Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, also referred to as Emperor Ming of Tang, ruled China as the seventh emperor of the Tang dynasty from 712 to 756. His 44 year reign as Emperor was the longest of the Tang Dynasty, and is widely acknowledged for taking Tang China to its height of culture, influence, and power. However, Emperor Xuanzong is also blamed for severely weakening the Tang Dynasty with the advent of the An-shi Rebellion (also called the An Lushan Rebellion).
Emperor Xuanzong was born as Li Longji, in the eastern capital city of Luoyang in 685. He was the third eldest son of Emperor Ruizong, who was not actually in control of power at the time. Ruizong’s mother, Wu Zetian was manipulating Ruizong and was really in control. In 690 Wu Zetian took full control of power by ruthlessly eliminating her rivals, demoting Ruizong to crown prince, and declaring herself Emperor Shengshen of China.
Empress Wu Zetian saw Xuanzong as a threat to her hold on power, and might well have eliminated him also had it not been for his aunt, the Princess Taiping. Princess Taiping fiercely safeguarded Xuanzong from harm, and is recognized as shielding young Xuanzong from Empress Wu Zetian. In his younger years Xuanzong was said to be a good looking boy with a talent for music.
Ascending To Power
In 705 power was taken from Wu Zetian in a place coup, and Emperor Zhongzong was placed on the throne. Zhongzong appointed Xuanzong deputy minister of military supplies, and shortly thereafter in 708 he was made secretary general of Lu Prefecture, roughly the equivalent of Governor. In 710 Emperor Zhongzong died very suddenly. Many believe Zhongzong’s sudden death was a poisoning by his wife Empress Wei in an attempt to usurp power and gain the throne like Wu Zetian had.
As events transpired in 710, Xuanzong plotted with Princess Taiping to put a stop to Empress Wei’s attempted power grab. Without warning, an attack was launched against the forces of Empress Wei killing all that were loyal to her. She was forced to flee the palace in panic, and was finally caught and beheaded. Subsequently, Ruizong again took the throne a second time as emperor, appointing Xuanzong as Chancellor and then a little later, crown prince. In 712 Emperor Ruizong abdicated his throne to Xuanzong, but still retained the title of Supreme Emperor.
Ironically in 713, Xuanzong won a brief power struggle with Princess Taiping, the one person who had protected him from Empress Wu Zetian in his earlier youth. Princess Taiping then committed suicide and Ruizong retired into seclusion, as Xuanzong took full power and authority as emperor.
Early Years Of Rule – The Kaiyuan Era
In the first half of his reign, between the years 712 to the mid-730s, Xuanzong brought Tang China to the height of its powers, a period popularly known as the Kaiyuan era. At the outset, Xuanzong was an industrious and conscientious emperor, and executed an extensive reform within the bureaucracy. The government had grown to be bloated with mid-level administrators, many of whom had gotten their postings through graft and nepotism. The effectiveness of the government and the influence of the throne were reinvigorated. The state finances were corrected and stabilized when Xuanzong installed competent officials and implemented a new census, which resulted in higher tax revenues. The Grand Canal system which had slipped into disrepair during Empress Wu Zetian’s reign, was restored.
Many of the vassal states which had been in rebellion during Empress Wu Zetian’s reign were brought back under control through successful military campaigns. This resulted in reopening the Silk Road for economic trade. Xuanzong chose to replace the older Fu Bing military system with the Jie Du Shi system, allowing military leaders to control their own soldiers for a stronger military. Chinese arts and literature also reached its peak during Emperor Xuanzong’s reign. Xuanzong created imperial music schools to teach musicians, and encouraged painters, writers, and popular poets such as Li Bai and Du Fu, who wrote many of the most beautiful poems in Chinese history.
Later Years of Rule – Decline and Rebellion
From the early 720s to around 737 Xuanzong became increasingly withdrawn from public life and ever more dependent on his consort Wu Hui-fei. She was instrumental in the rise to power of administrator Li Linfu, who would play a major part in the demise of Xuanzong and the Tang Dynasty. After Wu Hui-fei’s death in 737, Xuanzong began a love affair with Yang Guifei, the wife of one of his sons. As Xuanzong paid more attention to Yang, he paid less attention to running his empire; consequently more power fell to corrupt under-officials like Li Linfu.
As time passed from 737 to 740, Emperor Xuanzong had less to do with the business of running daily government, and more power was taken by Li Linfu, who became like a virtual dictator. Also beginning in 737, the outlying Jie Du Shi generals began taking more regional control into their own hands. As Li Linfu’s power grew, he appointed Jie Du Shi who was loyal to him, like An Lushan who had an 180,000 man army. By then, the central government of the Tang could not mount an army to rival the power of the stronger Jie Du Shi. In the late 740s, some of these generals had become so powerful that they started making government policies of their own. In 751 the Tang lost a crucial battle to the Arab Abbasid Empire, which marked a distinct turning point, and the decline of the Tang Dynasty.
After the death of Li Linfu, mounting friction occurred between Li Linfu’s successor and general An Lushan, whom Li Linfu had appointed. Toward the end of 755 An Lushan began the An Lushan Rebellion, moving his army into the northeastern provinces. In 756, An Lushan’s army was approaching the capital city of Chang’an. Hearing of the advance, Emperor Xuanzong fled the city with a few troops and some family members to take refuge in Sichuan. He abdicated his throne shortly thereafter.
In 760 Xuanzong was put under house arrest by his own son, and in 762 he died not long before the An Lushan Rebellion was finally quashed. Emperor Xuanzong had the longest reign of any Tang Dynasty ruler, lasting nearly 44 years.