Li Ye the Emperor Zhaozong of Tang — Tragic Ending 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, smart, hardworking, and strong-willed. However, the empire that he took over was already declining, which had manipulative eunuchs in the royal palace, aggressive rebelling armies across the nation, and growing local military forces that were controlled by strong warlords.


Li Ye had struggled, imprisoned, escaped, and fought intensely; after a series of tragic encounters, he still never stopped struggling.


He tried his best to hold a falling mansion, but in the end, he and his entire family were buried by 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)

Enthronement and Ambition of the Young Emperor

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

Li Ye followed his brother escaped out of the capital city, and encountered many life-and-death moments, when he showed courage and talent at the same time.

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

Hence, the 21-year-old Li Ye was supported to be the new emperor, who was 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 (reigned 859 — 888) were incapable monarchs who handed to Li Ye a falling empire, which had eunuchs obtained plenty of power in the central government, large-scale peasant uprisings caused severe chaos and destructions in the nation, and warlords occupied more land and authority.

They respected Li Ye as their sovereign, but none of them actually listened to him. 

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 With Powerful Eunuchs and Warlords

Li Ye's first enemy was the most powerful eunuch named Yang that manipulated the central government and strong military forces. 

Li Ye nominated his uncle to help him to 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, which made Yang get 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 loyal general either, especially when soldiers in his army were still inexperienced.

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

Painted Pottery Horse of the Tang Dynasty

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

Puppet Monarch and His Encountered Humiliations

After those big failures, Li Ye became a puppet monarch that was manipulated by warlords.

In the next few years, he had been 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 named Zhu Wen won over others and took Li Ye under his control. 

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

Zhu Wen then forced Emperor Li Ye to move out of Tang's capital city and tore down almost everything before they left. Tens of thousands of civilians living in the capital city Chang'an were forced to migrate as well.

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.

It was built at the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, where Tang emperors lived for hundreds of years, where Emperor Li Ye was born and raised. 

This spectacular palace was 3 times the size of the Chateau de Versailles, 14 times bigger than Buckingham Palace, 4.5 times as big as the Forbidden City, then left only some 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

Persistence Struggle and the End of Tang

Under that 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.

Soon, many warlords, those who were loyal to Tang or just unsatisfied with Zhu Wen, allied together and announced war against Zhu Wen.

Before Zhu set off to the battlefield, he commanded a large group of soldiers directly 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 that were 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, though some warlords were still faithful to the Tang Empire, such as the Lord Li Cunxu, they couldn’t do anything while their emperor was still under the control of Zhu Wen.  

After Zhu Wen got the throne and poisoned the Tang's last emperor to death, those warlords and their armies became independent kingdoms as well, since they had no monarchs to serve anymore. 

Then the whole nation stepped into an era of big separation and chaos, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907 — 979).

Emperor Li Ye's Adversity and Tragedy

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

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

Those two horrible sovereigns between Emperor Li Chen and Li Ye already had destroyed this empire, extensively. 

Throughout the history of China, decency, system, and laws only worked in an established and stable empire; while in the chaotic era that was full of powerful warlords, only the intelligent monarch with strong military forces could change the situation, like those 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 didn’t have an excellent and loyal general by his side to assist him to gain enough military force to take over control of his empire.


Besides, he had no excellent military skills either. 

An emperor in those destructive situations was not lucky, an ambitious emperor who had the will to make a change and fought so intensively but failed was even sadder.

After seeing his empire had fallen in front of him, his palace and capital city were destroyed by the horrible warlord Zhu Wen, his beloved women and families were cruelly slaughtered, and the desperation and pain of the smart and ambitious Emperor Li Ye must be quite huge.

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 of Tang

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 been already under the control of Zhu Wen; his other alive sons were captured and imprisoned separately as well.

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 far and safer place.

Under Zhu Wen’s severe monitoring, Hu took the baby and successfully 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, named 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 very intelligent and won a good score in the Imperial Examination of the next dynasty.

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

As the only descendant of the royal family from the previous dynasty, Changyi could not be involved in politics anymore, since his status would be a big 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 commanded that all of his descendants should not try to change their family name back to Li, nor to recover their former empire.

Since then, Changyi lived a long and wealthy life and had lots of kids, as an outstanding litterateur and educator.

Maybe this was what his father, Emperor Li Ye, would have expected for him.

Pottery Plate of the Tang Dynasty

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