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Li Longji — The Controversial Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, and His 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 that obtained the throne through his courage and talent, a smart monarch that brought his people one of the most prosperous eras in Chinese history, the Great Reign of Kaiyuan.  

In addition, he was an outstanding calligrapher and poet with masterpieces, and a great musician that was expertise in many types of instruments and left many amazing compositions behind.

However, when he and his empire reached the peak, an eight year long destructive war, the An-Shi Rebellion, erupted and caused huge loss. It was the turning point of the Tang Dynasty, which started to decline since then.

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

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

Unstable, 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 8 years old, his mother was framed, and then secretly executed by Empress Wu. No one knew how did she end up, or where she was buried. 

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

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

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

Ambitious, Brave Li Longji Won the Throne for His Father

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

Li Xian was quite weak and incapable, who couldn’t make any right decisions, and had  power obtained by his evil queen Wei and greedy daughter Li Guoer, who brought chaos to the society. 

A few years later, Li Xian passed away out of a sudden, some people believed was poisoned by Wei and Li Guoer, Wei supported her five year old son as the new puppet emperor, and planed to be the second female emperor, like Wu Zetian.

During his uncle’s reign, Li Longji secretly developed his own force among the imperial guards, and allied with his aunt Princess Taiping. 

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

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

After a long night’s of intense fights, they won, and then perished the entire Wei clan. 

Li Longji the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

The Enthroned Emperor Xuanzong of Tang 

After Li Longji executed his aunt and her daughter, his father was supported to be 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, he didn’t care or desire the emperor’s power much. For him, a stable, relaxed life sounds more appealing. 

Hence, two years later, he resigned, and gave the throne to Li Longji.

But, the Princess Taiping, another ambitious, intelligent, and powerful royal that contributed in that coup, have been displeased with lots of Li Longji’s decisions. So she allied many powerful officials and generals, and planed to initiate another coup. 

Li Longji, now the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, attacked her force first. After having perished all of her supporters through 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, the 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 of the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China (Photo by Kanjianji)

Emperor Xuanzong of Tang and His Great Reign of Kaiyuan 

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

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

The cultivated land per person back then was about 6.5 times of it in today’s China; minorities and foreign neighbors were communicating kindly and were living in peace. 

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

Art, poem, 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 personally 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 to do a good job.

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

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

Those professional generals and soldiers, they were garrisoning in borders and defending the flourishing Tang, so that civilians were able to live a stable, wealthy lives, without having to serve in the army anymore. 

Inscriptions on Mount Tai, Written by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang to Memorize the Grand Fengshan (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 of women in his life, with over 60 kids documented. Ironically, few of those women had a happy ending. 

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 his being the emperor. 

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

There was one exception, the 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 smart. She tried her best to be involved in politics, made strong allies with officials, and planned to make her son Li Mao as the crown prince. 

Hence, she framed up 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 sad, since he had lost interest to all women in his royal palace.

Restoration Picture of the Royal Daming Palace of the Tang Dynasty

Rise of the Yang Clan

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

Therefore, he commanded Yang to practice Taoism in his imperial temple, then assigned another woman to be Li Mao’s wife. Afterwards, he officially nominated Yang as his imperial consort.

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

Everybody believed that Emperor Xuanzong of Tang truly loved Yang Gui Fei. 

Li Longji and Yang Gui Fei were all great musicians that had created many amazing musical masterpieces together, and made great contributions to Chinese music history.

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

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

 

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

The emperor, however, cared less about politics and spent more time enjoying life with Yang. 

From his perspective, his empire was powerful and prosperous, his people were living in peace and wealthy, he himself was living happily with the amazing woman that he loves. He had gained everything he wanted, and created an unparalleled great reign. 

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

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

Erupting of A Destructive War — The An-Shi Rebellion

In the year 755, two warlords named An Lushan and Shi Siming initiated a big rebel war, in the name of eliminating treacherous Yang Guozhong. 

They were the commanders of three huge professional troops in the border of the Tang Empire, which were supposed to guard the central government from 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, An Lushan’s desire for power and land.

 

Most importantly, rising of professional soldiers largely strengthened An Lushan’s troop, while Yang Guozhong’s failed wars severely weakened Tang’s military force.  

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 there was a war approaching, until they actually saw the blood and dead bodies.

 

Tang's army lost many cities to the rebel troop in the beginning; tens of thousands of people lost their homes and lives.

The Emperor Xuanzong of Tang now was already 70 years old, 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 which caused a huge failure, and decided to escape southwestward, after hearing that the rebel army was marching toward the capital city Changan. 

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

Losing Yang Gui Fei in A Mutiny

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

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

During Li Longji’s escape journey, they witnessed countless refugees and blood, and endless empty houses. His honorable imperial guards, who left their families and now had to beg for food from civilians.

They were extremely angry, so, they found an opportunity and killed Yang Guozhong, the incapable official who caused such destructions. His entire family, include Yang Gui Fei’s sisters, were all murdered in that chaos.

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

Afterwards, those imperial guards threatened the Emperor Xuanzong to kill Yang Gui Fei.

They blamed Yang and her brother as an important reason for turning such a wonderful empire into the one with wars and chaos. Also, since they already killed Yang Guozhong, they worry that if Yang Gui Fei was still alive, she might search for vengeance in the future.

Hence, the emperor commanded Yang Gui Fei to die.

Deprived Throne of The Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

After Yang Gui Fei passed away, the emperor’s imperial guards apologized for the mutiny, continued to protect him and arrived the southwest of 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 like Guo Ziyi, Li Guangbi, Zhang Xun, and Yan Zhenqing, with the assistance of loyal soldiers and large numbers of brave civilians who wanted their stable lives back, the Tang Empire kept winning. 

During this period, Li Longji stayed in a safe city, lived a less luxurious life. Later, he found that his crown prince already ascended to the throne, supported by most of the Tang’s officials and generals.

One year later, Tang’s army won back the capital city, and Li Longji was welcomed back to Changan. 

However, to Li Longji, this was not the same city that he decided to give up two years ago. 

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

Li Longji's Miserable and Heartbroken Later Years

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

During that period, he was still provided ok, though, with little freedom.

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

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

After all, Li Longji used to be a remarkable emperor that 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 that had executed three of his own sons within a day. 

Hence, when some conspiracies against Li Longji were brought up, the new emperor Li Heng gave out 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 passed away there, sick and lonely. 

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

The Complex Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

As an emperor, Li Longji brought to his people the most prosperous era of the Tang Dynasty; also, however, brought to his empire the cruel war and irreversible destruction, 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 had never got back the lost prosperity. 

Li Longji's love story with Yang was widespread and eulogized for generations. As a husband, he tried his best 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 huge 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 had gained and, then, lost almost everything, his achievements and faults were all extreme 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 — Beilin Museum of Xi'an

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 Gui Fei to his royal palace.