T'ang T'ai-tsung (600-649), emperor of China during the seventh century, took over much of Asia and created a dynasty that was culturally as well as economically prosperous.
Chinese emperor T'ang T'ai-tsung (also known as Li Shih-min and Taizong) firmly established the Tang dynasty in imperial China and conquered much of Asia during his reign, setting the stage for one of the most celebrated eras in all of Chinese history. After helping to orchestrate the overthrow of the Sui dynasty, T'ai-tsung watched as his father assumed control of the nation. When his turn to rule arrived, T'ai-tsung consolidated Chinese territory lost to invading forces in from the north and west in previous centuries and presided over a culture flowering with poetry and art and an economy brimming with growing trade among the Western nations.
Rose to Power through Ruthless Political Maneuvering
T'ai-tsung's early years were in many respects representative of the turbulent Chinese political arena in medieval times. His father, Li Yuan, was a trusted member of the Sui government administration and served in various posts. The family had long been familiar with the reigns of power—ancestors had ruled portions of North China both before and during foreign occupations by Turkish forces. Born Li Shih-min in the year 600, T'ai-tsung was raised in a fashion fitting with the aristocratic history of his family. He received training in horsemanship and hunting along with his two brothers before academic tutors versed him in history and the thought of Confucius. T'ai-tsung also traveled extensively throughout much of the empire, accompanying his father on administrative missions and gathering firsthand knowledge of the territories he would eventually dominate.
Prior to the Tang dynasty, China was governed by the Sui dynasty that rose to power in 589 and made significant strides toward ousting the Turks and Mongols who for centuries marauded through North and West China, taking territory and blocking trade routes to the West. After successful campaigns, the emperor reclaimed significant portions of what were traditionally Chinese lands and appeared to have secured longevity for his dynasty. The Sui emperor ordered the construction of several palaces and temples both to celebrate his victories and elicit a measure of grandeur among the citizenry. With treasuries already emptied to pay for military operations, including three unsuccessful campaigns in Korea, the emperor levied additional taxes—an unpopular policy with several important noblemen. In 613, rebel armies sprung up around the nation to protest the increased taxation, and the emperor, anxious to maintain control, commissioned many of his key advisors, including Li Yuan, to the military ranks. T'ai-tsung's father sensed in the situation an opportunity to restore in full measure his family's aristocratic tradition and, rather than engage the rebels in conflict, he negotiated for their support in his designs on the throne.
Li Yuan gathered enough support to eventually depose the emperor and in his place he appointed the emperor's young son. It was customary in the Chinese political system for a ruler to be replaced if he was deemed unfit by enough of those with political connections, and with armed bands of rebels approaching from the north, the emperor saw the need to acquiesce. With an inexperienced emperor in place, Li Yuan acted almost immediately to complete his plan. He declared the beginning of the Tang dynasty, a proclamation that was fully supported by the many nobles that T'ai-tsung, as an adolescent diplomat, helped enlist to the cause. T'ai-tsung was rewarded by his father with a military commission and given control of massive armies. Li Yuan charged his young son with solidifying Tang support in China's western regions.
With heralded military skill, T'ai-tsung vanquished all rebellious armies by the year 624 and developed a sterling reputation as a leader. His political stock soaring, T'ai-tsung turned his efforts toward the throne. In Chinese dynastic structure, the eldest son was named the crown prince and first in line for his father's post; T'ai-tsung's older brother received this honor. This development did not sit well with the ambitious T'ai-tsung and he began crafting a plan by which he would become China's ruler. When his two brothers rode into the palace on July 4, 626, T'ai-tsung ambushed both of them and took their lives, establishing himself as China's eventual ruler. His father, old and intimidated by his son's daring exploits, removed himself as emperor and by August of 626, T'ai-tsung was the emperor of China.
Empire Flourished under His Reign
T'ai-tsung inherited a society on the verge of enormous cultural development. Already a culture of great technical achievement, including the magnetic compass, herbal medicines, paper, and alchemy, all achievements predating their development in the West, Chinese arts and sciences flourished as the empire was at last stable politically and freed from barbarian invaders. A student of poetry and calligraphy, T'ai-tsung consulted frequently with the scholar-cleric class that for many centuries prior to and following his rule served as the core of Chinese government administrators. The Tang dynasty under T'ai-tsung's command firmly entrenched this class as an insulated mechanism of governance. This reduced the necessity for reliance on powerful noble families who were frequently at the heart of political revolt, as T'ai-tsung, seizing power in a similar fashion, was only too well aware. He established civil service examinations to recruit the best and the brightest Chinese to serve his government at all levels and these institutions survived until the beginning of the twentieth century. In so doing, he placed significant emphasis on education and literacy and also subdued the power held by religious sects including the Confucionists and the Buddhists by subjecting their members to the same examinations and eliminating any direct link to power.
The strong government apparatus instituted by T'aitsung and the Tang dynasty re-established the empire as one of the three strongest in the world, the others being the Roman and Persian empires. T'ai-tsung assumed the title "Son of Heaven, " which reflected his divine right to govern and his inevitable position as the spiritual center of the empire. As the physical embodiment of China, T'ai-tsung was responsible for conducting diplomatic relations with this status in mind. Accordingly, visitors from neighboring nations were welcomed in great halls decorated with silk, gold, and jade, and protected by elaborately costumed palace guards and strikingly clad musicians wielding bells, lutes, drums, harps, and flutes. With the "silk route" again open for free and relatively unencumbered trade, Western merchants from the Middle East and Europe met with their counterparts from Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and Korea to create the most international and cosmopolitan city the world had ever seen.
The element of trade loomed large for T'ai-tsung and later Tang emperors. To supply artisans with the materials for their luxuries and insure that quantities of Chinese goods could reach the West, the trade routes had to be maintained through either conquest or coercion. To pacify tribes and nations from the interior of China to the distant empires of Persia and Arabia, gifts of jade and silk were sent by the emperor, and female courtesans were sent to become brides to influential chieftains. T'ai-tsung effectively managed these diplomatic feats and was able to call territory ranging from the Caspian Sea to the East China Sea—several thousand miles across Asia—part of the Chinese empire.
Saw Decline in Last Years of Rule
By the year 636, T'ai-tsung had firmly established China as a major power in the medieval world. In the West, stories of Chinese grandeur and cultural advances would become legendary through accounts handed down centuries later by Marco Polo and other Westerners familiar with Chinese history. T'ai-tsung contributed to the splendor of China by commissioning many public works and even more palaces and vacation estates. Unfortunately, his architectural vision of the great city of Chang'an drained royal coffers and taxes, and tariffs were raised to pay for T'aitsung's projects. This same decision was in many respects responsible for the downfall of his Sui predecessors and led to a diminishing empire for T'ai-tsung. Nonetheless, during T'ai-tsung's lifetime the city of Chang'an was unlike any other in the world. It was designed on a grid pattern with avenues wider than the length of the modern football field and organized into several self-contained neighborhoods, market areas, parks, and royal hunting grounds. Many houses were cooled in the summer by an air conditioning system run by underground ice storage pits and many also contained bathing pools, fountains, and gardens.
While the interior of the empire surrounded itself with the luxuries of profitable trade, the more remote territories experienced a resurgence in attacks by Western invaders. Unable to appease the Mongols and Turks and suffering the humiliation after Korean troops repelled his invading armies, T'ai-tsung grew more insular and suspicious of his advisors, consulting them less and less. In addition to his military setbacks, T'ai-tsung was disturbed by the line of succession to follow him. His oldest son turned away from traditional Chinese customs and adopted the life of a Turk, living in tents and garbed in Turkish gowns. The crown prince also hatched a plan with his brother against their father, though T'ai-tsung quelled their efforts and passed them both over by appointing his youngest son as the crown prince. T'aitsung's youngest son, though, was a sickly child and a weak ruler, and saw losses to barbarian enemies in both the Northern and Western fronts.
While the close of his rule saw the celebrated emperor lose a portion of his lustre, T'ai-tsung's reputation in Chinese history remains secure as a magnanimous leader, responsible for both broadening and glorifying the empire. Recorded dialogues between himself and his clerics survived the ages to become regularly consulted manuals of conduct for later emperors.
Further Reading on T'ang T'ai-tsung
The only full-length biography of T'ai-tsung is the readable but uncritical work by Charles Patrick Fitzgerald, Son of Heaven (1933). For an interpretive view see Arthur F. Wright, "T'ang T'ai-tsung and Buddhism, " in Perspectives on the T'ang (1971).
Additional Biography Sources
Schafer, Edward H., Ancient China, Time Inc., 1967.
Fairbank, John, China: A New History, Harvard University Press, 1992.
Shinn, Rinn-Sup, and Robert L. Wordon, Countries of the World, Electronic Library, Inc., CD-ROM.