Li Shimin (Taizong)

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Li Shimin (Taizong)


Founder of the tang dynasty


Great Monarch. Li Shimin, or Taizong, has been regarded as one of the greatest monarchs in Chinese history, though he obtained the throne by murdering his brother and forcing his father, also named Taizong, to resign. The founder of the Tang dynasty (618-907), Li employed a succession of capable ministers, who came to epitomize the ideal relationship between an emperor and his advisers. Conserving many characteristics of his father’s government, he took a personal interest in the careers of regional officials and dispatched commissioners to check on the quality of their work.

Imperial Clan. Li employed some persons in the court from areas other than his native Northwest, but his government remained in the hands of aristocrats of the Northeast, identified as semibarbarians. During his administration the distance between the emperor and the ordinary people began to increase. An example of this tendency was Li’s attempt to create the superiority of the imperial line above that of the four categories of clans, the leading families of the Northeast. He ordered a genealogy to be compiled in order to define the importance of various families throughout the empire, and later he rejected the first draft of the document in an effort to downgrade one of the great Hebei lineages. In 638 a revised national genealogy was issued, which showed the Li clan in a preeminent position.

Foreign Wars. In foreign affairs Li pursued a strong, expansive, and aggressive policy, beginning an extraordinary expansion of Chinese power into Central Asia. With the assistance of the Eastern Turks, Li successfully split the western Turks and restored Chinese influence in the Western regions as the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) did. The military campaigns of 647 reduced the western Turks to vassals of the Tang court and advanced the empire to the borders of Persia. At the same time Li sent punitive expeditions against Korea, which had once been part of the Han empire and now was a tributary of the Tang. The Koguryo throne was overthrown in 640, and the new ruler came to pose a threat to the kingdom of Silla in southern Korea, Tang’s faithful tributary. The threat of a unified Korea encouraged Li to take action, and in 645 he invaded Koguryo. The expedition made slow progress and had to be withdrawn because of severe winter weather. A similar campaign failed in Korea in 646. Li planned to launch an even larger campaign in 649, but he died before it could be realized. Ultimately Li pushed Chinese power farther West than had the Han dynasty and with Tang power expanded to the Pamirs Mountains (in present-day Tajikistan), trade flourished.

Religious Life. Li, like those emperors of the Sui dynasty (589-618), relied on religion to legitimize his reign. In 629 he ordered the construction of seven monasteries where prayers would be offered for the souls of soldiers killed in combat. Later he passed measures to control corruption in the Buddhist church. In 637 he issued an edict criticizing the prominent position that Buddhism had occupied and ordered that Daoist clergy would take priority over Buddhist clergy. In the same year a legal code was promulgated, which included a section regulating the Buddhist monks and restricting their participation in secular affairs. He was careful not to isolate the Buddhists, but like his predecessors he tried to keep the Buddhist establishment under control. Since the Tang emperors claimed descent from Lao Zi, founder of Daoism, Li also favored that religion. For example, he ordered Xuanzang, a famous Buddhist, to translate the Daoists’ Daodejing into Sanskrit to benefit the Indian Buddhists. This text was included in the civil service examinations, which was a major stronghold of Confucian influence. In contrast to earlier dynasties, Li emphasized few rites centered on his own ancestors and was fond of more-public rituals performed by the emperor for the good of all.

Education. Li created a system of state schools and colleges, one of which was reserved for children of the imperial family and high-ranking officials. Many students came to Chang’an to study, and the state sponsored a variety of scholarly projects, particularly the writing of the histories of the empire, which served to legitimize the succession of the Tang dynasty. Examinations were held regularly. The great majority of officials continued to come from the great clans, but those who had passed one of the literary examinations could occupy the highest positions.

Last Years. In his last years Li was disappointed with his sons and heirs. The crown prince became so obsessed with nomadic ways that he lived in a yurt and later was deposed. The emperor’s favorite son was too deeply involved in machinations over the succession to be trusted. In the end the succession went to a weak young prince who, after Li’s death, became Emperor Gaozong.


John Fairbank and Edwin O. Reischauer, East Asia: Tradition and Trans-formation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989).

C. P. Fitzgerald, Son of Heaven: A Biography of Li Shih-min, Founder of the Tang Dynasty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933).