Li Chen the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang — Double-Faced Monarch of Tang Dynasty

Li Chen (810 — 859), respected as Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, was a legendary monarch that 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 (618 — 907).

Golden Dragons (Zou Long) that used as Ritual Implements of Taoism Religion Ceremony in the Tang Dynasty

Golden Dragons (Zou Long) that used as Ritual Implements of Taoism Religion Ceremony in the Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Unappreciated Prince Pretending to Be A Fool

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

Because of his mother's low status, Li Chen, even as a prince, had been quiet and inconspicuous, which made many people believe that he was indifferent, maybe not smart either. 

After Li Chen’s father passed away, his oldest brother and this brother's three sons became emperors in succession.

During that period, many royals were assassinated because of the intense competition over the throne. 

Hence, Li Chen talked less, unless the emperors forced him to talk to entertain others.

Bronze Mirror of the Tang Dynasty Decorated by Mother-of-Pearl (Luo Dian)

Bronze Mirror of the Tang Dynasty Decorated by Mother-of-Pearl (Luo Dian) — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Assassinations from A Smart Emperor

Nearly everyone in the royal palace believed Li Chen was somewhat brain-damaged and a fool, except for Li Yan the Emperor Wuzong of Tang (814 — 846).

Emperor Wuzong was an excellent monarch and a brilliant person, who found that his uncle Li Chen was just pretending to be a fool. 

Afterward, Li Chen encountered many "accidents", such as falling off the horse while playing polo or falling asleep on the snowfield, and then was left behind.

Pottery Figurines Play Polo of the Tang Dynasty

Pottery Figurines of the Tang Dynasty Play Polo — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

But Li Chen always could survive and came back to his palace later.

In some gossips, Emperor Wuzong later commanded a close eunuch to murder Li Chen secretly, but this eunuch helped Li Chen escape to another city, and then lied to the emperor.


The eunuch thought that a fool prince might be a good puppet in the future.

This escape might not be real, but the idea was quite correct.

Sudden Enthronement with Support of Eunuch Group

Soon, Emperor Wuzong of Tang passed away, and some powerful eunuchs supported Li Chen as the next emperor. 

They believed that the foolish prince Li Chen with no political resources would be easier to control, compared to Emperor Wuzong’s sons with a powerful empress dowager and a strong clan. 

Li Chen then ascended to the throne when he was 36 years old, for didn’t have a noble mother with a strong clan, and was weak-willed, timid, quiet, and not bright.

Everyone in the palace and government was still thinking about how to manipulate the new fool emperor to obtain benefits and power. 

However, the new emperor Li Chen changed, immediately, into a decisive, intelligent, and strong emperor, and made moves first.

Stone Lion of the Tang Dynasty

Stone Lion of the Tang Dynasty — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Retrieving Authority and Defeating Political Enemies

He showed gratitude to the eunuchs that supported him to obtain the throne, but he also smartly constricted their power and occupations; as for other eunuchs, he removed their authority, gradually and kindly.

In the meantime, he ended the intense 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 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 officials all complied with this new emperor, before they got a chance to fight back. 

Remarkable Emperor Li Chen and His Excellent Reign

Emperor Li Chen was a true believer in the Imperial Examination and largely increased the number of officials that were selected by the 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. 

Moreover, Li Chen recovered most of the Tang Empire’s lost lands during his ruling period and successfully brought civilians peaceful and wealthy lives again.  

Mural of Tang Dynasty About General Zhang Yichao (799 — 872) and His Army — 156th Cave of Mogao Grottoes

Mural of Tang Dynasty About General Zhang Yichao (799 — 872) and His Army that Recovered Many Lost Cities Along the Silk Road — 156th Cave of Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang

Li Chen admired the sincere and trusting relationship between famous Emperor Taizong of Tang and imperial censor Wei Zheng, so Li Chen tracked Wei Zheng’s descendant and nominated him as his imperial censor, and followed the bright advice as long as they were reasonable. 

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

Emperor Li Chen also had undone many destructive policies against Buddhism that his nephew the Emperor Wuzong of Tang had implemented, which recovered Buddhism and made sure religious free policy under his rule.

Gilding and Painted Clay Sculpture Buddha of the Mogao Grottoes

Gilding and Painted Clay Sculpture Buddha of the Mogao Grottoes — Harvard Art Museums (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Kind and Self-Disciplined Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

Since his mother was a maid before, 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. 

Moreover, he was extremely self-disciplined and was also very rigorous to his descendants and concubines, sometimes even quite harsh.

Once, he received an extremely beautiful singer as a tribute gift, and he took her as a concubine. 

However, after Li Chen realized that he was too attracted to her stunning beauty and talents, he commanded to execute 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.

Besides, Li Chen was a good poet and calligrapher as well and left many masterpieces behind. 

Silver Hairpin (Zan) of the Tang Dynasty Decorated with Gilding Phoenixes

Silver Hairpin (Zan) of the Tang Dynasty Decorated with Gilding Phoenixes — Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Great Emperor, Incapable Heirs, and Declined Tang Empire

As a worshiper of the great Emperor Taizong of Tang, Li Chen did quite a good job and people respected him as Emperor Taizong Junior, which was quite a high honor for a monarch.

Li Chen always liked his fourth son and wanted to nominate him as the heir; however, his first son, the first boy that Li Chen and his queen had, should be the crown prince according to the rules. 

Hence, Li Chen never made up his mind, which gave many people time and chances to choose sides.

Unearthed Golden Decoration of A Deer Running

Golden Decoration of Running Deer of the Tang Dynasty — Qinghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

After Li Chen passed away, his first son's supporters defeated the fourth's. 

Unfortunately, his first son and grandson, the two emperors after Li Chen, were irresponsible and incapable monarchs that only spent time enjoying lives and had no political talents.

These two emperors' reign (859 — 888) dramatically declined the Tang Empire and increased severe problems, including powerful eunuch groups that could manipulate the central government, and strong warlords that kept occupying more lands in the border areas.

When the penultimate emperor Li Ye ascended to the throne, his efforts and ambition were unable to make any big changes. 

Crystal Cup of the Tang Dynasty

Crystal Cup of the Tang Dynasty — Tang West Market Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)