The Tang Dynasty
The Tang Dynasty, which lasted nearly 300 years from 1618 to 1907, was China’s longest and second largest empire. It shared many similarities with the Han Dynasty, including the area of land, capital cities, population and even trading with other nations. The Tang Dynasty began right after the Sui Dynasty collapsed. The powerful Li family seized power as the Sui Dynasty began to decline and emperors from the family held power throughout the period of the Tang. Throughout much of this era, China was the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world.
The Emperors of the Tang Dynasty
Emperor Gao Zu (618-626) Emperor Gao Zu was the founder of the Tang Dynasty and he ruled from 618 until 626. The main goal he had for his administration was to unite the empire. He continued with many of the previous emperor’s policies, Emperor Wen of Sui, but he changed some of them to ease the burdens on the people. For instance, he reformed the nation’s judicial system and also lowered taxes for the people.
Emperor Tai Zong (626-649) Emperor Tai Zong was the son of Emperor Gao Zu and he is credited with being a co-founder of the Tang Dynasty because of his role in helping his father when he revolted against the Sui Dynasty in 617. Because he was so well-respected and regarded, he is considered to be one of the greatest emperors that ever ruled in China. While he was the ruler of the Tang Dynasty, China enjoyed a period of military superiority and economic prosperity. China was also considered the most powerful nation in the world while Emperor Taizong was the leader.
During the early years of his reign, Emperor Taizong released the concubines in the palace so they could go home and get married.
Emperor Gaozong (649-683) Emperor Gaozong, the third emperor of the Tang Dynasty, is considered by many to be a weak and ineffective ruler. One of the main reasons for this is because he left many of the decisions up to his wife when it concerned the affairs of the state. Although he ruled from 649 until 683, the latter half of his reign was mostly done by his wife, Empress Wu, because he had suffered a series of strokes that left him unable to make decisions and rule properly.
However, during the early years of Emperor Gaozong’s reign, the dynasty increased its territory. But much of those gains were also lost and there were repeated rebellions in many of those areas as well.
Emperor Zhongzong (684 and 705-710) Emperor Zhongzong was the son of Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu. Although he took over the throne in place of his father after his death, his mother removed him from the throne and sent him into exile under house arrest. She put Zhongzong’s younger brother, Ruizong, on the throne instead during this time. After a bitter power struggle, Zhongzong was released from his seclusion and reinstated as emperor in 705. He reigned for five years after that, but he is described as being weak and very impressionable. Emperor Zhongong’s death is believed to have been at the hands of Empress Wei, who was his empress consort. She allegedly poisoned him and placed her son, Li Chongmao, in place as emperor.
Emperor Ruizong (684-690 and 710-712) Emperor Ruizong was placed on the throne by his mother, Wuhou, who was the future empress of China. However, in 690, she decided to take the power from him and rule the nation herself. This was the first time a mother made her son abdicate his thrown in the history of China.
However, a coup in the royal palace overthrew Wuhou and placed Ruizong’s brother, Zhongzong, on the throne. Another coup, which was led by the son of Ruizong, toppled Zhongzong and placed Emperor Ruizong back in power in 710. He later abdicated his throne to his son in 712.
Emperor Xuan Zong (712-756) The emperor with the longest rule of the Tang Dynasty was Emperor Xuan Zong. He reigned for 43 years and he is credited with the person who helped China reach the height of power and culture. But this was during the early years of his reign.
In the later years of Emperor Xuan Zong’s reign, people blamed him for putting too much trust in certain people. This eventually led to the Anshi Rebellion, which was the beginning of the end for the Tang Dynasty.
Emperor Su Zong (756-762) During the reign of Emperor Suzong, many eunuchs were places in top-level government positions. One of the eunuchs, Li Fuguo, was made the commander of the imperial guards, giving him extreme power in the administration. In 762, Emperor Suzong became very ill. This created a power struggle and Li Fuguo killed the emperor’s wife. Soon after that happened, the emperor died of heart problems.
Emperor Dai Zong (762-779) Emperor Daizong ascended to the throne of the Tang Dynasty following the death of his father, Emperor Suzong. He ruled from 762 until 779 and one of his actions as emperor was to have Li Fuguo assassinated. Li had already killed Emperor Daizong’s stepmother and he had him confined to the palace so he could have full control of the state’s affairs.
One of the things that Emperor Daizong did during his reign was spending huge sums of money building shrines and temples. His massive spending habit began the decline of the Tang Dynasty because it created such a financial burden on the empire.
Emperor De Zong (779-805) The emperor with the third longest reign during China’s Tang Dynasty was Emperor Dezong. He ruled for 26 years from 779 to 805 and he tried to implement new tax laws which would help improve the financial position of the government. However, his efforts to destroy the warlords throughout the empire resulted in several rebellions. These rebellions almost brought the Tang Dynasty to a close.
Although Emperor Dezong began his rule with a sense of being frugal, he ended up being greedy. He started by releasing hundreds of women from the palace harem in order to reduce expenses. He also restricted government spending. But after he was forced into exile in 784, he reversed many of those policies after returning to the capital. He began building a personal fortune through corrupt methods, including bribery and extortion.
Emperor Shun Zong (805) During the short reign of Emperor Shunzong, he tried to reform the administration to make the imperial powers stronger. These reforms later came to be known as the Yongzhen Reformation. Emperor Shunzong ruled from February until August of 805, but contracted an illness that led to his death soon after taking the throne. But before he died, the eunuchs had him approve Li Chun, his son, to take over the throne upon his death.
Emperor Xian Zong (806-820) After his father, Emperor Shun Zong, spent less than a year on the throne of the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Xian Zong was given this highest position of power over the land. One of Emperor Xian Zong’s major actions as emperor was to attempt to limit the power of the military governors. If they defied his orders, he declared war against them.
For a while, the emperor was successful. His efforts helped stabilize China by limiting the potential destruction from the military governors, but it also led to the rise of the power that eunuchs held in the government. There are reports that a eunuch, Chen Hongzhi, actually killed Emperor Xian Zong in 820, however, those allegations were never proven.
Emperor Mu Zong (821-824) Following the alleged assassination of Emperor Xian Zong, his son, Emperor Mu Zong ascended to the throne as emperor of the Tang Dynasty in 1821. Mu Zong is described as a neglectful emperor who preferred to spend his time indulging in food and alcohol rather than tending to the responsibilities of the affairs of the state. As a result, the military governors that were being subdued during the previous emperor’s administration began to rise up and challenge the government.
As a result of the uprising, three areas to the north of the Yellow River became independent. Because of this and other incidents, historians consider the reign of Emperor Mu Zong to be the beginning of the downward spiral that eventually led to the fall of the Tang Dynasty. Mu Zong died in 1824 as a result of an old illness recurring and was replaced as emperor by his son, Li Zhan.
Emperor Jing Zong (824-826) Emperor Jing Zong also had a short reign of about three years. He became the emperor of the Tang Dynasty at the age of 15 and his administration was heavily influenced by corrupt eunuchs who held real power since he was not interested in being in charge. Instead, Emperor Jing Zong was into partying and pleasure seeking while eunuchs and other officials ran his administration.
Jing Zong was known for being late to meetings with his imperial advisors, many times making them wait for hours before he showed up. He enjoyed spending time playing polo and giving his musicians huge rewards for playing music for him.
At the age of 17, Emperor Jing Zong was assassinated by conspirators.
Emperor Wen Zong (826-840) Jing Zong’s younger brother, Wen Zong, became emperor in 826 after Jing Zong was assassinated and he reigned for about 13 years. Because he saw the wastefulness of his older brother and father while they were in power, he had a goal of governing China with more diligence and respect than they had shown to the position. He met with his advisors often, but he is described as being indecisive when it came to making major decisions.
Emperor Wu Zong (840-846) For six years, Emperor Wu Zong was the emperor of the Tang Dynasty. His time as ruler is best known for a time of religious persecution, but he was also known for fighting off rebellions that tried to overthrow him and his administration.
Emperor Xuan Zong (846-859) Emperor Xuan Zong is described as the last competent emperor of China’s Tang Dynasty. He was the 13th son of Xian Zong, who reigned from 806 until 820 and three other emperors were nephews of his as well. Emperor Xuan Zong’s reign is known as one of prosperity throughout China. After he died and even for years after the fall of the Tang Dynasty, the people still missed him. They often referred to him as “Little Taizong.”
Emperor Yi Zong (859-873) From 859 until his death in 873, Emperor Yi Zong ruled the Tang Dynasty. Much like some previous emperors, Yi Zong enjoyed the lifestyle that the title of emperor brought him, but he did not concern himself too much with the important matters of the state. Instead, he became an alcoholic and a womanizer who still held large Buddhist ceremonies throughout the year.
Emperor Yi Zong enjoyed music, too. The palace musicians would often play for him and if he enjoyed their music, he gave them huge rewards and sometimes even offered them positions in his administration. Due to his lavish gifts and lifestyle, it was not long before Emperor Yi Zong had spent nearly all the money in the treasury that was left over from his father’s administration.
Due to the lack of finances and resources, people starved throughout the country. Many of them even turned to cannibalism for survival. As a result, Emperor Yi Zong’s reign was plagued with discontent and rebellions. He died in 873 after becoming seriously ill and succumbing to the illness.
Emperor Xi Zong (873-888) At the age of 11, Emperor Xi Zong, the son of Yi Zong, became emperor and reigned from 873 until 888. During his reign, there were several rebellions which contributed to breaking apart the Tang Dynasty into several pieces with some of those pieces ruled by warlords. As a result, the fall of the dynasty became more imminent by the end of his reign.
Emperor Zhao Zong (888-904) The reign of Emperor Zhao Zong brought the Tang Dynasty even closer to its final days with more rebellions and chaos throughout the land. During his 15 years on the throne, the power of the imperial government became less and less authoritative. Although Emperor Zhao Zong tried to restore the power of the dynasty, his efforts backfired and only motivated those who rebelled against him to gain more power over the government and the people.
By 1904, the imperial government was overtaken by one of the region’s major warlords who killed Emperor Zhao Zong and many of the people in the emperor’s administration before placing the emperor’s 11 year old son on the throne to serve as his “puppet emperor.”
Emperor Ai Di (904-907) The placement of Emperor Ai Di on the throne by warlord Zhu Quanzhong essentially ended the power and rule of the Tang Dynasty. Within just a few years, Quanzhong ended the reign of the Tang Dynasty and set up a new dynasty, the Later Liang Dynasty.
Every action that Emperor Ai Di completed was the result of Quanzhong telling him what to do. He was forced to issue an edict which summoned 30 senior aristocrats to an area near the Yellow River. When they arrived, they were ordered to commit suicide.
Shortly after forcing Emperor Ai Di to abdicate the throne to him, Quanzhong poisoned him, though he was only 15 years old.
The Decline and Fall of the Tang Dynasty
Besides the corrupt emperors and leadership at the top of the empire, many other things helped topple the Tang Dynasty. Many of these things began decades before the actual fall happened. In 755, the An Shi Rebellion led by An Lushan and Shi Siming lasted for eight years and weakened the empire a great deal. Following that blow, local power struggles occurred which served to further weaken the power of the Tang government.
As corruption continued in the palaces and eunuchs gained control through the generations, the power and influence of the emperors waned. This left them open and vulnerable to attacks and rebellions from the people which eventually resulted in the warlord, Zhu Quanzhong, seizing power at a time when the empire was at its weakest.