Li Cunxu — An Excellent Warlord and A Passionate Actor in the History of China

Li Cunxu (885 — 926), respected as Emperor Zhuangzong of Later Tang, was an extraordinary general, and founder of the Later Tang Dynasty (923 — 936), an empire during the Five Dynasty and Ten Kingdoms period (907 — 979).

 

He was invincible on battlefields and successfully revenged for his father and emperor. 

 

However, his obsession with music, art, performance, in addition to his incapable political talent, caused coups and rebellions that had overthrown his reign. 

 

In the end, this brilliant emperor was burnt up, together with his beloved musical instruments.

Stone Statues of the Five Dynasties Playing Musical Instruments and Dancing — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Tragedies that Happened to Li Cunxu's Emperor and Father

The forefathers of Li Cunxu were contributive to the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), so they were awarded the family name Li, the same as Tang's royal clan.

His father was one of the most powerful warlords at the end of the Tang Dynasty, who had been the longterm enemy of the destructive Zhu Wen.

Li Cunxu started to fight on the battlefields when he was only 11 years old and was always brave, so he was highly appreciated by Li Ye, Emperor Zhaozong of Tang

Years later, warlord Zhu Wen took the emperor under control, destroyed Tang's capital city, the assassinated Tang’s emperors, and the whole royal clan.

Restoration Picture of the Royal Daming Palace of the Tang Dynasty

After the Tang Dynasty was ended, the whole nation stepped into the chaotic Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms era. 

Zhu Wen forced the Tang's last emperor to abdicate the throne, and then built the Later Liang Dynasty (907 — 923).

Li Cunxu’s father was very angry and didn’t admit Zhu Wen as the new monarch. They kept fighting against each other, but no one could gain complete success.

His father soon passed away because of sickness, then Li Cunxu inherited the troop and lands.

Besides his father’s noble title and army, Li Cunxu also remembered his father’s last command, to defeat people that betrayed him, and to overthrow Zhu Wen to revenge for the Tang Empire. 

Invincible General Li Cunxu and His Successful Vengeance

Li Cunxu was quite a good militarist, and even a better general than his father, just as his former emperor Li Ye had been predicted.

In the beginning, some experienced and contributive generals in his father’s army, including his uncles and cousins, were unsatisfied with him being the new lord and the marshal, so they planned to murder Li Cunxu and then comply to Zhu Wen.

As a 23-year-old lord who already had over a decade’s military experience, Li Cunxu calmly ambushed and killed those antagonistic generals, and took absolute control of his father’s army and regime. 

Soon Zhu Wen led his army trying to invade this young lord; however, Li Cunxu successfully defended his lands and defeated Zhu Wen’s strong troop, which brought some relatively peaceful years to develop agriculture and economy of his kingdom.

Gilding Flowers Decorated Siver Plate, the Late Tang Dynasty to Five Dynasties — Dingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Then Li Cunxu kept winning and expanding his realm, and more warlords that wanted to recover the Tang Empire joined him.

Years later, he defeated Zhu Wen again in a large scale war, which made Zhu Wen feel ashamed and desperate. He realized that Li Cunxu was far better than any of his sons, and his kingdom might be perished by this young man.

Soon, Zhu Wen was murdered by his son, while Li Cunxu kept expanding his territory.

As a general, Li Cunxu was extremely insightful and brave, who always charged forward in the battlefront and sometimes even made himself in a very dangerous situation.

After years of intense battles, he defeated all of his father's enemies and perished Zhu Wen's Later Liang Dynasty.

Finally, he finished vengeance for his father and the late emperor, 15 years after their death.

Painted Stone Relief of Warriors of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms — National Museum of China

Reestablishment of the Tang Empire

In the year 923, about 16 years after the Tang Dynasty was ended, Li Cunxu claimed himself emperor and named his kingdom as Tang again. 

However, after Li Cunxu finished vengeance and established his kingdom, he was not a good emperor that could manage and develop his empire very well.

His greedy, incapable queen almost shared the same amount of power as he did; he also elected officials based on their family origins instead of ability, which was a big backslide in the history of China. 

Li Cunxu the Emperor Zhuangzong of Later Tang, conquered and obtained large territory, but he didn't build a good, suitable system for his new empire. 

Copper Flying Deity Figurine of Later Tang Dynasty — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

A Professional Actor and A Failed Emperor 

Most importantly, Li Cunxu was a passionate fan of drama.

As an emperor, he did not only enjoy watching dramas, he also wrote lyrics and music, and enjoyed dressing up and performing.

Moreover, he even took a stage name, made friends with, and empowered lots of actors.

To be honest, he was a very good and devoted actor; but when he behaved as a professional actor who spent lots of time singing and performing, his reign was in danger.

Three years after his enthronement, some large scale rebellion wars outburst, and Li Cunxu got shot in intense fights.

Then, one of his actor friends covered his body by his beloved musical instruments and burnt them down together.

Li Cunxu's sons sacrificed or disappeared during that chaos, and his cousin ascended to the throne. 

Li Cunxu only left a daughter behind, the Princess Yining. Her granddaughter then became the third queen of Zhao Kuangyin, the founding emperor of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279). 

Gold Dragon of the Five Dynasties — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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