Li Kuo the Emperor Dezong of Tang — Monarch of Self Contradiction

Li Kuo (742 — 805), Emperor Dezong of Tang, was born and raised during one of the most prosperous eras in the history of China.

When he was a teenager, the turning point of the Tang Dynasty, the destructive An-Shi Rebellion (755 — 763) outburst. 

It took away over 35 million lives and largely declined the empire. 

Li Kuo fought in the army, and then spent most of his life ambitiously trying to recover the great kingdom that he had seen during his childhood, however, he failed. 

After he realized that he could never make that dream come true, Li Kuo changed to a completely different person. 

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

A Carefree Prince and the Destructive War

Li Kuo was the first great-grandson of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, the monarch that brought one of the most flourishing eras in the history of China, the Great Reign of Kaiyuan. 

As a legit heir to the empire, Li Kuo was well-educated, showed great talent in literature, poems, calligraphy, and medicine, and lived a wealthy, carefree life.

Unfortunately, when he was 13, the An-Shi Rebellion happened. 

An-Shi were two generals that garrisoned on the borders of the Tang Empire that led independent troops that were consisted of over 200,000 well-trained, professional warriors.

The Draft to Memorize Heroically Sacrificed Yan Jiming (Ji Zhi Wen Gao) that Recorded Brave Soldiers of Tang and the Intense Fights in the An-Shi Rebellion, By Great General and Extraordinary Calligrapher Yan Zhenqing — Taipei Museum

On the other side, most Tang's people had lived in peace for generations, and couldn't believe a huge war was about to come.  

Many cities of Tang that had been attacked by the rebel army in the first round fell into the rebel army's control since their governors either surrendered or escaped.

Besides, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang's a series of wrong commands made Tang's army kept losing. 

Afterward, Emperor Xuanzong took his favorite woman, the Lady Yang, escaped out of the capital city, and went to a safer place in the southwest of China.

Restored Picture of Part of the Chang An City of the Tang Dynasty

Fierce Battles Against Rebellion Armies

Sadly, Li Kuo’s beloved mother didn't make it to escape with other royals and was lost in that chaos. 

Li Kuo’s grandfather and father didn't follow Emperor Xuanzong; they decided to stay close to the battlefields and command Tang’s army to fight back.

Li Kuo had participated in the battlefield with his father and later was nominated as the chief commander of the Tang’s army. 

With the assistance of intelligent, brave, and loyal generals and soldiers, as well as courageous civilians of Tang, his father and he finally led Tang’s army defeated those rebellion troops after eight years of arduous wars.

However, he never found his mother, no one knew how and where she ended, though Li Kuo spent his whole life trying to find her.

Silver Hairpin (Chai) of the Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Efforts to Recover Prosperity of the Tang Empire

A decade later, Li Kuo ascended to the throne, after his grandfather and father all passed away.

In the first 13 years of Li Kuo's life, as the heir of the Tang Empire, he had a full image about how a great, prosperous empire should look like.

Hence, he did his best, trying to recover the glorious kingdom that lives in his memory.

He was very diligent and frugal, and respected General Guo Ziyi as the most honorable minister.

Seeing what his father’s eunuchs had done to Guo Ziyi and other loyal people before, Li Kuo tried his best to limit the eunuch’s power and nominated many talented officials.

Under his governance, taxes were simplified and lowered, the economy and agriculture were encouraged and gradually recovered.

Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils from the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China (Photo by Kanjianji)

Half-Independent Military Forces that Were Hard to Control

However, the consequences of the An-Shi Rebellion were still serious.

Except for the dramatic decline of population and economy, many nearby nomadic regimes also found it a great opportunity to attack and take advantage of the Tang Empire.

Moreover, during that war, many loyal generals expanded their armies and contributed a lot to defeat the rebel troops. At the same time, however, they also occupied plenty of independent power when the central government was weak.

After the war, they still were loyal to the royal family and Tang Empire; but those newly empowered warlords didn’t want to lose authority either.

Those former counties of Tang now became half-independent, local military forces, which was a severe problem for the rest emperors of the Tang Dynasty. 

Li Kuo’s father, Emperor Daizong of Tang was the chief commander that led Tang’s army fought for a long time, most of the generals and warlords were very loyal to him, who also kept those general’s powers and privileges in return.

After his father and those contributive generals passed away, Li Kuo refused hereditary within those local forces and planned to take back control over the military, like things used to be before the An-Shi Rebellion.   

Therefore, the conflict between Emperor Li Kuo and those powerful warlords or their descendants became severe and obvious.

Remarkable and loyal generals like Guo Ziyi were not common, most people were still normal and simple: they would fight for their country, but they also wanted more power and privileges based on their contributions.

As long as one had tasted power, it was very hard to let go. 

Gilding Silver Wine Cup (Yu Shang) of the Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Emperor's Effort, Struggle, and Failure

 

During the first few years, after Emperor Li Kuo disagreed with the succession system within those local military forces, he commanded loyal generals to attack those disobeyed ones.

In the meantime, he also needed to protect his kingdom from nearby nomadic regimes.

For a while, he almost succeeded.

However, years later, an army initiated a coup because they were treated unfairly; then a sly opportunist made it expanded to a big rebel war against the emperor.

Li Kuo then escaped out of the capital city in a hurry.

It had lasted for months until Li Kuo published a famous self criticize article saying that he was wrong and was responsible for all the wars and chaos in his empire, and he claimed that surrendered people would be pardoned.

Painted Pottery Horse of the Tang Dynasty — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Afterward, most rebel armies stopped fighting and surrendered, and those invasive nomadic troops were successfully defeated.

An important reason was that Tang’s former emperors brought people stable and wealthy lives for a long time; therefore, most civilians and soldiers had strong faiths in Tang. 

Moreover, at that time, those warlords only wanted more power, not the title of a traitor, nor to overthrow Tang's reign.

A few months later, after the only rebel army that resisted surrender was defeated, Li Kuo was welcomed back to the capital city.

The Tang Empire then finally stabilized, with a central government, surrounded by some powerful warlords and their local military forces. 

Tri-coloured Glazed Pottery Plate (Tang San Cai) of the Tang Dynasty — Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Changing To A Completely Different Monarch

 

After that big rebellion, Emperor Li Kuo changed a lot and published a series of self-contradicted policies.

In the beginning, he tried his best to suppress eunuchs and those independent warlords. But afterward, he became suspicious to officials in his government and started to trust eunuchs close to him, especially those who risked their lives to protect him during his escaping journeys on wars.

Afterward, Li Kuo assigned eunuchs as the chief commanders of his imperial guards, which officially gave the eunuch group with military power, until the end of the Tang Dynasty.

He also allowed the existence and legality of more power of those warlords which he tried his best to weaken before.

Legacy and Hope that Li Kuo Left to His Grandson

 

When everything was stable, Tang's army defeated the big invasion of some nomadic regimes' alliance, which severely weakened the Tibetan Empire (Tubo), who pursued peace with Tang for good.

Li Kuo also implemented another widely criticized policy in his late years, in which he tried everything possible to collect money for the exchequer.  

Maybe after long term fights and frustrations, only close eunuchs and assets could give him some sense of security. 

Maybe he secretly prepared an important, strong asset to his beloved grandson Li Chun: plenty of money, and a strong troop that only listens to the emperor.

Surprisingly, though Li Kuo had been quite occupied during his entire life, he was an excellent calligrapher and poet that left many outstanding masterpieces.

Moreover, he even wrote a medical book introducing hundreds of prescriptions, which was quite impressive for a hectic emperor. 

Jade Cup Carved with Lonicera Japonica Pattern of the Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Ambition and Controversy of Emperor Li Kuo

Based on Li Kuo's personal experiences and the cruel but realistic condition, his choices were not difficult to understand.

Having seen the destructive war, huge decline, and lost his mother when he was only a teenager; then he dedicated almost the rest of his life in fighting in battles and trying to recover the prosperous Tang Empire from his memory, but in the end, had to bend and apologize to rebel generals, and to make lots of compromises that he wasn’t willing to.

However, destructions that the An-Shi Rebellion brought the empire were too influential, which was the biggest reason for Li Kuo’s sadness and contradictions in his whole life.

Therefore, in the end, he had to give up on the ambitious dream that he had since childhood. 

Inscriptions on Mount Tai, Written by Li Kuo's Great-grandfather 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) and his Great Reign.

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