T'ai Tsung

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T'ai Tsung

Born 599

Died 649

Chinese emperor, co-founder of the T'ang dynasty

A long with his father, T'ai Tsung is credited as the cofounder of the T'ang dynasty (618–907), one of China's greatest ruling houses. The T'ang were noted for the fairness of their government, which contrasted with the more authoritarian region of the preceding Sui dynasty. Under T'ang rule, China's borders reached their greatest extent in history up to that time, and approached the Confucian model of peace and harmony that the Chinese had long prized.

The founding of the T'ang dynasty

Chinese emperors are known by a title assigned only after their death; thus during his lifetime, T'ai Tsung (dy-DZAWNG) was known as Li Shih-min (ZHUR-min). His father, Li Yüan (yee-WAHN; 565–635) would reign from 618 to 626 as the first T'ang (TAHNG) emperor, Kao Tsu (gow-DZÜ).

Ten years before the birth of T'ai Tsung, Yang Chien (also known by his reign title, Wen Ti ; see entry) ended centuries of chaos in China by founding the Sui (SWEE) dynasty, in which Li Yüan served as an official. The Li family, like many Chinese, embraced the principles of Confucianism, a belief system with roots in ancient times that stressed respect for persons in authority. In spite of this, Li Yüan and his sons would lead a revolt against the rule of Yang Chien's son Yang Ti (DEE), who ruled from 604 to 618.

A military governor assigned to protect China's borders against the Turks in the north, Li Yüan formed an alliance with these one-time enemies and marched on the Sui capital at Ch'ang-an, known today as Xian (shee-AHN), in 617. He proclaimed a new dynasty, and became ruler in the following year. By then he was in his early fifties, and he designated his eldest son Li Chien-ch'eng as his heir. His second son, however, had other plans.

T'ai Tsung establishes his rule

That second son was T'ai Tsung, who in 624 led a brilliant operation against another Turkish group—the eastern Turks, not the allies who had helped them come to power. T'ai Tsung next turned on his brothers, arranging an ambush in which both Li Chien-ch'eng and a younger brother, Li Yüan-chi, were killed.

It appears that the father made little effort to stop T'ai Tsung's rise to power, and soon the father became the next target. In 626, T'ai Tsung forced him to abdicate, or step down from the throne, and the reign of T'ai Tsung began in January of the following year. Li Yüan or Kao Tsu lived eight more years, but he no longer held power.

An efficient civil service

Despite the treachery that brought him to power—and in spite of his personality, which was haughty and quick to anger—T'ai Tsung proved a just and fair ruler. His father had already instituted a series of reforms and continued others from the Sui era, and T'ai Tsung greatly expanded the scope of those reforms.

A cornerstone of Sui and T'ang rule was its three-part administrative system, with the government divided into branches for making, reviewing, and carrying out policy. T'ai Tsung allowed the review board and policy-making branches to give input on his decisions and make suggestions, an unusual step in a country where emperors enjoyed near-absolute power.

In line with his Confucian upbringing, which placed a strong emphasis on the role of civil servants or government workers, T'ai Tsung made sure to surround himself with highly capable men. He even hired officials who had served his former rivals, and took steps to ensure that advancement was on the basis of merit and ability, not family relations or social standing.

As a consequence, the T'ang government was one of the most efficient the world has ever known. T'ai Tsung placed monitoring stations along the highways and waterways of the empire, and there officials oversaw taxation, reviewed local grievances, policed commercial activities, and even provided accommodations for travelers.

A flourishing empire

Aware that the people of China had long suffered under oppressive government, T'ai Tsung made land reforms, redistributing property to reflect changes in the size of peasant families. In some areas he reduced taxes, and though taxes on farmers remained high, the peasants began to feel a sense of ownership over their lands, since T'ai Tsung's reforms had seen to it that their property could no longer be seized by feudal lords.

As a result of these reforms, the economy of T'ang China thrived, and economic exchanges with other lands increased. Technology flourished as well, as the Chinese made improvements in printing and paper production. The T'ang government also greatly extended the canal network put in place by the Sui, thus aiding the transport of goods from north to south in a land where most major rivers flowed eastward.

Two Other Dynasties, Two Other Families

A dynasty is a group of people, usually but not always a family, which maintains power over a period of time, and China's history before the twentieth century is divided according to dynasty. During the Middle Ages, the country had five no-table dynasties: the Sui (589–618), founded by Wen Ti; the T'ang (618–907), of which T'ai Tsung was a co-founder; the Sung (SOONG; 960–1279); the Mongoldominated Yüan (1264–1368), founded by Kublai Khan (see entry); and the Ming (1368–1644).

In most cases a single family maintained power throughout a given dynasty—yet the name of the ruling house was seldom the same as that of the family: for example, the controlling family of the Sung dynasty was named Chao (ZHOW). The founder, born Chao K'uang-yin (KWAHNG-yin; 927–976), was a military leader whose troops declared him emperor in 960.

Like many dynasties before, the Sung were faced constantly with enemies at their borders. For the most part they dealt with this problem by paying tribute, or money, to hostile forces. This tribute proved costly, and the powerful minister Wang An-shih (1021–1086) put in place a set of reforms to deal with the economic problems caused by the situation.

Wang An-shih arranged loans to farmers, established pay for government labor (which had been infrequent before his time), and reorganized the system of property taxes to make them more fair. This put him on a collision course with another key official, Ssu-ma Kuang (see Historians entry), who favored the old way of doing things. The two men remained in conflict for much of their lives, and represented two opposing forces in Chinese government.

Thanks in large part to Wang Anshih, the Sung developed a government at least as efficient as that of the T'ang, but unwise foreign policy decisions forced the tenth Sung emperor, Chao Kou (1107–1187) to move the capital to southern China in 1127. This latter phase of the Sung dynasty is known as the Southern Sung, and despite the problems with which China was faced, it saw a great flowering in culture and the arts. Ultimately, however, the Sung would succumb to Mongol invasion, which brought an end to the reign of the eighteenth Sung emperor, Chao Ping (1271–1279), an eight-year-old boy killed by the Mongols.

The Yüan dynasty marked the first time China had been ruled by foreigners, and the Chinese chafed under Mongol rule, biding their time until a strong enough leader rose to overthrow them. That leader was Chu Yüan-chang (ZHÜ yü-AHN-zhang; 1328–1398), an extraordinary man: born a peasant, he became a Buddhist monk before joining a rebel army and ultimately establishing a dynasty that would rule for more than 250 years.

Few of his descendants, however, were his equal—except Chu Ti, better known by his reign title of Yung-lo (1360–1424). Yung-lo sent a series of naval expeditions under the command of Cheng Ho (see box in Henry the Navigator entry) to lands as far away as East Africa, and in 1421 moved the capital from Nanjing (nahn-ZHEENG) in the interior to Beijing (bay-ZHEENG) on the coast. At Beijing, which remains the Chinese capital today, he built a palace five miles in circumference, containing some 2,000 rooms where more than 10,000 servants attended the imperial family. This palace came to be known as the "Forbidden City," meaning that only the emperor and the people directly around him were allowed to enter.

Built to illustrate the boundless extent of Ming power, the Forbidden City became—aside from the Great Wall—the best-known symbol of China in the eyes of the world. However, the costs associated with its construction, as well as other ambitious projects under Yung-lo's reign, weakened the Ming dynasty. Like the T'ang and Sung before it, and indeed like most dynasties in Chinese history, the Ming's brief days of glory would be followed by a long period of decline.

Having built his power through the military, as ruler T'ai Tsung established a reputation as a scholar and a patron of the arts and sciences. During his reign and afterward, the arts flourished, and the T'ang dynasty became memorable for the many painters, poets, and philosophers it produced. It also marked a high point in historical scholarship, and T'ai Tsung encouraged the writing of several histories chronicling dynasties up to his own time.

Expansion of China's boundaries

Whereas China had often been cut off to outside influences, under T'ai Tsung's rule a number of foreigners settled within the empire. They brought with them new religions, some of which were previously unknown in China. Buddhism, introduced from India centuries before, was allowed to spread. Likewise the Chinese were exposed to faiths of even

more distant origin: Islam, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity, and even Judaism.

Foreign settlement went hand-in-hand with expansion of China's boundaries. On the one hand, T'ai Tsung centralized the government, meaning that he brought as much power under his control as possible. But by filling key government positions with men from various places around the empire, he ensured stability among the various peoples under Chinese rule. This in turn gave him a free hand to undertake several successful military operations against enemies on the borders.

In 630 T'ai Tsung drove out the eastern Turks, against whom he had earlier distinguished himself in battle. He then turned against a western group of Turks, some of his father's former allies, forcing them westward toward Persia and thus opening up the Silk Road, an important trade route. At the empire's southern borders, he defeated the Tibetans in battle, then formed an alliance by arranging marriages between Tibetan and T'ang leaders.

The decline of T'ai Tsung and his empire

An operation against Korea in 644 proved less successful, and in coming years T'ai Tsung's successors would try again and again—with varying degrees of success—to subdue Korea. The successes of the T'ang dynasty, however, would continue through the reign of many emperors, including China's sole female ruler, Wu Ze-tian (see entry).

Emperor Tenchi and Fujiwara Kamatari

To a lesser extent than China, which influenced it greatly during the early medieval period, Japan was prone to occasional revolts that brought sweeping changes in its power structure. One such revolt occurred in 645, led by Crown Prince Nakano Oe (OH-ee; 626–671) and an influential aristocrat named Nakatomi Kamatari (614–669).

At that time, the Soga clan dominated Japanese affairs, but their power had declined after the time of Prince Shotoku Taishi (see entry). Less than a quarter-century after Shotoku's death, the two men saw their opportunity, and conspired to murder the leader of the Sogas. They did not take power immediately, however: only in 662 did Nakano Oe assume the throne as Emperor Tenchi.

His co-conspirator also gained a new name in the course of the revolt: by decree of Emperor Tenchi, Kamatari's family became known as Fujiwara. The real power in Japan usually resided in important figures behind the throne, and for many centuries thereafter, the Fujiwara family would control Japan.

Under Fujiwara Kamatari, as he became known, the imperial government put in place the Taika Reforms (TY-kah). Modeled on the policies of T'ai Tsung and other leaders of T'ang China, the Taika Reforms strengthened the power of the central government and established a system of provincial administrators who answered to the capital. The Fujiwara clan would maintain power for several centuries, until the beginning of the Kamakura period (1185–1333).

Under Wu Ze-tian's grandson, Hsüan Tsung (shwee-AHND-zoong; ruled 712–56), the T'ang dynasty would reach its height, but then it began a slow decline. The causes of this decline included forces from outside—the defeat of the T'ang by Arab armies at Talas in Central Asia—and inside. Most no-table among the latter were the palace intrigues and revolts associated with Hsüan Tsung's concubine, Yang Kuei-fei (see box in Irene of Athens entry), and her lover An Lu-shan.

T'ai Tsung's own life would mirror that of the dynasty he founded: in his later years he, like the empire, went into a state of decline. Having spent most of his rule as a careful money manager, in his late forties he became absorbed in the pleasures of imperial life, building palaces and lavishing funds on his wives and even his horses and dogs. Likewise he went against his earlier policy of listening to wise counselors, and often ignored the advice of his trusted government ministers. During the failed campaign against Korea, he contracted a disease, and began to wither away, dying in May 649.

For More Information


Field, Catherine. China. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 2000.

Gowen, Herbert H. and Josef W. Hall. An Outline History of China. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1926.

Green, Jen. Japan. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 2000.

Heinrichs, Ann. China. New York: Children's Press, 1997.

Martell, Hazel. Imperial China, 221b.c.toa.d.1294. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 1999.

Millar, Heather. China's Tang Dynasty. New York: Benchmark Books, 1996.

Web Sites

"Chinese History: The Main Dynasties." The Chinese Odyssey. [Online] Available http://library.thinkquest.org/10662/normal_dynasty.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"The Emperor of Japan and the History of the Imperial Household of Japan." [Online] Available http://www.geocities.com/~watanabe_ken/tenno.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Internet Resources: China." [Online] Available http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/CHIINRES.HTM (last accessed July 26, 2000).