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Li Yan the Emperor Wuzong of Tang — A Short-Reigned Monarch and Terminator of Buddhism 

Li Yan (814 — 846), respected as Emperor Wuzong of Tang, was a diligent and capable monarch who brought prosperity to the Tang Dynasty.

Additionally, he was a unique sovereign who had a captivating love story, implemented contentious policies such as the large-scale elimination of Buddhism, and met a controversial end.

Pottery Figurines Play Polo of the Tang Dynasty

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

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 the heir to the throne since he was neither the oldest nor most talented prince.

This gave him a free and wealthy life until he was 26, as a rich and noble prince.

During this period, he made friends outside of the political world and traveled around many places in China.

During his trip, he also met the love of his life, a beautiful and intelligent singer named Wang, and brought her back to his palace. 

Tri-coloured Glazed Pottery (Tang San Cai) of the Tang Dynasty

Tri-coloured Glazed Pottery (Tang San Cai) of the Tang Dynasty — Tokyo National Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Over the next 20 years following Emperor Xianzong's departure, Li Yan's father and two older brothers successively ascended to the throne.

His father was a ridiculous and irresponsible monarch who only enjoyed various games and luxurious lives and passed away at a young age.

Then, Li Yan's oldest brother, another horrible emperor, ascended to the throne but was soon 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 the Tang Dynasty

Silver Plate with Gilding Bear of Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Unexpected Enthronement and Reclamation of Authority


In the year 840, Li Yan's second oldest brother departed. Then eunuch Qiu forged a will and supported Li Yan as the new emperor. 

One significant reason for Qiu's support was the absence of backing for Prince Li Yan, who was never regarded as brave or intelligent, nor did he possess any influential political resources.

Qiu believed Li Yan would be an excellent political investment and easy to manipulate. 

At the outset, as Qiu anticipated, young Emperor Li Yan showed him respect and largely adhered to his suggestions.

However, during this time, Li Yan placed great trust in an intelligent politician named Li Deyu (787 — 850), appointing him as the most powerful prime minister.

It was already too late when Qiu discovered that Li Yan was decisive and talented.

With the help of the intelligent 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

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 eliminating those powerful and manipulative eunuchs, the emperor began addressing the increasingly powerful warlords and aggressive nomadic regimes nearby.


With the assistance of his excellent and trusted minister Li Deyu, these challenges were successfully resolved.

Li Yan and Li Deyu implemented several strict policies to govern officials. These included prohibiting them from engaging in business activities, raising the salaries of those in remote or impoverished areas, punishing or expelling those who were unqualified or inefficient, and increasing the number of officials selected through the Imperial Examination.

Li Deyu played a significant role in all 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

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

Abolition of Buddhism

Emperor Li Yan also implemented a controversial policy to restrict and abolish Buddhism in the empire.

Li Yan believed in Taoism, like most of the other emperors of the Tang Dynasty. 

During Li Yan's reign, he observed that Buddhists held significant wealth and land, exempt from taxation and with complete autonomy over their assets.

Under those circumstances, Emperor Li Yan commanded to reduce the number of Buddhist monks and nuns and dismantled many small-scale temples.

This policy made almost a million people get back to agricultural production and become taxpayers, and the national treasury has been vastly enriched since then.    

The Modest Monarch

Under Emperor Li Yan's rule, the realm experienced a golden age of prosperity and stability.


Borders were secure, officials exhibited diligence and integrity in their duties, and the populace enjoyed a sense of security and well-being in their daily lives.

Meanwhile, he had been modest as well.

When officials pointed out his mistakes or provided valuable suggestions, Li Yan always apologized and followed their advice, which was an excellent character as an emperor with great centralized power.

His reign was exceptional but relatively short. 

Brocade Embroidery of the Tang Dynasty

Brocade Embroidery of the Tang Dynasty — Datang Xishi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Controversial End of Emperor Li Yan


Six years after his enthronement, Li Yan suddenly passed away when he was only 32.


The singer named Wang committed suicide and left the world with him together.

The circumstances surrounding Emperor Li Yan's sudden death indeed raised numerous suspicions.


His decisive actions to curb the power of the eunuch group, his strict measures against corrupt officials, and his efforts to weaken the influence of aristocratic clans by promoting officials based on merit from the Imperial exams likely made him many enemies within the court.

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. 

At the same time, Li Yan's five sons disappeared from historical documentation. 

Stone Carving Ostrich, Unearthed from mausoleum of Emperor Li Yan of the Tang Dynasty

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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