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 many excellent poems and calligraphy masterpieces for the world.
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 battlefield.
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 Li Shimin 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 stay in his city and observe other rebel armies’ wars.
During that period, Li Shimin tried 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 nation.
At that time, they only had 30,000 soldiers and the Taiyuan city they were garrisoning.
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 Pingyang, also recruited a giant army to support them and obtained big success.
About four months later, they occupied Chang'an, 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 — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Remarkable Military Achievements of the Prince of Qin
Li Yuan became Emperor Gaozu of Tang and 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 helpful 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 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 could always defeat enemies that way outnumbered him.
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 considerable threat to a monarch, let alone he was the emperor's second son, and with an excellent reputation among civilians, Tang's generals, and officials.
Therefore, his older brother, 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 — 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 being 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, was also on the side of Jiancheng.
Therefore, Jiancheng had the support of their father emperor, their fourth brother, and some essential 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 Taizong, Painted by Zhao Ji the Emperor Huizong of Song (1082－1135) — Taipei Palace Museum
These two forces intensively kept competing over power, but they were all too powerful to be easily conquered.
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 nation, Shimin heard that his father and the crown prince were planning to remove military power 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 — 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 brutal 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 ten trusted generals ambushed at Xuanwu Gate of the royal palace, where Jiancheng and Yuanji would pass by to meet the emperor.
When they encountered them, these three brothers, who used to fight on battlefields side by side, started to shoot arrows at each other.
Shimin killed his big brother with only one arrow while his fourth brother struggled and fought 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 surrendered after seeing the late crown prince Jiancheng’s dead body.
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 for the throne among the royal family.
They were more concerned about whether the monarch could bring them better lives, which Emperor Taizong had accomplished.
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 excellent 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 to join the ruling class, while incapable nobles were removed gradually.
Inlaying Gold Ruler of Tang — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)
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.
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 — National Museum of China (Photo by Kanjianji)
Tang Taizong as the Khan of Heaven
When Li Shimin and his older brother Jiancheng were fighting over the throne, the powerful Empire Turkic Khaganate (also named Tujue) kept invading the Tang Empire, which 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, Tang Taizong sent his generals to defeat the former strong Tujue.
In the next decade, Tang’s territory extended through wars led by Emperor Taizong 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, ensuring everyone in the Tang Dynasty lived in harmony.
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.
Taizong had a few imperial concubines, but after Empress Zhangsun passed away, he alienated those women, including the young and beautiful Wu Zetian.
Instead, he kept his 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, and Tang Taizong was the only one.
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 intelligent and brave.
The oldest was nominated crown prince, but the second also received enough attention and praise.
Hence, unfortunately, they repeated what Li Shimin had experienced before.
The second son was brilliant and more appreciated; hence, the crown prince felt 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.
Golden Dragons (Zou Long) that used as Ritual Implements of Taoism Religion Ceremony in the Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
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, whom he raised on his own.
Their little daughter Li Mingda, Princess Jinyang, was a brilliant, 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.
Gilding Silver Wine Cup (Yu Shang) of Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Next Story: Bold and Successful Imperial Censor of the Tang Dynasty — Wei Zheng
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