Li Chen -- Double-Faced Emperor of Tang Dynasty in History of China

Li Chen (801 -- 859) was an emperor who had two completely different faces. 


The first half of his life was the face of a timid and stupid prince, who could be fooled and manipulated by everyone. 


After he wore the crown, immediately, he became a decisive and remarkable emperor who brought to his people the last flourishing era of the Tang Dynasty in the history of China.

Unappreciated Prince Who Has to Pretend to Be A Fool

Li Chen was the 13th son of Emperor Li Chun, but his mother was only a maid of a concubine in the royal palace.


As a prince, Li Chen was very quiet and inconspicuous, because of his mother’s low status; this made many people think that he was not smart and quite indifferent.


After Li Chen’s father passed away, his oldest brother ascended to the throne, then three of his nephews became emperors in succession.


During that period, Chen was more behaved, and talked less, unless his nephew emperors forced him to chat for fun; he even tried to behave like a brain-damaged person sometimes. 


When his nephew emperor, the Emperor Li Yan passed away, some powerful eunuchs and ministers supported Li Chen as the next emperor, because they felt that this foolish prince was easier to control, compared to Li Yan’s young sons with a powerful empress dowager and a strong clan. 

Getting the Throne and Changing to A Strong Emperor 

Li Chen then ascended to the throne when he was 37 years old, because he didn’t have a noble mother with a strong clan, and he seemed weak-willed, timid, quiet, and not bright.


However, after he became a monarch, he changed, immediately, to a decisive, intelligent, and strong emperor in the history of China. 


Emperor Li Chen, also respected as Tang Xuan Zong, showed gratitude to the eunuchs who supported him with the throne, but he also smartly constricted their power and occupations; as for other eunuchs, he removed their authorities, gradually and kindly.

In the meantime, he ended the partial conflict by abolishing the most powerful minister, right after he ascended to the throne and before everyone was even noticed.


Till now, Emperor Li Chen grasped centralized power in his own hands within a very short time, without any violence, but was extremely efficient. Afterward, people started to realize that they were fooled by Li Chen’s innocence for a long time.


Then the powerful empress dowager and her clan, eunuch groups, and powerful ministers all complied with this new emperor. 


Remarkable Emperor Li Chen and His Excellent Policies 

Emperor Li Chen was a true believer of the Imperial Examination and largely increased numbers of officers who were selected by those exams in his government.


Every governor of each province would be interviewed by the emperor in person before they took office, and all unqualified ones would be demoted or abolished immediately.


Besides, he extremely respected his intelligent ministers and always treated them like honorable guests, as long as they were well behaved and contributive; but for people who broke the law, Li Chen would punish them with no mercy, no matter how much he liked them before. 


He admired the sincere and trust relationship between famous Emperor Li Shimin and imperial censor Wei Zheng, so Li Chen tracked Wei Zheng’s descendant and nominated him as his imperial censor. Chen did this not for a gesture, he listened and followed bright advises, as long as they were reasonable.


When Emperor Li Chen wanted to take a short vacation to the royal thermal palace to relax, imperial censors said he shouldn’t, since he may delay the administration works; then Chen canceled his plan.


Moreover, since his mother was a maid before, Emperor Li Chen was always kind to all the servants in his palace; he could remember all their names and occupations and made sure they were well paid and taken care of. 


Emperor Li Chen also had undone many destructive policies to Buddhism that his nephew Emperor Li Yan had implemented, which recovered Buddhism and made sure religious free policy under his ruling.


Besides, though he was very kind and polite, he was never weak in the military. Li Chen recovered most of the Tang Empire’s lost lands in the past few years, and successfully brought civilians peaceful and wealthy lives again.  


Moreover, Emperor Li Chen was an extremely self-disciplined person. Besides strictly followed imperial censors’ suggestions, he was also very rigorous to his descendants and concubines, sometimes even quite harsh.


Once, he received an extremely beautiful singer as a tribute, and he took her as a concubine. However, after Li Chen found he was too attracted to her stunning beauty and outstanding talents, he killed her; he believed that he and his empire didn't want to repeat the sad story of Emperor Li Longji and his favorite concubine Yang Yuhuan. Afterward, no one could hold him back.


As a worshiper of Tang’s great Emperor Li Shimin, he did quite a good job and people respected him as the second version of Li Shimin in the history of China.


The same, he was a good poet and calligrapher as well and left many masterpieces behind. 


Incapable Heirs and Decline of the Empire Tang 

Unfortunately, Emperor Li Chen’s strict parenting didn’t leave the Tang Empire with a good heir.


His crown prince and grandson, the next two emperors after Li Chen, were two irresponsible monarchs in the history of China, who only spent time enjoying lives and had no political talents.


These two descendants dramatically declined the Tang Empire and caused some severe problems, including powerful eunuch groups that could manipulate central government, and strong warlords that kept occupying more lands in border areas.


Those made Li Chen the last good emperor with glorious achievement in the Tang Dynasty. 

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