Tang Tai Zong — Talented All-Powerful Emperor

Li Shimin (599 — 649), respected as Tang Tai Zong or 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 history of China that 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" — 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 garrisoning in 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 Li 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 Li Shimin 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 royal of the Sui Dynasty and witnessed the intense and cruel fights on 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 — 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 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, under 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 on. 

Stele in Jinci Temple of Taiyuan City, Written by Emperor Tang Tai Zong 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, led their 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 abdicated 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 Prince Li Shimin

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, 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.

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, Li Shimin 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.
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 Forest of Stone Steles Museum of Xi'an.

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

If Li 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.

Consequently, his older brother, the crown prince Li Jiancheng, considered Li Shimin as the biggest 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 Li 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 works, while his younger brother Li Shimin kept achieving extraordinary military successes and expanding Tang's territory. 

Besides, their fourth brother Li Yuanji, another brave and excellent general, also supported Li Jiancheng.

Therefore, Jiancheng had the support of their father the emperor Li Yuan, their fourth brother and most important ministers, while Shimin had his followers from the army and a few civil-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) — Taipei Palace Museum

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

Li Shimin wanted to work and live in another city, but his father and big brother all strongly opposed. They worried that it would be too easy for Li Shimin to organize another invincible army and establish another regime if he lived in another place, without strict and direct supervise.

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

Cruel Coup and Intensive Fights Over the Throne

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

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

That was the Xuanwu Gate Incident. 

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

When they encountered, these three brothers that used to fight in battlefields side by side, started to shoot arrows at each other. Li 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 joined to fight for Li Shimin.

The crown prince’s followers then led their 2000 soldiers to fight back and tried to invade Li Shimin’s palace; they fought bravely and the battle was quite intense. 

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

Epitaph of Late Crown Prince Li Jiancheng — Xian Museum

The Enthronement of Tang Tai Zong

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 Tang Tai Zong, or Emperor Taizong of Tang, and sentenced all the sons of Li Jiancheng and Li 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. 

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

What they concerned about was that whether the monarch could bring them better lives, which Emperor Tang Tai Zong had completely accomplished.  

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

Tang Tai Zong and His Great Reign of Zhenguan

After those political enemies were all eliminated, Emperor Tang Tai Zong started his ruling 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, 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 did bring them a stable society 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 Tai Zong as the Khan of Heaven

When Li Shimin and his older brother Li 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 Emperor Tang Tai Zong ascended to the throne, he sent his best marshal and defeated the former strong Tujue. 

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

Those defeated or complied regimes respected Tang Tai Zong as the Khan of Heaven. He 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) — Palace Museum

Great Love of Tang Tai Zong and Empress Zhangsun

When Tang Tai Zong 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 Tang Tai Zong tried his best to love and parent them; he even wrote a book to teach them how to be a good monarch or decent nobles.

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

Though Tang Tai Zong had a few imperial concubines, after Empress Zhangsun passed away, he alienated those women, include 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 taking care and raising of his kids in person, Tang Tai Zong was the only one. 

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

Brilliant Kids of Tang Tai Zong and Their Contentions

The first two sons of Tang Tai Zong 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 Tang Tai Zong 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.  

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

Besides Empress Zhangsun’s depart years ago, this was another big strike for Tang Tai Zong. 

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

Their little daughter Li Mingda, Princess Jin Yang, 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 was an exceptional monarch that further extended Tang’s territory, and brought people another flourishing age. 

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

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