Tang Taizong Li Shimin — Innovator of Tang Dynasty and All-Powerful Emperor

Tang Taizong (599 — 649), named Li Shimin and respected as Emperor Taizong of Tang, was the second monarch of the Tang Dynasty, and an all-mighty person.

 

When he put on armor and carried his two-meter-long bow, he was one of the most extraordinary marshals in the ancient history of China with remarkable military accomplishments and archery skills.

When he wore the crown, he was a remarkable emperor that brought his people the Great Reign of Zhenguan, when people lived dignified, wealthy, and happy lives.

Moreover, when he picked up the writing brush, he left for the world many excellent poems and calligraphy masterpieces.

Rubbing of Inscription of Tang Tai Zong's Calligraphy "Wen Quan Ming"

Rubbing of Inscription of Tang Taizong's Calligraphy "Wen Quan Ming" — Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Photo by wiseworm)

Brave and Talented Noble Li Shimin

Li Shimin was born into an honorable, aristocratic clan of the Sui Dynasty. His grandfather was a noble lord, and his grandmother was the sister of Queen Dugu

His father Li Yuan (566 — 635), an accomplished and talented general, was assigned as the chief commander that garrisoned Taiyuan city to fight against the nomad Tujue in the north.  

When Li Shimin was young, he married the love of his life, the beautiful Zhangsun.

When the Emperor Yang of Sui (569 — 618) was once besieged on the battlefield fighting against Tujue, the 16-year-old Shimin joined Sui’s army, assisted the current general, and saved the emperor.  

His first fight was brilliant, which impressed the emperor and many other soldiers. 

Soon, his father was promoted, and he started to serve in his father’s army. 

Before Li Shimin was 18, he had already seen the fabulous palace and luxurious lives of the royalty of the Sui Dynasty and witnessed the intense and cruel fights on the battlefields.

13-Block Golden Jade Belt (Die Xie Jin Yu Dai) Unearthed From Mausoleum of Yang Guang, the Highest Format of Jade Belt for Emperor

13-Block Golden Jade Belt (Die Xie Jin Yu Dai) Unearthed From Mausoleum of Yang Guang, the Highest Format of Jade Belt for Emperor — Yangzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Establishment of the Tang Dynasty

When he turned 18, the reign of the Sui Dynasty was under severe challenge. Many uprising armies already occupied some cities, and Emperor Yang of Sui fled to another place in the south. 

Li Yuan, the noble and general of the Sui Dynasty, still hesitated if he should try and save the emperor, or just stay in his city and observe other rebel armies’ wars.

 

At the same time, Li Shimin tried his best to persuade, even half compel, Li Yuan to rebel.

 

In the end, Li Yuan agreed to rise in rebellion, in the name of bringing peace to the whole of the nation. 

At that time, they only had 30,000 soldiers, and the Taiyuan city that they were garrisoning. 

Stele in Jinci Temple of Taiyuan City, Written by Emperor Tang Tai Zong
20180715145625879.jpg

Stele in Jinci Temple of Taiyuan City, Written by Emperor Taizong in the Year 646, to Memorize Their Rise in Rebellion Here and to Pray for Blessing to the Tang Dynasty. 

Li Yuan and his kids were all exceptional generals.

 

Li Shimin, his big brother Li Jiancheng, and his fourth brother Li Yuanji, together led their Tang army to keep marching and winning. 

His sister, the future Princess Ping Yang Zhao, also recruited an army to support them and obtained big success. 

About 4 months later, they occupied Changan, the capital city of the Sui Dynasty, and supported a teenage prince, the grandson of Emperor Yang of Sui, as the new puppet emperor. 

Another few months later, Emperor Yang of Sui was assassinated. 

Then, Li Yuan forced the puppet emperor to abdicate the throne and established the Tang Dynasty.

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) 

Remarkable Military Achievements of Prince of Qin

Li Yuan now became the Emperor Gaozu of Tang, and he nominated his oldest son Li Jiancheng as the crown prince.

Li Shimin, the second son of Li Yuan, was appointed as the Prince of Qin, and marshal of the Tang’s army. 

In the next few years, the Prince of Qin, one of the best militarists in the history of China, led Tang’s army and defeated other strong uprising troops, and made irreplaceable contributions to the Tang’s unification of China.

From a small regime that only occupied a few cities, to a large unified Empire Tang, Li Shimin was the most contributive person. 

During that period, he was the best intelligence officer that spied and collected useful information, a great friend that rushed into intense battlefields and saved many generals’ lives, a brave warrior that had participated in many wars in person, and an extraordinary commander that made Tang's army invincible.  

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

Sculpture Stone Horses in Tang Taizong's Mausoleum (Zhao Ling), War Horses of His Six Important Wars.
Their Names Are Te Le Biao, Qing Zhui, Shi Fa Chi, Bai Ti Wu, Quan Mao Guan, Sa Lu Zi.
The Last Two Are In Penn Museum, The Rest Are in the Forest of Stone Steles Museum of Xi'an.

What’s more, he always could defeat way outnumbered enemies; in the War of Hulao Gate, he led 3500 cavalries and successfully perished about 100,000 enemies. 

If Shimin had been only a general, his extraordinary military accomplishments were already a huge threat to a monarch, let alone he was the second son of the emperor, and with a great reputation among civilians, Tang’s generals, and officials.

Therefore, his older brother, the crown prince Li Jiancheng, considered him the biggest competitor and threat, even enemy. 

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

Unearthed Tri-coloured Glazed Pottery Horse (Tang San Cai) of the Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Threaten and Hatred From the Crown Prince

The crown prince Jiancheng (589 — 626) was an excellent heir, a talented commander, and a sly politician.

After he was nominated as the crown prince, he was assigned more administrative work, while his younger brother Shimin kept achieving extraordinary military successes and expanding Tang's territory. 

Besides, their fourth brother Yuanji, another brave and excellent general, is also on side of Jiancheng.

Therefore, Jiancheng had the support of their father the emperor, their fourth brother, and some important ministers, while Shimin had his followers from the army and a few scholar-officials. 

Part of "Shi Ba Xue Shi Tu" the In Regard to Talented and Famous Scholars That Were Serving Tang Tai Zong, Painted by Zhao Ji the Emperor Huizong of Song (1082-1135).

Part of "Shi Ba Xue Shi Tu" the In Regard to Talented and Famous Scholars That Were Serving Tang Taizong, Painted by Zhao Ji the Emperor Huizong of Song (1082-1135) — Taipei Palace Museum

These two forces intensively kept competing over the power, but they were all too powerful to have easily perished.

Shimin wanted to work and live in another city, but his father and big brother all strongly opposed it.

 

They worried that it would be too easy for him to organize another invincible army and establish another regime if he lived in another place, without strict and direct supervision.

A few years after the Tang Empire unified the whole of the nation, Shimin heard that his father and the crown prince were planning to remove military power away from him, by nominating his fourth brother Yuanji as the new marshal of Tang; some people recorded that the crown prince even tried to poison Shimin to death, but failed.

Gilding Silver Cup of the Tang Dynasty

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

Xuanwu Gate Incident — Cruel Coup and Intensive Fights Over the Throne

On the other side, Shimin and his followers didn’t want to comply with the crown prince Jiancheng and give up the empire they gained through difficult wars.

Hence, he decided to initiate a coup. And this time, he would either win or die.

That was the Xuanwu Gate Incident. 

One day, Shimin and his wife Zhangsun led about 10 of his trusted generals ambushed at Xuanwu Gate of the royal palace, where Jiancheng and Yuanji would pass by to meet the emperor.

When they encountered, these three brothers that used to fight on battlefields side by side, started to shoot arrows at each other.

 

Shimin killed his old brother with only one arrow, while his fourth brother kept struggling and fighting back.

Soon, a brave general led 70 warriors and joined to fight for Shimin.

The crown prince’s followers then led their 2000 elite soldiers to invade Shimin’s palace, they fought bravely and the battle was quite intense. 

Soon, besides those who had sacrificed, the rest of them surrendered after they saw the late crown prince Jiancheng’s dead body. 

Epitaph of Late Crown Prince Li Jiancheng

Epitaph of Late Crown Prince Li Jiancheng — Xian Museum

The Enthronement of Tang Taizong

Hearing what had happened in front of the Xuanwu Gate, Li Yuan had to nominate Li Shimin, who obtained the support of the Tang’s army, as the new crown prince.

 

A few months later, he abdicated the throne and spent the rest of his comfortable, luxurious retirement life in some fancy palaces. 

Then, Li Shimin ascended to the throne as Emperor Taizong of Tang, also respected as Tang Taizong, and sentenced all the sons of Jiancheng and Yuanji to death. 

He buried his two brothers, using the prince's ceremony. Those who had served and fought for them before were all pardoned. 

The way that Shimin achieved the throne was cruel, however, many officials and large numbers of civilians didn't care much about competing over the throne among the ruling class. 

What they have been concerned about was whether the monarch could bring them better lives, which Emperor Taizong had successfully accomplished.  

Restoration Map of Palace of the Tang Dynasty

Restoration Picture of Royal Daming Palace Established Since 634 for Li Yuan to Enjoy His Retirement Life

Tang Taizong and His Great Reign of Zhenguan

After those political enemies were all eliminated, Taizong started his rule as one of the greatest monarchs in the history of China.

He inherited and further refined those good policies from the Sui Dynasty.

As a person from a powerful aristocratic clan, he tried his best to limit and weaken the Dominant Family System, just like the Emperor Yang of Sui did, by refining and extensively implementing the Imperial Examination system.

More talented civilians were selected into the ruling class, while incapable nobles were removed gradually.

Taizong also increased the number of imperial censors and gave them enough freedom to suggest or criticize him.

Business, which had always been suppressed in the history of China, was highly appreciated and well developed. As a wonderful poet and calligrapher, he built a magnificent national library to collect and edit books as well.  

People highly respected and admired Emperor Taizong, because, during his Great Reign of Zhenguan from 626 to 649, he did bring them stable and wealthy lives, as he and his father had promised in the beginning when they started to rise in rebellion. 

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)

Tang Taizong as the Khan of Heaven

When Shimin and his older brother Jiancheng were fighting over the throne, the powerful Empire Turkic Khaganate (also named Tujue) kept invading the Tang Empire and almost made Tang plan to move their capital city to a safer place in the south.

But four years after he ascended to the throne, Taizong sent his generals and defeated the former strong Tujue. 

In the next decade, Tang’s territory kept extending, through wars led by Emperor Taizong himself, or his exceptional generals.  

Those defeated or complied regimes respected Tang Taizong as the Khan of Heaven, who applied an open-minded and enlightened policy, which made sure everyone in the Tang Dynasty lived in harmony.

Tang Tai Zong or Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan (Tu Bo) Envoy, Painted by Politician/Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673)

Emperor Taizong of Tang Receiving the Tibetan (Tu Bo) Envoy, Painted by Politician/Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673) — Palace Museum

Great Love of Tang Taizong and Empress Zhangsun

After Taizong ascended to the throne, he immediately nominated his beautiful and talented wife, the girl that supported him through most of his life and death moments and fought with him side by side in the Xuanwu Gate Incident, as the Empress Zhangsun (601 — 636). 

They loved each other deeply and had three sons and four daughters together. 

Emperor Taizong tried his best to love and parent them; he even wrote a book to teach them how to be good monarchs and decent nobles.

However, Empress Zhangsun passed away when she was only 35. 

Though Taizong had a few imperial concubines, after Empress Zhangsun passed away, he alienated those women, including young and beautiful Wu Zetian.    

Instead, he kept him and Empress Zhangsun's youngest son and daughter in his palace and raised them on his own. 

Throughout the history of China, an emperor carefully took care of and raised his kids in person, Tang Taizong was the only one. 

Gilding Silver Hairpin (Chai) of Tang Dynasty

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

Ambitious Princes and Their Contentions Over the Throne

The first two sons of Tang Taizong and Empress Zhangsun were smart and brave. The oldest one was nominated as the crown prince, but the second one also obtained much attention and praise.

Hence, unfortunately, they repeated what Shimin had experienced before. 

The second son was brilliant and more appreciated, which made the crown prince feel threatened and planned to assassinate him but failed.  

Taizong banished the crown prince and demoted the second son for having been involved in fighting over the throne.

Besides Empress Zhangsun’s departure years ago, this was another big strike for Emperor Taizong. 

Thankfully, he still had other beloved kids, especially the girl and the boy of him and Zhangsun that he raised on his own.

Their little daughter Li Mingda, Princess Jinyang, was a very smart, lovely girl, and an excellent calligrapher. 

Their little boy Li Zhi (628 — 683), about a decade later, ascended to the throne as Emperor Gaozong of Tang and became an exceptional monarch that further extended Tang’s territory, and brought people another golden age of Chinese history. 

Gilding Silver Wine Cup (Yu Shang) of Tang Dynasty

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