T'ang Hsüan-tsung (685-762) was the seventh emperor of the T'ang dynasty. Although he was an able man, his long reign ended with his abdication after the massive rebellion of An Lu-shan broke out in 755.
Hsüan-tsung was the third son of Emperor Jui-tsung (reigned 685, 710-713). In the year he was born, his great-aunt, Empress Wu, deposed Jui-tsung and replaced him with her young son Chung-tsung (reigned 685-690, 705-710).
Hsüan-tsung spent his youth in Ch'ang-an and Loyang, the T'ang capitals. During the years after the successful coup d'etat against Empress Wu in 705, there was almost constant maneuvering behind the scenes in the palace. Cliques formed around empresses, deposed emperors, and princes. Hsüan-tsung was deeply involved in these intrigues and, after helping to restore his father to the throne in 710, became emperor in 713.
Administration of the Empire
At the beginning of his reign Hsüan-tsung was an active and vigorous ruler. He continued the efforts of earlier rulers to centralize the empire and put it on a sound financial basis. During his reign a variety of institutional innovations were introduced in an effort to meet the political and economic changes that had developed since the founding of the dynasty in 618. To carry out his reforms, he used individuals and groups that could help implement his policies. In doing this, however, he introduced new political elements, including the notorious eunuchs, that eventually usurped power and authority.
Hsüan-tsung's reign was also a period of expansion abroad. Although there were genuine defensive considerations, much of the incentive for an aggressive foreign policy was simply the desire for conquest and glory. There was also a major effort to strengthen the borders of China against foreign enemies, but the policy produced unexpected and disastrous results as the border commanders became strong and independent. The tragic consequences were obvious when the most powerful of the regional commanders, An Lu-shan, led his soldiers against the dynasty in 755. Hsüan-tsung was forced to flee the capital and, soon thereafter, to abdicate. The rebellion was put down only after 8 years of bitter fighting.
Although it is usually quite difficult to penetrate the aura of sanctity which surrounded the person of the Chinese emperor, something is known of Hsüan-tsung's capacities and personality. His success in achieving power in a time of political intrigue and instability certainly testifies to his political ability and tenacity. It was clear when he first ascended the throne that he would not, at the beginning at least, be dominated by any person or faction. But although he was capable of ruling vigorously, he was also artistically inclined and fond of a luxurious life. In addition to having a large harem, he patronized musicians, artists, and poets, and his reign is traditionally characterized as a period of great cultural brilliance.
Further Reading on T'ang Hsüan-tsung
There is much information on Hsüan-tsung's reign in Edwin G. Pulleyblank, The Background of the Rebellion of An Lu-shan (1955). Concerning the lives of the two great poets of the period see Arthur Waley, The Poetry and Career of Li Po (1950), and William Hung, Tu Fu: China's Greatest Poet (1952).