in bed, she was forced to abdicate in a coup and gave the throne to her third son, Li Longji’s uncle.

Ambitious and Brave Li Longji Won the Throne for His Father

His uncle Li Xian (656 — 710), Emperor Zhongzong of Tang, didn't get abolished without any reason. 

Li Xian was relatively weak and incapable, couldn't make any right decisions, and had power obtained by his Empress Wei and daughter Princess Anle, who brought chaos and instability to society. 

A few years later, Li Xian passed away suddenly, and some people believed Wei and Anle poisoned him. Wei supported a boy as the new puppet emperor and then planned to enthrone herself to be the second female emperor, like Wu Zetian.

During his uncle's reign, Li Longji clandestinely cultivated his influence among the imperial guards while forming alliances with his aunt, Princess Taiping.  

Princess Taiping, the beloved and favorite daughter of Empress Wu Zetian, was quite bright, ambitious, and powerful. 

After Li Xian passed away, Li Longji and Princess Taiping initiated a coup, which got volunteer support from most imperial guards. 

After a night of intense fighting, they emerged victorious, resulting in the demise of the entire Wei clan.

Moreover, that night, Li Longji also killed Princess Taiping's ally, the first and only female prime minister Shangguan Wan'er.

Li Longji the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

Li Longji the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Ascended to the Throne

After Li Longji executed his aunt and her daughter, his father was supported as the new emperor. 

His father, Li Dan (662 — 716), the Emperor Ruizong of Tang, knew nothing about this coup until Li Longji and Princess Taiping won and enthroned him.

His older brother, who was supposed to be the crown prince, insisted that Longji was more talented and contributive; therefore, Li Longji was nominated as the heir of Tang.

As one of Empress Wu Zetian's sons, Li Dan always lived in caution and fear and had suffered some life-and-death moments. 

So, after being enthroned, he used his sister, the powerful Princess Taiping, to balance Li Longji's authority. 

Two years later, to correspond to a celestial phenomenon, he resigned and gave the throne to Li Longji.

However, Li Dan's balance strategy, which allowed Princess Taiping and Li Longji to participate in politics, also severely intensified conflicts. 

It's also possible that when Li Longji killed Taiping's ally Shangguan Wan'er, he already considered his aunt Taiping the biggest enemy. 

Taiping allied with many powerful officials and generals and tried to abolish Li Longji. 

Li Longji, now the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, attacked her force first.


After having perished all her supporters through an intense battle, She lost. 

His father begged him to let go of Princess Taiping, but Li Longji commanded her to suicide. 

Since then, Li Longji, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, gained the absolute authority of the Tang Empire and started the Great Reign of Kaiyuan.

Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils from the Tang Dynasty

Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils of the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China (Photo by Kanjianji)

Emperor Xuanzong of Tang and His Great Reign of Kaiyuan 

The Great Reign of Kaiyuan (713 — 741) was one of the most prosperous and wealthiest epochs in the history of China.  

The Tang Empire’s prosperity peaked when its population reached 80 million, and the territory extended to 10.76 million square kilometers.

Back then, the cultivated land per person was about 6.5 times that in today’s China; minorities and foreign neighbors communicated kindly and lived in peace. 

Science (especially Chinese astronomy and calendar), collections, and publications of books all achieved remarkable developments during this period. 

Art, poetry, agriculture, economy, transportation, commerce, handicrafts, and Taoism Religion all developed unprecedentedly.

Exquisite Artifacts Produced During the Reign of the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

Photo by Museum Photographer Dongmaiying

These were accomplished under the reign of the remarkable Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, with the assistance of many brilliant prime ministers, whom he nominated, regardless of their original families.  

He also hired and examined magistrates of local counties by himself to make sure they were qualified and capable of doing a good job.

Large numbers of officials were reduced, especially those useless positions set up during his uncle Li Xian and aunt Wei’s ruling period. Afterward, the political system was much more efficient and energetic.

Meanwhile, he took back farmlands from powerful aristocratic clans, redistributed them to civilians, and established professional armies and military sites. 

Those professional generals and soldiers garrisoned in borders to defend the flourishing Tang so that civilians could live stable, wealthy lives without serving in the army. 

Inscriptions on Mount Tai, Written by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

Inscriptions on Mount Tai, Written by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang to Memorize the Grand Feng Shan (the most significant and honorable sacrificial rite in ancient Chinese history) Ceremony (the Gold Characters on the Right). 

Abundant Love Stories of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

Emperor Xuanzong of Tang had a few dozen women, with over 60 kids documented in his life. Ironically, few of those women had happy endings. 

His queen Wang, the girl he married when he was very young, who accompanied him through thick and thin, was abolished a few years after he was the emperor.  

Other beautiful imperial concubines might gain his attention for a while but would be replaced soon after new beautiful women appeared. 

There was one exception, Lady Wu, who was the grandniece of Empress Wu Zetian. 

Li Longji met and liked Lady Wu when they were both young and nominated her as his imperial consort soon after he got the throne. 

Lady Wu was beautiful, ambitious, and intelligent. She tried her best to be involved in politics, made strong allies with officials, and planned to make her son Li Mao the crown prince. 

Hence, she framed the current crown prince and two other princes, who were later executed under the command of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang. 

However, Lady Wu passed away only a few months after those three princes were executed. 

Emperor Xuanzong of Tang felt very upset since he had lost interest in all the women in his royal palace.

Restoration Map of Palace of the Tang Dynasty

Restoration Picture of the Royal Daming Palace of the Tang Dynasty

Rise of the House of Yang

Later, at a royal family banquet, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang met a stunningly beautiful woman, Yang Yuhuan, the beloved wife of his son Li Mao and daughter-in-law of Lady Wu and himself. 

Consequently, he directed Yang to undergo Taoist practices at his imperial temple and arranged for another woman to marry Li Mao. Subsequently, he formally appointed Yang as his imperial consort.

Yang Yuhuan, also respected as Lady Yang or Yang Guifei, was an excellent dancer and genius musician in the history of China.

Many people believed that Emperor Xuanzong of Tang truly loved Yang Guifei. 

Li Longji and Yang Guifei were great musicians who created many amazing musical masterpieces and significantly contributed to Chinese music history.

Yang Guifei or Yang Yuhuan of the Tang Dynasty

The emperor did almost everything he could to make her happy and nominated nearly all her relatives to make her smile.

Later, Yang’s brother became the powerful prime minister, who was also the worst in that period. 


Her brother Yang Guozhong was good at collecting money and entertaining the emperor; he had promoted many incapable officials willing to bribe him and initiated some failed wars that caused losses to the Tang Empire. 

However, the emperor cared less about politics and enjoyed life with Yang more. 

From his perspective, his empire was powerful and prosperous, his people were living in peace and wealth, and he was living happily with the amazing woman he loved. He had gained everything he wanted and created a remarkable unparalleled reign. 

Everything was too perfect to realize that a huge disaster was coming.

Painted Pottery Horse of the Tang Dynasty

Painted Pottery Horse of the Tang Dynasty — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Erupting of A Destructive War — The An-Shi Rebellion

In 755, two warlords, An Lushan and Shi Siming, initiated a large-scale rebellion under the name of eliminating the treacherous Yang Guozhong.

They were the commanders of three massive professional troops on the border of the Tang Empire, which were supposed to guard the central government against nomadic regimes.


This meant those rebel armies were quite experienced and strong. 

Their rebel reasons are various; some important ones include personal hatred between Yang Guozhong and An Lushan and An Lushan’s desire for power and land.


Most importantly, the rise of professional soldiers vastly strengthened An Lushan’s troops, while Yang Guozhong’s failed wars severely weakened Tang’s military force. 

The Draft to Memorize Heroically Sacrificed Yan Jiming (Ji Zhi Wen Gao) that Recorded Brave Soldiers of Tang and the Intense Fights in the An-Shi Rebellion, Written By Great General and Extraordinary Calligrapher Yan Zhenqing

Yan Zhenqing's Calligraphy Draft to Memorize His Heroically Sacrificed nephew Yan Jiming (Ji Zhi Wen Gao), Recorded Brave Soldiers of Tang and the Intense Fights in the An-Shi Rebellion — Taipei Museum

On the other side, soldiers and civilians of the Tang Empire had been living in peace and wealth for too long.


In the beginning, they couldn't even believe that a war was approaching until they saw the blood and dead bodies.


At first, Tang's army lost many cities to rebel troops; tens of thousands lost their homes and lives.

Emperor Xuanzong of Tang was already 70 years old, but he still sent the right generals and made the best decisions. 

However, he listened to Yang Guozhong's suggestions in the end.


The emperor executed some excellent generals who caused big failures and decided to escape southwestward after hearing that the rebel army was marching toward the capital city of Chang'an. 

Capital Chang An City of the Tang Dynasty

Restored Picture of Part of the Chang An City of the Tang Dynasty

The Loss of Yang Guifei in a Mutiny

The emperor made the escape decision in a hurry; hence, he only took along some royal members, important officials, and his imperial guards.

Hearing the emperor had already fled, many soldiers and officials lost faith, and the rebel army occupied more cities.

During Li Longji’s escape journey, they witnessed countless refugees, blood, and endless empty houses.


His honorable imperial guards left their families and now had to beg for food from civilians.

They were outraged, so they found an opportunity and killed Yang Guozhong, the incapable official who caused such destruction.


His entire family, including Yang Guifei’s sisters, were murdered in that chaos.

Mutiny Against the Yang Clan in Ma Wei Po in the Tang Dynasty

Some people believed the mutiny was those soldiers' volunteer activities; others suspected it was supported by the current crown prince, whose many loyal friends and officials were demoted or framed by Yang Guozhong. 

Afterward, those imperial guards threatened Emperor Xuanzong to kill Yang Guifei.

They blamed Yang and her brother as an important reason for turning such a prosperous empire into one with wars and chaos.

They had already killed Yang Guozhong, but they worried that if Yang Guifei were still alive, she might seek vengeance.

Hence, the emperor commanded Yang Guifei to die.

Deprived Throne of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

After Yang Guifei passed away, the emperor’s imperial guards apologized for the mutiny, continued to protect him, and arrived in southwest China.  

The current crown prince Li Heng decided to go north to the front line to lead Tang’s army and fight against An Lushan. 

The crown prince led exceptional generals such as Guo Ziyi, Li Guangbi, Zhang Xun, and Yan Zhenqing, and with the assistance of loyal soldiers and numerous brave civilians who sought to restore stability to their lives, the Tang Empire continued to achieve victories.

During this period, Li Longji stayed in a safe city and lived a less luxurious life.

Golden-Blue Landscape Painting or Jinbi Shanshui "Minghuang Xingshu Tu" by Li Zhaodao (675 — 758), About Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Fled to Sichuan during An-Shi Rebellion

Painting "Minghuang Xingshu Tu" by Li Zhaodao (675 — 758), About Li Longji Fled to Sichuan during An-Shi Rebellion. This is the copied version by people of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), preserved in the Taipei Palace Museum.

Later, he found that his crown prince had already ascended to the throne, supported by most of the Tang's officials and generals.

One year later, Tang's army regained the capital city, and Li Longji was welcomed back to Chang'an. 

However, to Li Longji, this was not the same city that he had decided to abandon two years prior. 

He couldn't return to his fabulous royal palace and was practically imprisoned by the former crown prince Li Heng, now Emperor Suzong of Tang.

Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Li Longji Came Back as An Overlord

Miserable and Heartbroken Later Years

In the beginning, Li Longji still could talk to his sister, some old officials, and servants. He even sometimes would invite nearby civilians to eat and chat.

He was still provided ok, though, with little freedom during that period.

He spent a lot of time missing Yang, the woman he liked a lot but sacrificed due to his fault. He wanted to rebury her next to his mausoleum but was refused.

A few years later, Li Longji’s frequent meetings with former officials, generals, and civilians made the new emperor feel threatened.

After all, Li Longji used to be a remarkable emperor who had initiated two successful coups that defeated many strong enemies and created the Great Reign of Kaiyuan.


Meanwhile, he was also a cold-blooded monarch who had executed three of his sons within a day.  

Hence, when some conspiracies against Li Longji were brought up, the new emperor Li Heng gave his acquiescence.

Then, Li Longji was forced to move to an isolated palace, and all the people that Li Longji was familiar with were expelled or killed.


Some new servants were sent to both serve and monitor him. 

About one year later, Li Longji died there, sick and lonely. 

Mausoleum of the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (Tang Tai Ling)

Mausoleum of the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (Tang Tai Ling) — Pucheng County, Shaanxi Province

The Complexity of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

As an emperor, Li Longji brought to his people the most prosperous era of the Tang Dynasty; he also brought cruel war and irreversible destruction to his empire, which weakened the Tang Dynasty dramatically.

Around 36 million people in the north lost their lives because of this An-Shi Rebellion.

After that eight-year-long war, the empire started to decline gradually and never regained the lost prosperity. 

Li Longji's love story with Yang was widespread and eulogized for generations. As a husband, he tried to give her everything he could.

However, his beloved woman was frequently criticized and blamed for having hindered him, which caused both the war and the massive decline of the Tang Empire in the history of China. 

Furthermore, as the most powerful man of that time, he couldn't protect her and commanded her to die.

As a powerful monarch who experienced both great success and devastating loss, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang's achievements and faults were marked by extremes, making his legacy both remarkable and controversial.

Stele Carved with Confucius' The Classic of Xiao (Xiao Jing), Wrote by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, the Preface was Inscribed by His Son the Emperor Suzong of Tang

Stele Carved with Confucius' The Classic of Xiao (Xiao Jing), Wrote by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, the Preface was Inscribed by His Son the Emperor Suzong of Tang — Beilin Museum of Xi'an

Part of Rubbing of the Carved of The Classic of Xiao (Xiao Jing) by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang.

Part of Rubbing of the Carved of The Classic of Xiao (Xiao Jing) by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang. 
Right after he and his crown prince finished this stele, he welcomed Yang Guifei to his royal palace. 

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