Emperor Xuanzong of Tang China

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Emperor Xuanzong of Tang China
Birth and death: 8 September, 685–May 3, 762
Family name: Lǐ (李)
Given name: Longji (隆基)
Dates of reign: September 8, 712¹–August 12, 756²
Temple name: Xuánzōng (玄宗)
Posthumous name:
Emperor Ming³ (明皇)
Posthumous name:
Emperor Zhidao Dasheng

Daming Xiao

General note: Dates given here are in the Julian calendar.

They are not in the proleptic Gregorian calendar.
1. Ascended the throne following the abdication of his father, who
received the title Taishang Huang
In practice, his father continued to rule until the palace coup
of July 29, 713, and Xuanzong obtained full power from his
father on July 30.

2. Following the rebellion of An Lushan, Xuanzong's son was
proclaimed emperor by the army on August 12, 756, but
Xuanzong and his retinue, who had escaped to Sichuan, only
heard the news on September 10 756, that date marking the
end of Xuanzong's reign in practice
3. This is the name under which Emperor Xuanzong is most
known inside China

Emperor Tang Xuanzong (Chinese: 唐玄宗Hsuan Tsung. Pinyin Xuan Zong (temple name), personal name (Wade–Giles romanization) Li Lung-chi, posthumous name, or shih, Ming Huang, or Wu Huang) (September 8, 685 - May 3, 762), born Li Longji (李隆基), was the sixth emperor of the Tang dynasty in China, reigning from 712 to 756. Xuanzong (Hsüan Tsung) was the third son of Jui Tsung, who was himself a son of the empress Wu Hou (Zetian 武則天). His 44-year reign was the longest during the Tang Dynasty. During the early part of his rule, the Tang reached the height of its power. Ruling with the help of capable officials, Xuanzong reformed the bureaucracy and made it more efficient and conducted a registration of all citizens which led to large increase in tax revenues and financial stability for the government. Xuanzong installed competent officials, such as Zhang Jiuling (張九齡) as prime minister, who helped the country grow economically. The Grand Canal system in the capital at Ch'ang-an, which had fallen into decay during Empress Wu Zetian( 武則天)'s reign, was repaired. Xuanzong established music academies and patronized artists and writers, including several famous poets. Tang armies restored Chinese dominion over Central Asia.

During the later part of his reign, Xuanzong (Hsüan-tsung)’s legendary infatuation with his concubine Yang Guifei ( 楊貴妃,Yang Kuei-fei) was blamed for demoralizing the T’ang court and opening the way for the military rebellion of An Lu-shan. (安史之亂; Ān Shǐ Zhīluàn).

Accession to the Throne

Xuanzong (Hsüan Tsung) was born September 8, 685, the third son of Jui Tsung (fifth emperor of the T'ang dynasty, (temple name, or miao-hao, Rui Zong, 睿宗; personal name (hsing-ming), Li Tan), who was himself a son of the empress Wu Hou (Zetian武則天). Xuanzong was born in an era when power was almost entirely in the hands of his grandmother, the Empress Wu Zetian( 武則天, Wu Hou, Wu Chao, also called Wu Tse-t'ien). Originally a concubine of the Emperor Taizong and then of his son Gaozong, she eliminated all her rivals and eventually enthroned herself in 690 as Emperor Shengshen of China, proclaiming the establishment of the Zhou dynasty, named after her father’s nominal fief and the ancient Zhou dynasty, from which she claimed her Wu family ancestors were descended. Xuanzong became the only hope for the restoration of the imperial Li family of his grandfather’s lineage. His aunt, the Princess Taiping (太平公主) fiercely guarded Xuanzong from harm and was credited with protecting young Xuanzong from the Wu family.

In 710, Xuanzong conspired with Princess Taiping (daughter of Empress Wu Zetian (武則天)) to put an end to Empress Wei's attempted usurpation of power. He killed Empress Wei, the wife of his recently dead uncle Emperor Zhongzong (中宗), also a son of Empress Wu, in a palace coup which placed his own father, Emperor Ruizong (睿宗), on the throne. He was appointed as Chancellor for a few months before he became the crown prince. In 712, the ineffectual Emperor Ruizong abdicated in favour of Xuanzong, but at the urging of his ambitious sister (the princess T'ai-p'ing), he remained “Supreme Emperor,” a regent with the authority to appoint the Princess’ supporters to high offices. Xuanzong succeeded to the throne in 712.

In 713, Xuanzong won a brief power struggle with the Princess Taiping (T'ai-p'ing), who then committed suicide. His father retired into seclusion and Xuanzong assumed full authority as emperor.

Kaiyuan Era

Known also as "Tang Minghuang" (唐明皇: "the understanding emperor of the Tang"), Xuanzong began the early half of his reign (712-730s) by raising Tang China to the height of its powers, during a period known popularly as the Kaiyuan era (開元之治). Initially, Xuanzong was a hardworking and diligent emperor. He conducted a widespread reform of the bureaucracy, which had become swollen with nominal officials, many of whom had bought their posts or acquired them by nepotism. The efficiency of the bureaucracy and the authority of the throne were restored, and state finances were once more placed on a stable footing. Xuanzong installed competent officials, such as Zhang Jiuling (張九齡) as prime minister, who helped the country grow economically. A census was taken and the whole population was registered, resulting in higher tax revenues. The Grand Canal system in the capital at Ch'ang-an, which had fallen into decay during Empress Wu Zetian( 武則天)'s reign, was once again made operational.

Many of the vassals originally under the dominion of the Taizong (太宗) and early Gaozong (高宗) Emperors had rebelled during Empress Wu Zetian (武則天)'s later reign. These included Khitans (契丹) (the ancestors of the later Liao dynasty (遼朝), Korea, the Western and the Eastern Turks (practically all of North Asia and Mongolia), and the Uyghurs ( 維吾爾). Xuanzong was left with only the central part of China as his Empire. The Silk Road had been cut off and corruption along it was noticeable. The Tang Army waged successful campaigns against the Khitans, Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Western Turks (although only the Turks’ land was conquered, while the other three still continued to resist). The Tang were defeated by the Eastern Turks during the 720s, but the Eastern Turks soon dissolved in internal conflict. During Xuanzong's reign, the Tang ruled over a slightly expanded heartland China, plus the land originally held by the Western Turks all the way to the borders of the Ummayad Empire and later the Abbasid Caliphate, and a tiny section of land connecting the former Western Turk lands to the heartland; this was enough to reopen the Silk Road for economic trade. At its maximum extent, the empire controlled the Pamirs and Kashmir.

Though Korea was not a vassal state, the Tang entered into a cooperative relationship with the Unified Silla (統一新羅) state on the Korean peninsula, then under the rule of King Seongdeok( 聖德王). Xuanzong saw in Silla a valuable ally on its flank, particularly against the growing power of the state of Bohai (Balhae( 振, then 渤海)), which in 733 had launched a seaborne attack on Dengzhou in Shandong( 山東). Tang Xuanzong decided that it would be wiser to make Unified Silla an ally rather than a vassal, because the Tang army was waging a war on its Northern and Western fronts with the nomadic people and Tibetans.

Since the 670s, when the vassals started rebelling, the Fu Bing military system had declined considerably. Xuanzong decided to use the Jie Du Shi system, allowing military leaders to control their own soldiers. While this system was at first successful, it placed control of the military outside the hands of the emperor, and doubled or tripled the previous military expenses.

Chinese arts and literature, also reached a zenith during Xuanzong’s reign. Xuanzong founded imperial music academies to train court musicians, and patronized painters, writers, and famous poets such as Li Bai ( 李白), Du Fu (杜甫) and Meng Haoran ( 孟浩然), who created some of the most elegant poems since the Han dynasty ( 漢朝).

Later Years (mostly the Tian Bao Era)

A Tributary Horse for Emperor Xuanzong, painted in the 12th century during the Song Dynasty.

Until about 721, Xuanzong successfully maintained a balance of power among the Confucian officials who had served under Empress Wu, members of the imperial clan, and palace officials and imperial consorts. During the 720s, changes in the structure of the government began to concentrate power in the hands of the central administrators. There was simultaneously a resurgence in the influence of the old court aristocracy, and a continual tension arose between the aristocracy and the professional bureaucrats who had been recruited through the civil service examinations. The new census greatly enlarged the numbers of taxpayers, and increased government revenue. The system of transportation was reformed so that the Emperor was no longer obliged to move the court between Ch'ang-an and Lo-yang to avoid periodic famines. Without overburdening the population, Xuanzong was able to establish a permanent military presence along the northern frontiers which numbered 600,000 men by the end of his reign.

Xuanzong became increasingly withdrawn from public life and became deeply involved in the study of Daoism. From the early 720s until her death in 737, he fell under the influence of his consort Wu Hui-fei, who played a part in the rise to power of the administrator Li Lin-fu, and eventually attempted unsuccessfully to make her own eldest son heir to the throne. The emperor then became involved in a love affair with Yang Guifei (楊貴妃). She was the young wife of his son Prince Shou (壽王), but he decreed their divorce and then entered her into a Taoist nunnery for a short time so that he could take her as his palace consort without shame. Xuanzong heaped honors on members of Yang’s family, and rebuilt the ancient hot springs palace at the foot of Lishan Mountain for his consort and her sisters, naming it Huaqing Palace.

As Xuanzong turned his attention to pleasure-seeking with Yang and her family, he paid less and less attention to the running of his empire, and much of his power fell into the hands of court officials like the corrupt but competent chief minister Li Linfu (李林甫) (who was succeeded by Lady Yang's dissolute cousin Yang Guozhong( 楊國忠)) and the influential court eunuch Gao Lishi (高力士). The political influence of the old aristocracy increased, and after 737, Li Lin-fu became a virtual dictator. From 740, the Emperor had less and less control of government affairs.

On one occasion, Xuanzong sent Li Linfu to find more intelligent officials to work for the government. When Li Linfu came back and informed him that the emperor had already recruited all the talented individuals in the country, Xuanzong, convinced of Lin Fu’s brilliance, believed him. (A parallel anecdote is reported of Tang Taizong in the late 620s. When Tang Taizong asked Feng Diyi to find talents, he received a report similar to that of Li Linfu; however, Taizong believed that Feng Diyi had ot serched seriously enough, and declared that it was the government's responsibility to find the talented people.)

In 751, the Tang lost the critical Battle of Talas, fought against the Arab Abbasid Empire over control of the Syr Darya. As a consequence, the Tang lost some of its influence in Central Asia to the emerging Abbasid Caliphate. This battle marked an important turning point, after which the country began to decline.

After 737, the Jie Du Shi (generals) of the outlying provinces, many of which had been recently reconquered, took more and more regional power into their own hands. Some successful generals included Geshu Han, who defeated the Tibets; Gao Xianzhi who conquered to the borders of Persia; and An Lu Shan, who defeated and once again vassalized the Khitans. During the early part of Xuanzong's reign, most Jie Du Shi had been of Han ethnicity, but when Li Linfu became chief minister, he installed foreign Jie Du Shi like An Lu Shan, who had 180,000 troops under his control in the northeast, knowing that they would be less likely to present a challenge to his authority. By the late 740s, some of these generals had become very powerful and begun to intervene in court politics. The central government had no standing army of its own to rival the forces of the Jie Du Shi.

An Lushan Rebellion

After the death of Li Linfu, tensions arose between his successor, Yang Kuo-chung, and, the Turkish/Sogdian general An Lushan( 安祿山). At the end of 755, An Lushan( 安祿山) started the An Lushan Rebellion ( 安史之亂) in Fanyang ( 范陽). An Lu-shan's forces moved into the northeastern provinces, and, by the summer of 756, they were approaching the imperial capital of Chang'an (長安). Xuanzong, accompanied only by a few troops and a small group of relatives and courtiers, fled to take refuge in Sichuan ( 四川), the headquarters of the Yang clan. They had reached Ma-wei when the Imperial bodyguard mutinied and killed Yang Guozhong (楊國忠) and Yang Guifei for their perceived part in the Emperor's downfall.

Abdication and Death

Soon afterward, the heir apparent, who had escaped to Lingwu, declared himself Suzong( (肅宗). Xuanzong heard of this several weeks later and abdicated his position. He was put under house arrest in 760 in his own palace by his son and Li Fuguo (李輔國). Still mourning for his lost Lady Yang, he died in 762 shortly before the rebellion was finally quashed. His rule was the longest of the Tang dynasty, lasting nearly 44 years.

Although Hsüan Tsung's reign ended in political disaster and personal tragedy, it was a period of internal stability, good government, and prosperity, an era of confidence during which real progress was made in every field. The sudden end of this period not only changed the political system completely but it was also a dramatic, traumatic experience for the men of the time. In the next decade, the confident pride of Hsüan Tsung's age was replaced by self-questioning, by withdrawal from public affairs, and by a new spirit of social and political criticism.


Xuanzong was criticized by later historians, even during his own Tang Dynasty, for corruption and for his appointment of Li Linfu (李林甫) to the chancellorship. However, his reign was a period of internal stability, good government and prosperity. The sudden end of his reign during the An Lushan rebellion was traumatic for all of China and was immediately followed by a period of social and political criticism. Mao Zedong once commented that Xuanzong was "half bright, half dark" (一半明一半暗). The strength that Xuanzong had allowed the warlords in the border provinces (Fanzhen) led to a period of increasing conflict and instability which set the stage for the end of the Tang Dynasty and the ensuing Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period ( 五代十國).

See also

  • minister Zhang Jiuling (張九齡)
  • artist Wu Tao-Tzu (吳道子)
  • royalty Princess Taiping (太平公主)

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Preceded by:
Li Jiao
Chancellor of China
Succeeded by:
Song Jing
Preceded by:
Emperor Ruizong
Emperor of Tang
Succeeded by:
Emperor Suzong


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