Fun Facts about Chinese Culture and History

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Tang Tai Zong -- Talented All-Powerful Emperor

As the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty, though he took the throne cruelly and illegally from his older brother, Emperor Li Shimin (599 -- 649), also respected as Tang Tai Zong, was an allmighty person. 

As one of the most highly respected and remarkable emperors in the history of China, Tang Tai Zong was almost perfect.

 

When he put on armor and carried his two meters long bow, he was an extraordinary marshal with remarkable military accomplishments and archery skill; when he wore the crown, he brought his people dignity and happy lives.

 

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

 

A Prince With Remarkable Military Achievements 

Li Shimin was born into an honorable aristocratic clan; his grandmother and the Queen Dugu were natural sisters. So Shimin and his father all served in the army of the Sui Dynasty, as powerful generals.

In the late years of the Sui Dynasty, there were many uprising armies fighting against each other. Then Li Shimin suggested his father Li Yuan to rise in arms too, under the name of bringing peace to the whole of nation. 

During that chaotic era, they only had 30,000 soldiers and 1 city, 

But Li Shimin, his big brother Jiancheng and his fourth brother Yuanji were all remarkable marshals. Within half a year, they occupied the capital city of the Sui Dynasty, and supported a prince of Sui Empire's royal family to be a puppet emperor.

Months later, Yang Guang, the last emperor of the Sui Empire,  was assassinated. So Li Yuan forced the puppet emperor abdicated the throne, and establisehd the Tang Dynasty.

His big brother Jiancheng then was nominated as the crown prince, while Shimin, as the second son of his father, was nominated as marshal of the Tang’s army. 

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

 

If he were only a general, his extraordinary military accomplishments were already a huge threaten to a monarch, let alone he was the second son of the emperor, and with a great reputation among civilians and ministers.

 

Consequently, his older brother, the crown prince Jiancheng, considered him as the biggest enemy. 

Threaten and Haterad From the Crown Prince 

 

The crown prince Jiancheng, Shimin’s older brother, was an excellent heir, also a talented commander and politician.

 

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

 

In addition, their fourth brother Yuanji, another brave and excellent general, also supported Jiancheng.

 

Therefore, Jiancheng had the support of the emperor, his fourth brother and most important ministers, while Shimin had his own followers from the army and fewer civil officers.

 

These two parties kept fighting intensively, but they were all too powerful to be easily perished.

 

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

 

On the other side, Shimin and his followers didn’t want to comply to the crown prince, and let him have the empire they gained through difficult wars.

 

Anyway, Shimin decided to initiate a coup; this time, he would either win or die.

Cruel Coup and Intensive Fights Over the Throne

One day, Li Shimin led about 10 of his trusted generals ambushed in a Xuan Wu Gate of the royal palace, where Jiancheng and his fourth brother Yuanji would pass by to meet the emperor.

 

When they finally encountered, these three brothers, who used to fight in battlefileds country side by side, started to shoot arrows at each other; soon, a brave general led 70 warriors arrived and joined to fight for Shimin.

 

The crown prince’s followers then led their 2000 soldiers to fight back and tried to invade Shimin’s palace; they fought bravely and the battle was quite intense. Soon, besides those sacrificed ones, the rest of them surrendered after they saw the crown prince’s dead body. 

 

Shimin’s father then was forced to announce Shimin as the new crown prince; a few months later, he abdicated the throne and spent the rest of his life in his own palace.​

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

 

He buried his two brothers using prince’s ceremony; those who had served the late crown prince and fought with him before were all pardoned. 

 

Indeed, the way he achieved the throne was cruel; however, many officers and large numbers of civilians didn't care much about competing over the throne within the ruling class. 

 

What they actually concerned was that whether the monarch could bring them better lives, which Emperor Li Shimin had completely accomplished. 

 

Great Emperor Tang Tai Zong and His Prosperous Empire 

After those political enemies were all eliminated, Emperor Li Shimin started his ruling as a great monarch.

 

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

 

As a person from a powerful aristocratic clan, Shimin also 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 to the ruling class, while incapable nobles were removed gradually.

 

Tang Tai Zong also increased numbers of the imperial censors, and gave them enough freedom to suggest or criticize himself.

 

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 Tang Tai Zong, because he actually brought them a stable society and wealthy lives, as he and his father promised in the beginning when they started to rise in arms. 

 

For instance, one year, there were about 200 criminals would be sentenced to death across the whole nation; Shimin sent all of them back to meet with their families, and celebrate the new year for the last time, as well as to get ready for their departure. 

A few months later, those people all came back, honestly, to face their death penalty, none of them tried to escape. Those criminals were even honest and disciplined, let alone other decent and hard working civilians. 

 

Defeating of Empire Turkic Khaganate and Being Khan of Heaven

When Li Shimin and his older brother were fighting over the throne, the powerful Empire Turkic Khaganate kept invading the Tang Empire and almost made Tang plan to move their capital city to a safer place.

 

But four years after Emperor Tang Tai Zong ascended to the throne, he sent his best marshal and defeated the Empire Turkic Khaganate. 

 

In the next decade, Empire Tang’s territory was largely extended, through some other wars with nearby regimes. 

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

 

Contention Over the Throne Among His Sons

Tang Tai Zong had a beautiful and talented queen, a noble born girl whom he married at a young age.

 

They loved each other deeply, and raised up three sons and four daughters together. He tried his best to love and parent them; he even wrote a book to teach them how to be a good monarch.

However, their first son and second son repeated what Li Shimin had experienced: the second son was very talented and more appreciated, so their first son, also the crown prince, tried to assassinate his younger brother but failed.

 

Tang Tai Zong banished the first son and demoted the second son, for having involved in fighting over the throne.

Then Tang Tai Zong nominated he and his queen's third son named Li Zhi, also his favorite kid, as his heir.

As expected, Emperor Li Zhi was an excellent monarch in the history of China who had Empire Tang further flourished and well developed. 

Years later, Tang Tai Zong passed away because of sickness in his 50s, and left a prosperous and unified nation behind.

Curious Monarch Tang Tai Zong and His Imperial Journal

Besides the way he got the throne, another controversial thing about Emperor Tang Tai Zong was that he tried to read, maybe even change, the imperial documents.

 

Since the Han Dynasty in the history of China, every emperor’s daily life was carefully documented by specialized officers, including what they said, where they went, or which women they spent time with.

 

Those notes were secretly preserved in the royal palace, however, many of those documents had lost now. 

 

Once, Tang Tai Zong was very curious about his own imperial diary, so he requested to read them. 

 

But those ministers all refused him, except one officer agreed to provide him with a deleted version; the complete version, however, had never been showed to the emperor.

 

In the end, besides some slight differences, the history of this period were all clearly documented; Emperor Tang Tai Zong didn’t use his power to change the truth or glorify himself.

 

The respect to the history and the truth continued throughout the history of China, except some emperors in the Qing Dynasty (1636 - 1912). ​

 

Wei Zheng -- The Boldest and Most Successful Imperial Censor

Wei Zheng (580 -- 643) was one of the most famous imperial censors in the history of China due to his bold, straightforward, and persistent character.

 

However, his successful tenure as an imperial censor derived as much from the ability of the open-minded emperor Li Shimin to appreciate Wei’s unique qualities as from Wei’s character itself. 

Wei was born into a poor family, but was diligent, knowledgeable, and ambitious.

 

When he was young, China was divided into warring factions that engaged in a continuous struggle. After authoring an essay that earned the praise of one faction’s general, Wei served the general as an advisor.

 

With the rise of the Tang Dynasty and a united China, Wei went on to serve the crown prince Jiancheng. During this time, Wei proposed that the crown prince execute Li Shimin, his younger brother and a contender for the throne.

 

Li Shimin struck first, killing his older brother and ascending to the throne.

 

Following the coup, Li Shimin discovered Wei’s proposal to assassinate him before he had a chance to attempt a coup. Instead of denying the charges, Wei boldly admitted that he had proposed this solution to the crown prince and asserted that Li Shimin would have been unsuccessful in ascending to the throne if the crown prince had followed his guidance.

 

Wei’s fearlessness in the face of Li Shimin’s accusation impressed the new emperor and, as a result, he appointed Wei as his imperial censor.

 

Wei advocated for fair and just treatment for all citizens of the realm. According to Wei, the prosperity or chaos inherent in a society derived from the quality of the ruling class, as opposed to the values, beliefs, and behavior of ordinary citizens. 

 

As such, rulers were exemplars that set the standard of conduct which guided the behavior of the people. In Wei’s view, if the common people were uncultivated or unrefined, the blame lay squarely on the rulers.

 

Wei proposed a wide variety of political and administrative reforms designed to improve governance of the realm.

 

Additionally, he served as the emperor’s personal confidant, providing guidance on how Emperor Li Shimin should avoid spoiling his much beloved princess or temper his longing for the queen, and temper his desires for entertaining diversions.

Wei’s influence on the emperor was significant. Shimin respected Wei’s opinion whether he was expressing his views on national policies or family matters.

 

Wei was also notable for his integrity and frugality. Despite his position, he lived a Spartan life, leaving little or no valuable stuff upon his death besides his contribution of excellent essays and poems.

 

During Wei’s illness prior to his death, Emperor Shimin visited him several times. He also participated in Wei’s funeral services and wrote him a memorial epigraph, an uncommon honor in Chinese culture.

 

After Wei’s death, his wisdom continued to influence the emperor’s thinking. The emperor mentioned Wei often and pondered what Wei would say or do faced with the current challenge or decision.

 

The combination of Wei’s brilliance and the Emperor Shimin's sage rule remain legendary. 

 

Today, Wei is represented as one of the “door gods” in China and continues to protect the rights of ordinary people even after his death, just as what he did throughout his life.