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Li Ye the Emperor Zhaozong of Tang — The Tragic End of the Tang Dynasty

Li Ye (867 — 904), respected as Emperor Zhaozong of Tang, was the penultimate monarch of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907).

He was ambitious, intelligent, hardworking, and strong-willed.


However, the empire he inherited was already in decline, plagued by manipulative eunuchs in the royal palace, aggressive rebel armies across the nation, and the rise of local military forces controlled by powerful warlords.


Li Ye endured imprisonment, escape attempts, and intense battles, facing a series of tragic encounters. Yet, he never ceased his relentless struggle.


He tried his best to uphold a crumbling mansion, but in the end, he and his entire family were buried beneath the collapsed debris.

Part of A Golden Crown of the Tang Dynasty

Part of A Golden Crown of the Tang Dynasty — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Enthronement and Ambition of the Young Emperor

When Li Ye was a teenager and his older brother was still the emperor, some large-scale rebellions caused massive destruction to the empire and slaughtered many royals. 

Li Ye followed his brother, escaped from the capital city, and encountered many life-and-death moments when he showed courage and talent.

Years of fleeing later, they were finally welcomed back to the capital city, and soon his older brother passed away. 

Hence, the 21-year-old Li Ye was supported as the new emperor, ambitious about recovering the empire's property.

Gilding Silver Cup of the Tang Dynasty

Gilding Silver Cup of the Tang Dynasty — Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

His father and older brother (who reigned from 859 to 888) were incapable monarchs who bequeathed to Li Ye a crumbling empire.


Eunuchs had amassed significant power in the central government, large-scale peasant uprisings wrought severe chaos and destruction throughout the nation, and warlords seized additional land and authority.

They respected Li Ye as their sovereign, but none heeded his counsel.

Hence, Li Ye spent most of his money and organized a royal troop with about 100,000 soldiers.

Tri-coloured Glazed (Tang San Cai) Military Official Figurine of the Tang Dynasty

Tri-coloured Glazed (Tang San Cai) Military Official Figurine of the Tang Dynasty — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Struggle Against Powerful Eunuchs and Warlords

Li Ye's first enemy was the most potent eunuch, Yang, who manipulated the central government and strong military forces. 

Li Ye nominated his uncle to help him weaken Yang's authority, but Yang found out and assassinated Li Ye's uncle and his whole family.

The emperor then allured Yang's biggest supporter and alienated their relationship, making Yang furious and allied some military forces to rebel. 

Hence, Li Ye commanded some warlords to defeat this rebellion, and about a year later, he successfully eliminated Yang and his large manipulative eunuch forces.

However, those warlords kept expanding.


They had independent armies, territory, and administrative power and only respected Li Ye as the nominal monarch.

Therefore, with the assistance of some loyal warlords, Li Ye commanded his newly built royal troop to fight against the most threatening, disobedient warlords. 

Unfortunately, those warlords were not quite dedicated nor loyal; the emperor didn’t have a talented and reliable general either, especially when soldiers in his army were still inexperienced.

Soon, his 100,000 soldiers’ royal troops perished after two tragic failures. 

Painted Pottery Horse of the Tang Dynasty

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

Puppet Monarch and the Humiliations He Endured

After those significant failures, Li Ye became a puppet monarch that warlords manipulated.

In the next few years, he was taken as a hostage, imprisoned, and abolished by different warlords, when he was poorly provided for, and lots of royal princes were assassinated.  

Until the most powerful one, Zhu Wen, prevailed over the others and brought Li Ye under his control.

Emperor Li Ye was forced to nominate Zhu Wen as the most powerful minister of the Tang Empire, making Zhu Wen the regent of the nation.

Zhu Wen then forced Emperor Li Ye to move out of Tang's capital city, tearing down almost everything before they left.


Tens of thousands of civilians living in the capital city, Chang'an, were also forced to move.

Capital Chang An City of the Tang Dynasty

Restored Picture of Part of the Chang'an City of the Tang Dynasty

Tang Empire's fabulous royal palace, the Daming Palace, was torn down and burnt up.

Built at the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, it had been where Tang emperors lived for hundreds of years, and Emperor Li Ye was born and raised.  

This spectacular palace was three times the size of the Chateau de Versailles, fourteen times larger than Buckingham Palace, and 4.5 times the size of the Forbidden City, but it was left with only a few relics after Zhu Wen's destruction.

Countless valuable timbers and residues were thrown into and floating in the river. 

During this journey, hundreds of Li Ye's servants were replaced by Zhu Wen's followers, using people with similar features.

When Li Ye found out, he was almost alone, under the absolute control of the warlord Zhu Wen.

Restoration Map of Palace of the Tang Dynasty

Restoration Picture of the Royal Daming Palace of the Tang Dynasty

Persistent Struggle and the End of the Tang Dynasty

Under those desperate circumstances, Li Ye still didn't give up.


He secretly sent out some commands, asking other warlords of Tang to fight against Zhu Wen.

Many warlords, loyal to Tang or unsatisfied with Zhu Wen, soon allied together and declared war against Zhu Wen.

Before Zhu set off to the battlefield, he commanded a large group of soldiers to rush into Li Ye's bedroom, assassinating the emperor and his beloved concubine cruelly. 

Because Li Ye was too mature, ambitious, and difficult to control.

Golden Dragons (Zou Long) that used as Ritual Implements of Taoism Religion Ceremony in the Tang Dynasty

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

Then, Zhu Wen chose and supported one of Li Ye's sons, a teenager, to be the next emperor while he slaughtered the rest of the emperor's sons and other princes and officials still loyal to the Tang Empire and dumped their bodies in rivers.

Three years after Emperor Li Ye's death, Zhu Wen forced the new emperor to abdicate the throne and ended the Tang Dynasty.

In the past, although some warlords remained loyal to the Tang Empire, such as Lord Li Cunxu, they were powerless to act while their emperor was under the control of Zhu Wen.

After Zhu Wen seized the throne and poisoned the last emperor of the Tang to death, those warlords and their armies became independent kingdoms, as they no longer had any monarchs to serve.

Then the nation entered an era of profound division and chaos, known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907 — 979).

Emperor Li Ye's Adversity and Tragic Fate

Li Ye's grandfather Emperor Li Chen was the last great monarch of the Tang Dynasty, who brought prosperity to this kingdom. 

In the beginning, Emperor Li Ye's policies were not wrong, and he was diligent and well-planned, so he shouldn't take responsibility for those tragedies at the end of the Tang Dynasty. 

Those two inept sovereigns between Emperor Li Chen and Li Ye had already inflicted extensive damage upon the empire.

Throughout the history of China, decency, system, and laws worked primarily in established and stable empires.


In chaotic eras dominated by powerful warlords, only intelligent monarchs with strong military forces could effect change, much like the founders of each dynasty.

Sculpture Stone Horses in Tang Tai Zong's Mausoleum (Zhao Ling), War Horses of His Six Important Wars.

War Horses of Emperor Taizong,  An Invincible Marshal and A Great Monarch that Built the Tang Dynasty.
The Last Two Are In Penn Museum, The Rest Are in Forest of Stone Steles Museum of Xi'an.

Unfortunately, Emperor Li Ye lacked an excellent and loyal general by his side to assist him in amassing enough military force to regain control of his empire.


Additionally, he himself lacked exceptional military skills.

An emperor in such destructive situations was not fortunate; what's even more tragic is when an ambitious emperor, driven by the will to effect change, fought intensely but ultimately failed.

After witnessing his empire crumble before him, with his palace and capital city razed by the ruthless warlord Zhu Wen, and his beloved women and family brutally slaughtered, the despair and anguish felt by the intelligent and ambitious Emperor Li Ye must have been immense.

Crystal Cup of the Tang Dynasty

Crystal Cup of the Tang Dynasty — Tang West Market Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Hope and Inheritance of the Royal Li Clan

The luckiest thing in Emperor Li Ye’s life probably was how he saved his youngest son.

When this baby boy was born, Li Ye had already been under the control of Zhu Wen; his other living sons were also captured and imprisoned separately.

So Li Ye and his queen gave this baby to a brave and loyal person named Hu and asked him to take the baby away from the royal palace and escape to a distant and safer place.

Under Zhu Wen’s strict monitoring, Hu took the baby and escaped to the south. 

A few months later, Li Ye and most of his sons were assassinated; three years later, nearly the entire royal family of Tang, the Li Clan, were all slaughtered cruelly by Zhu Wen, except the baby boy. 

The baby, Changyi, was taken to Hu’s hometown and raised by him.

Gold Phoenix of the Tang Dynasty

Gold Phoenix of the Tang Dynasty — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Changyi was highly intelligent and achieved a high score in the Imperial Examination of the succeeding dynasty.

Then Hu, his adopted father, told him his real identity and showed him the royal keepsakes from his birth parents.

As the sole descendant of the royal family from the previous dynasty, Changyi could no longer participate in politics, as his status would pose a significant threat to both the monarch of the next dynasty and himself.

So he quit his political occupation and started to teach in the civilian world.

He respected his adoptive father and decreed that his descendants should not attempt to reclaim their family name of Li or restore their former empire.

Afterward, Changyi lived a long and prosperous life, raising many children, and earning renown as an outstanding litterateur and educator.

Perhaps this was what his father, Emperor Li Ye, would have hoped for him.

Pottery Plate of the Tang Dynasty

Pottery Plate of the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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