Emperor Taizong of Tang (599-649) was the second emperor of Tang, and often considered to be one of the most successful emperors in Chinese history. He was born Li Shimin, son of Emperor Gaozu, the founder of the Tang dynasty. He took the name Taizong in 626 when he became emperor.
Li Shimin (Emperor Taizong) was born to mother Duchess Dou, and father Li Yuan (later to become Emperor Gaozu. His birth name, Shimin, is said to have been taken from a Chinese phrase meaning to ‘save the earth and pacify the people’. Li Shimin had three brothers: Li Jiancheng (older), Li Yuanji (younger), and Li Xuanba (also younger but died in 614).
At the age of 14 Li Shimin was married to the niece of Gao Shilian, an official in the then-ruling Sui dynasty. Two years later, in 615, Li Shimin joined the army in response to a call from Emperor Wen for men to assist against attacks from the Eastern Tujue. In 616 when Li Yuan was appointed governor of the major city Taiyuan, Li Shimin went with him.
With the Sui dynasty beginning to collapse, Li Yuan and other officials began to fall into disfavor with Emperor Yang. Li Shimin secretly began to plot a rebellion against the Emperor with two of his father’s associates, Liu Wenjing and Pei Ji. The trio revealed their plans to Li Yuan, Pei Ji reminded him that if Emperor Yang discovered Li Yuan had committed adultery with his concubines (which Pei Ji allowed to happen), the Emperor would have him killed. With this, Li Yuan agreed to the plan.
Li Shimin’s siblings were summoned to the city of Tiayuan, and the family began gathering forces. Li Shimin was named Duke of Dunhuang as well as an army general. Under adverse weather conditions and heavy opposition, Li Yuan ordered retreat soon after the campaign had begun. However, Li Shimin as well as his brother Li Jiancheng adamantly objected, convincing their father to continue. Soon forces were consolidated and the capitol city Chang’an was captured.
Initially Li Yuan installed Yang You (grandson of emperor Yang) as Emperor Gong of Sui. In 618 when Emperor Yang was assassinated, Emperor Gong conceded the throne to Li Yuan. At this point Li Yuan created the Tang dynasty and became Emperor Gaozu. He named Li Shimin as the Shangshu (in charge of executive government) as well as Prince of Qin. He also remained an active major general.
During the early years of the Tang dynasty, Li Shimin continued to display impressive military skills. His armies successfully defeated key rivals of the Tang dynasty, sometimes while seriously outnumbered. Although Li Shimin was widely respected within the military, as well as by his father, jealousy rose in his older brother Li Jiancheng for the title of crown prince. Li Jiancheng had the support of their younger brother Li Yuanji and together they successfully convinced Emperor Gaozu to leave Li Jiancheng as crown prince.
Battle for the Crown
The rivalry between Li Shimin and Li Jiancheng began intensifying in 624. Li Jiancheng began adding to his armies against the regulations of Emperor Gaozu. The Emperor summoned Jiancheng to the palace and placed him under arrest, promising to make Li Shimin crown prince. After, Li Shimin was sent to lead the battle against Li Jiancheng’s commander, Yang Wen’gan, who was rebelling. After Li Shimin had left Li Jiancheng, Li Yuanji, as well as staff members and concubines pleaded Li Jiancheng’s case with the Emperor. He was convinced to free Li Jiancheng and leave him in place as crown prince.
When Li Shimin became ill with food poisoning after eating at the palace of Li Jiancheng, he was convinced it was an attempt on his life. There were several incidents between the brothers, including Li Jiancheng having Li Shimin ride a horse who was notorious for throwing off riders.
In 626 Emperor Gaozu choose Li Yuanji over Li Shimin to lead a crucial battle against the Eastern Tujue the trouble came to a head. Li Shimin accused both Li Yuanji and Li Jiancheng of adultery with the Emperor’s concubines. As he expected, Emperor Gaozu immediately summoned both of them to his palace. Li Shimin prepared an ambush outside the main gates. As his two rival brothers approached, they were killed. Li Shimin entered Emperor Gaozu’s palace and insisted he name Li Shimin as crown prince. He did.
Li Shimin had the sons of both his brothers killed as well, fearing rebellion. He took the wife of Li Yuanji as a concubine. After only two months Emperor Gaozu was convinced to leave the throne and Li Shimin became Emperor Taizong of Tang.
Emperor of Tang
Emperor Taizong made many changes in the Tang dynasty. He released hundreds of Ladies in Waiting, although it is said that he later accumulated even more than he released. He stripped the titles and ranking of several members of the royal family, instead assigning their status according to their contribution to the Tang society. He buried his murdered brothers with honors.
Emperor Taizong released most of his father’s advisors and staff. As he restructured the government, he took suggestions and criticism from his officials into consideration. He implemented their ideas where he felt it was appropriate. Although he faced rebellion from several displeased relatives, all were quickly defeated. In 627 Emperor Taizong consolidated many small counties and prefectures. He also created another level of government within the Tang dynasty, circuits.
In 628 the long standing opposition of the Tang dynasty, Eastern Tujue, began to weaken. Some previous allies and officials defected to Tang. Without support from this region, Liang was no longer able to fight off Emperor Taizong’s forces. That year, Liang fell to the Tang Dynasty, finally realizing the goal of uniting China.
In 629 as the Eastern Tujue continued weakening, Emperor Taizong saw the opportunity to at last conquer his long standing enemies. With Li Jing leading the army, and Li Shiji, Chai, and Xue Wanche as generals, the Emperor prepared for battle. They successfully launched an attack against multiple points. In 630, Emperor Taizong declared victory over the Eastern Tujue.
By 634, Emperor Taizong had well established his government, and had officials investigating the circuits to ensure the people were cared for and leaders were capable. By this time he was also facing a new rival Murong Fuyun of Tyuhun who had been attacking borders after failed negotiations for the Prince of Zun to marry a Tang princess. By 635 Yuyuhun forces were defeated. That same year Emperor Taizong’s father, the former Emperor Gaozu, died.
In 636, Emperor Taizong began assigning important posts to his sons and brothers, with appropriate titles. He did not change the title of Li Tai, Prince of Wei, who was becoming his favored son. That year his wife, Emperess Zhangsun died. Taizong mourned her loss deeply.
In the following years Emperor Taizong made several more changes to the structure of Tang, including the Record of Clans. This was an attempt to rank clans based on their contributions and deeds, as he believed they were abusing the power of their noble names. While he commissioned officials to compile the work, he later revised it as he disagreed with some of their conclusions.
Challenges from several enemy peoples were successfully warded off in the coming years. In 640 peaceful relations with Tufan were established through the marriage of a Tang Princess. The following year one of the most significant attacks came in the region of Eastern Tujue From Yi’nan. Tang forces led by Li Shiji prevailed.
By 643 Emperor Taizong was beginning to encounter upheaval within his own family. Li You, one of the Emperor’s sons, staged a rebellion. However, Li You was captured by his own officials and delivered to Emperor Taizong who forced him to commit suicide. This incident sparked another rebellion plot by Li Chengqian, who feared he would be replaced by Li Tai as the next emperor. When one of Li Chengqian’s own officials revealed the plot to the Emperor, he chose to depose Li Chengqian, letting him live.
Initially Emperor Taizong intended to make Li Tai the crown prince. However, after investigation he decided to depose Li Tai as well, due to his manipulation in the matter of Li Chengqian’s downfall. Li Zhi, a younger son, was appointed crown prince.
In 645 Emperor Taizong’s forces began to fight a bitter and unsuccessful battle against the Goguryeo. He also fell ill this same year, and by all accounts never completely recovered. In the next few years, Tang forces led a successful battle against Xueyantuo and began planning a renewed attack against the Goguryeo. In 649 forces were set to begin this new battle, however Emperor Taizong died before he could initialize the attack. Three days after his death, it was officially announced and Li Zhi became Emperor Gaozong of Tang.