Li Yan the Emperor Wuzong of Tang — A Short-Reigned, Excellent Monarch, and A Buddhism Terminator
Li Yan (814 — 846), respected as Emperor Wuzong of Tang, was a diligent, capable monarch that flourished the Tang Dynasty.
Meanwhile, he was a special sovereign with a beautiful love story, some controversial policies, including large scale elimination of Buddhism, and a controversial ending.
The Carefree Prince Li Yan and His Happy Early Life
As a grandson of Emperor Xianzong of Tang (778 — 820), Li Yan had never been considered as the heir of the throne, since he was not the oldest, nor most talented prince.
This allowed him to have a free and wealthy life until he was 26, as a rich and noble prince.
During this period, he made some friends outside of the political world and traveled around many places in China.
He also met the love of his life, a beautiful and smart singer named Wang, during his trip and brought her back to his palace.
Tri-coloured Glazed Pottery (Tang San Cai) of the Tang Dynasty — Tokyo National Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
During the next 20 years after Emperor Xianzong departed, Li Yan's father and two older brothers ascended to the throne in a row.
His father was a ridiculous and irresponsible monarch that only enjoyed various games and luxury lives, and passed away at a young age.
Then, Li Yan’s oldest brother, another horrible emperor, ascended to the throne, but soon was assassinated by some powerful eunuchs.
So Li Yan’s second oldest brother became the next emperor, a diligent, righteous, but incapable monarch. However, he soon became the puppet of a powerful eunuch named Qiu, after he tried to kill Qiu but failed.
Silver Plate with Gilding Bear of Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Unexpected Enthronement and Retrieving of Power
In the year 840, Li Yan's second oldest brother departed. Then the eunuch Qiu forged a will, and supported Li Yan as the new emperor.
An important reason for Qiu's support was that no one was standing by the Prince Li Yan, who was never considered to be brave or intelligent, nor had any powerful political resources.
Qiu believed that Li Yan would be an excellent political investment, and easy to manipulate.
In the beginning, as Qiu expected, young Emperor Li Yan respected him and almost followed all his suggestions.
But in the meantime, Li Yan also extremely trusted an intelligent politician named Li Deyu (787 — 850) and nominated him as the most powerful prime minister.
When Qiu found out that Li Yan was quite decisive and talented, it was already too late.
With the help of the smart prime minister, Emperor Li Yan deprived all the power of Qiu, and efficiently suppressed the whole eunuch group, only three years after he ascended to the throne.
Unearthed Painted Pottery Figurines of Taming A Horse in the Tang Dynasty — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
The Decisive Emperor Li Yan and His Exceptional Reign
After having eliminated those powerful and manipulative eunuchs, the emperor started to deal with the increasingly powerful warlords and aggressive nomadic regimes nearby, which were all solved successfully with the assistance of his excellent and trusted minister Li Deyu.
Li Yan and Li Deyu published some strict policies to manage officials, included forbidding them to be involved in business activities, raising the salary of those in remote or poverty areas, punishing or expelling unqualified and inefficient ones, and increasing officials selected from the Imperial Examination.
Li Deyu played a significant role in all of those achievements and was always trusted by the emperor; their closeness and great cooperative relationship perfectly improved the Tang Empire’s economy and people's well being.
Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils from the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China (Photo by Kanjianji)
Abolishment of Buddhism
Emperor Li Yan also implemented a controversial policy, which was aimed at restricting and abolishing Buddhism in the empire.
Li Yan himself believed in Taoism, as most of the other emperors of the Tang Dynasty.
During Li Yan's reign period, he found that Buddhists were occupying lots of people and lands, but didn’t need to pay for tax and had absolute control over all of their properties.
Under those circumstances, Emperor Li Yan commanded to reduce the numbers of Buddhist monks and nuns and dismantled many small scale temples.
This policy made almost a million people got back to agricultural production and became taxpayers, and the national treasury was largely enriched since then.
Modest Monarch Li Yan and His Controversial Ending
Emperor Li Yan's ruling period was a flourishing era when borders were at peace, officials were diligent and responsible, and people lived stable lives.
Meanwhile, he had been quite modest as well.
When officials pointed out his mistakes or provided useful suggestions, Li Yan always would apologize and then follow their advice, which was a very valuable character as an emperor with great centralized power.
His reign was exceptional but quite short.
Brocade Embroidery of the Tang Dynasty — Datang Xishi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Six years after his enthronement, Li Yan passed away out of a sudden when he was only 32. The singer named Wang committed suicide and left the world with him together.
His sudden death raised many suspicions, since he largely eliminated the eunuch group's power, had been quite strict on corrupted officials, and weakened aristocrat clans by selecting more officials from Imperial exams.
Many people had intentions to move him away from the throne.
After his departure, some eunuchs supported his uncle Li Chen as the next emperor.
Li Yan's five sons, at the same time, were disappeared from historical documentation.
Stone Carving Ostrich, Unearthed from mausoleum of Emperor Li Yan of the Tang Dynasty — Forest of Stone Steles Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
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