Taizong (T’ang-tsung) - Chinese Emperor

Taizong (T’ang-tsung) - Chinese Emperor
Taizong (T’ang-tsung) - Chinese Emperor

Tang Taizong (T’ang T’ai-tsung), meaning “Grand Ancestor of the Tang,” is the title of the second ruler and real founder of the Tang (T’ang) dynasty in China (618–909). Born Li Shimin (Li Shih-min), he was the second son of Li Yuan, the duke of Tang, who was an important governor under the Sui dynasty.

Taizong’s achievements and the policies that he laid down would make the dynasty the most powerful, successful, and prosperous since the Han dynasty. The Li family was descended from Li Guangli (Li Kuang-li), a famous general under Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty.

As most aristocratic families in northern China, it had intermarried with nomads who had settled in the region; Taizong’s mother, the empress Dou (Tou), came from a powerful Turkic clan.

In 617 the Sui dynasty was collapsing and revolts were widespread. Eighteen-year-old Li Shimin maneuvered his father to revolt and played a leading part in defeating numerous other contenders to establish him on the throne of the new Tang dynasty in 618.

Li Yuan is known in history as Tang Gaozu (T’ang Kao-tsu), meaning “High Ancestor of the Tang.” As second son, Shimin was the object of jealousy of his older brother, the crown prince, who planned to murder him.

In a final showdown in 624 the crown prince was killed, Shimin became crown prince and de facto ruler, and two years later Gaozu retired and Shimin ascended the throne.

Brilliant and precocious, he had by his late teens mastered the Confucian Classics and literature, had gained experience in administration and martial skills, and had led men into battle.

A dashing and fearless leader who placed himself at the forefront of cavalry charges and who excelled in hand-to-hand combat, he boasted that he had personally killed over 1,000 enemies before taking the throne. Taizong was immediately confronted with a crisis along the northern frontier.

Taking advantage of China’s internal chaos the Eastern Turks had launched massive annual expeditions along the borders beginning in 623, to plunder and also to instigate revolts against the new dynasty.

The one in 626 reached within a few miles of the capital Chang’an (Ch’ang-an). Only three weeks on the throne Taizong, who was a man of imperial and intimidating bearing, led his men to confront the enemy and secured their retreat with a combination of bravado and bribes.

His long-term response was to train and bolster his army, which allowed him to launch a massive six-pronged offensive with 720 miles separating the easternmost and westernmost columns in 629.

A combination of superior Tang tactics and internal disaffection among the Turkic tribes resulted in a one-sided Tang victory at the battle at Iron Mountain in which some 10,000 nomads were killed and more than 100,000 surrendered.

This campaign ended the Eastern Turkish Khanate and established Chinese dominion over the Mongolian steppes. Taizong was acknowledged “Heavenly Khan” by the Turks, the first Chinese ruler to hold that title.

The surrendered Turks were treated with kindness; many were settled along the Ordos region of the Yellow River and other borderland areas. Thousands of others settled in Chang’an and served the dynasty. Peace would reign in the northern borders for 100 years.

Other campaigns broke the power of the Western Turks; established Chinese power throughout Chinese Turkistan, across the Pamirs into Afghanistan to the border of Persia; and also brought Tibet under Chinese suzerainty. The marriage of a Tang princess to the Tibetan ruler, the first of several throughout the dynasty, would bring Chinese culture to that land.

In 648 a Chinese force, with Tibetan assistance, crossed into India and brought an Indian rebel who had assassinated King Harsha Vardhana of India (Taizong and Harsha had diplomatic exchanges thanks to the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s [Hsuan-tsang’s] journey to India) to Chang’an for punishment.

Taizong also sent two expeditions to Korea in the 640s but failed to bring the king of Koguryo to heel. Taizong rode six horses to battle. Relief carvings of all six, with accompanying inscriptions detailing their names and deeds, decorate the entrance to his mausoleum.

Taizong was a rationalist and believed that men, not heaven, determined the course of history. He was conscientious and hardworking, was concerned with the welfare of the people, and respected the opinion and sought the criticism of his advisers.

He surrounded himself with able ministers. Wei Cheng was the most fearless of his critics, yet never suffered from his blunt rebukes of the emperor.

Taizong called Wei his mirror for showing up all his blemishes and mourned Wei’s death as a great loss to good government. Because the basic institutions of the Tang were already in place when he ascended the throne, Taizong’s task was to consolidate, rationalize, and improve where necessary.

He halted the growth of the bureaucracy, redrew the empire’s administrative units, and continued the codification of the laws but lightened many punishments. His economic policies led to recovery and prosperity after the wars that marked the end of the Sui dynasty and led to surpluses that financed his military expansion.

He established a network of granaries that provided against natural disasters and stabilized the prices. He also extended and improved the militia system begun by his father.

Taizong’s last years were marred by poor health; the death of his wife, the Empress Zhangsun (Chang-sun), who had been his wise and able adviser; the demotion of his heir for plotting against him; and rivalry among his other sons for the succession. He finally settled on a younger son by the empress, who would be known as Emperor Gaozong (Kao-tsung).

But in death his reputation would grow and he would be acknowledged one of the greatest rulers of all Chinese history. His reign came to represent exemplary civil government, unrivaled military might, and unmatched cultural brilliance.

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