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Li Cunxu — An Excellent Warlord and A Passionate Actor

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 Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907 — 979).


He was invincible on the battlefield and successfully avenged both his father and the former emperor.


However, his obsession with music, art, and performance and his lack of political talent caused coups and rebellions that overthrew his reign. 


In the end, this brilliant emperor was cremated alongside his beloved musical instruments.

Unearthed Stone Statues of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Playing Musical Instruments and Dancing

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

Tragedies Befalling the Emperor and Father of Li Cunxu

Li Cunxu's forefathers contributed 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 potent warlords at the end of the Tang Dynasty, who had been the long-term 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, and assassinated Tang's emperors and the royal clan.

Restoration Map of Palace of the Tang Dynasty

Restoration Picture of the Royal Daming Palace of the Tang Dynasty

After the Tang Dynasty ended, the nation entered the chaotic Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms era. 

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

Li Cunxu's father was 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 died from sickness, and Li Cunxu inherited the troops and lands.

In addition to inheriting his father's noble title and army, Li Cunxu also remembered his father's last command: to defeat those who betrayed him and overthrow Zhu Wen to avenge the Tang Empire.

Invincible General Li Cunxu and His Victorious Vengeance

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

As a 23-year-old lord with over a decade of 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 troops, which brought some relatively peaceful years to develop the agriculture and economy of his kingdom.

Gilding Flowers Decorated Siver Plate, the Late Tang Dynasty to Five Dynasties

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 who 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 surpassed all of his sons in ability, and that his kingdom might perish at the hands of this young man.

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

As a general, Li Cunxu was extraordinarily insightful and brave; he always charged forward on the battlefront and sometimes even put himself in a hazardous situation.

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

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

Painted Stone Sculpture of Warriors of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

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

Reestablishment of the Tang Dynasty

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

However, after Li Cunxu finished vengeance and established his kingdom, he was not a good emperor who 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, Emperor Zhuangzong of Later Tang, conquered and obtained a large territory, but he didn't build a suitable system for his new empire. 

Copper Flying Deity Figurine of Later Tang Dynasty, the Empire that was Built by Li Cunxu

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 adopted a stage name, befriended, and empowered numerous actors.

He was an outstanding and devoted actor. However, when he prioritized his theatrical pursuits, spending considerable time singing and performing, his reign faced jeopardy.

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

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

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

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

Unearthed Gold Dragon of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

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

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