top of page

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, an intelligent monarch that 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 that was an expert in many types of instruments and left many excellent 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 losses. It was the turning point of the Tang Dynasty, which started to decline since then.

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, 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, 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 secretly developed his 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 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 long night's intense fights, they won, and the entire Wei clan perished. 

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

The Enthroned Emperor Xuanzong of Tang 

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 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 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 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. 

Therefore, he commanded Yang to practice Taoism in his imperial temple, then assigned another woman to be Li Mao's wife. Afterward, 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.

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

Li Longji and Yang Gui Fei 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.