September 4, 626 A.D. He has murdered his brothers. Taken his father prisoner. Led campaigns of war and conquest across all of East Asia. And you know what? It’s all gonna work out for him. On this day, in the Chinese capital of Chang’an, Li Shi-min becomes the Emperor of China, taking the name “Taizong” of the Tang Dynasty. And people nowadays think THEY have family issues.
Most Americans don’t know a lot about Chinese history, and to be fair, it is a LOT. Think about it: this is a landmass that has a larger population than all of Europe and has a written history that’s even longer than Europe’s. Sun Tzu was writing The Art of War when the Persians were invading Greece and people up in Britain and Germany were throwing sharp sticks at each other. So for all of ancient Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Age of Discovery, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution – that WHOLE time period – China is happily doing its own thing on the other side of the world.
That’s a long, long time for anyone to condense into a few lessons of high school history. Chinese history has its own cast of well-known characters, trends, stories, literature, ideas, religions, rebellions, rulers good and bad, etcetera. There’s just a lot. But fear not: I am not going to shove three millennia of Chinese history down your throat. Not today, anyway. Instead, today we’re gonna take a snapshot: the downfall of one dynasty, the rise of another, and the emergence of the new dynasty’s most successful emperor. Yes, the dude who killed his brothers.
China, ever since its earliest days of recorded history, had a bad habit of going through boom-and-bust cycles. A centralized empire would govern most of China for a few hundred years, before events ensued and the empire fell apart into squabbling states, and eventually one state would get big enough to swallow the rest and tie them all back into a unified empire. The great Chinese historical novel, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” even had a formula for this. The novel begins: “The empire, long united, must divide. The empire, long divided, must unite.”
Romance of the Three Kingdoms discussed one of those “must divide” times, around AD 200, when the Han Dynasty fell apart. The Han had ruled China for almost 400 years as a unified bloc, but political strife, famine, and plague tore them apart. In the end, they separated into the legendary three kingdoms, before eventually those kingdoms fell apart as well around AD 420. So by the time our story picks up in the 580s AD, China has been chopped up into a bunch of warring states for almost four centuries.
The Chinese believed in a quasi-religious political concept for their Imperial rulers: the “Mandate of Heaven.” The idea was that as long as good, noble, moral, and just rulers were on the throne, the land would prosper thanks to the favor of heaven. (Note that Chinese ideas of “Heaven” were and are not the same as Christian/Islamic/Judaic monotheism, there’s a lot going on here with religion, best not to get bogged down into it.)
Of course, the converse was also true: if an Emperor was weak, or corrupt, or decadent, or unjust, he would lose the Mandate of Heaven, and the realm would suffer. This got religious when people began to link unrelated incidents to the Emperor losing the Mandate of Heaven: floods, famines, defeat in war, religious upheaval, or plagues. All of these could, and were, interpreted as signs that the ruling dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven and should be overthrown.
Granted, this is obviously a concept that can be weaponized in propaganda, and it almost always was. If you wanted to overthrow the current Emperor, you just had to wait until something crazy happened, scream “Mandate of Heaven,” and shoot your shot. Of course, if the Emperor was competent, assertive, and – most importantly – lucky, you weren’t going to have much of a shot. If you removed a weak and fickle Emperor, but did some shady shit to get rid of him, you could always backtrack and claim that the Mandate of Heaven had abandoned him. So the “Mandate of Heaven” was not only used as justification for a rebellion, it was used as propaganda AFTER the rebellion to justify all the nasty stuff you did to gain power. It was really quite a useful concept…until, of course, it turned against you.
Which is just what happened to the Sui Dynasty.
In the power vacuum that followed the collapse of the Three Kingdoms, a number of nomadic tribes drifted into northern China and set up their own Chinese-style kingdoms. Northern Asia was pretty much an endless fountain of nomadic tribes until about the 1700s, with the Huns and Mongols being the most famous, but there were plenty more before and after them. By about 580 AD, one of these tribes – the Xianbei – had reunified northern China under a single ruler for the first time in living memory. The tribe’s leader Yuwen Yong declared himself Emperor Wu of the Zhou Dynasty. He was already looking towards trying to reunify all of China under Xianbei rule, and started planning the conquest of southern China.
Well, he would have, if he hadn’t died in 578 and left the Xianbei hegemony/Zhou Dynasty in the less-than-capable hands of his dirtbag son Yuwen Yun, who took the throne as Emperor Xuan. Erratic, decadent, arbitrary and violent, Xuan mocked his father’s death and started to execute anyone who looked at him funny. Increasingly megalomanic and wasteful, he started referring to *himself* as “heaven” and started passing nutso laws like forbidding women to wear makeup, banning belts, and requiring all wheels to be made from single pieces of wood (?!). The ironic thing is that, no matter how many people he killed, he didn’t touch the one he really should have.
Xuan’s father-in-law, Yang Jian, was one of his top generals and most powerful advisors. Yang Jian was, unlike the Zhou Dynasty, ethnically Han Chinese and secretly planned to expel these foreign rulers. He bade his time and waited for the opportunity, even when Xuan began abusing his daughter and even tried to force her to commit suicide. This was probably Yang’s last straw, and you really shouldn’t be beating on the daughter of the guy you just made Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Still, Yang used Xuan’s fear of his own family to outmaneuver the young, cruel Emperor, and when Xuan died *mysteriously* in 580 AD, Yang seized control of the state, and by 581 declared himself Emperor.
It wasn’t hard to pitch this as a “Mandate of Heaven” issue. Xuan had died (totally for natural reasons unrelated to beating on Yang Jian’s daughter), he had been arbitrary and cruel and evil, and most especially had arrogantly declared himself the equal of Heaven. So *obviously* Heaven had struck him down, and since Yang Jian had *luckily* been in the palace at the time and *divinely* had the Army behind him, it only made sense that the Mandate had passed to him. Yang Jian now declared himself Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss – except for not being crazy and for actually being Chinese.
Small note: all Chinese Emperors have their “personal names” and “temple names.” Yang Jian was our new guy’s personal name, but the temple name – his official name in Chinese histories – was now “Wen”. Same way that Octavian had himself declared Augustus, if you need a point of reference.
However he gained power, Emperor Wen of Sui turned out to be pretty damn good at wielding it. He initiated a large-scale reform movement that rebuilt the old Confucian bureaucracy that had once so efficiently ruled the Han Dynasty, and strengthened his empire for the wars to reunify China. He organized a vast navy and army to invade the south, and by 589 had reconquered southern China – reunifying the Empire for the first time since the Han Dynasty had fallen. He restructured the capital, improved infrastructure and built granaries, and restored Han Chinese supremacy in their own lands while keeping the Xianbei tribes in the system as military lords and governors.
The Sui Dynasty looked like it was on track to bringing China into a new age of stability and prosperity. This newfound unity was fragile, though, and the problem with monarchies is that it only takes one idiot to derail the whole thing. That idiot would end up being Wen’s son, Emperor Yang of Sui. The fact that he is the second of the Sui Dynasty’s two emperors should tell you where this is going. Emperor Wen had ascended and received the Mandate of Heaven; when he handed it to his son, Yang would fumble. There is a possibility that Yang killed his father, which would be predictable, but this is likely propaganda. Either way, in 604 AD Yang of Sui succeeded to the throne.
The trouble with Yang is that he tried to do everything his father had done without any of the political scheming or manipulation that made it all work. By reintroducing the old Confucian examination system, he alienated the Xianbei tribes that still made up the bulk of the army. He lived a life of decadent luxury (see a theme here?), annoying the Confucian scholars his father brought in, men who believed fully in the Mandate of Heaven.
Finally, to follow his father’s trend of economic reform, Emperor Yang initiated the building of a Grand Canal that would link northern and southern China – a canal that is to this day a major part of China’s infrastructure and economy. By conscripting large numbers of peasants and bankrupting the treasury to finish the Canal, he caused untold suffering and misery amongst the Chinese people – even if countless future generations benefited from the work.
The final straw came when Yang launched a massive invasion of Korea. He conscripted so many people for this failed expedition that it nearly collapsed the economy; the invasion was destroyed at the Battle of Salsu in 612 by the great Korean general Eulji Mundeok, and this added the aura of military failure to Yang’s general mismanagement of the Empire. Truth be told, Yang wasn’t even *that* bad, but he pissed off all the wrong people at the worst possible time. He seems to have generally continued all his father’s successful policies, but just…less successfully.
Either way, with a recent overthrow of one dynasty fresh on everyone’s mind, it wasn’t hard for any random dude with a few followers to say, “Well…maybe *I* have the Mandate of Heaven.” The defeats and losses in the war with Korea, along with the peasant unrest over military conscription and the building of the Canal, forced Yang into exile in the south, where he would be killed in 618 by one of the same Yuwen clan that his father had usurped way back when. The Sui Dynasty, which could have ruled for centuries, instead lasted only 37 years.
So who was going to replace them? At first, it seemed like China – so recently reunified – might just fall back apart into a bunch of petty warring states. Luckily for China, one family managed to emerge from the wars. Li Yuan was a general who had served the Sui Dynasty, and his family were a Han Chinese-Xianbei mix. Li was the Duke of Tang and governor of Shanxi, a frontier province, and an experienced general and political leader. He was also first cousin to Emperor Yang, and decided this gave him as good a claim on the throne as any. He was prodded into this course by his energetic, brilliant son Li Shimin – of whom we will soon know a great deal more.
Li Yuan launched his rebellion in 617, seizing Chang’an and forcing Yang’s abdication, and upon hearing of Yang’s subsequent death shrugged and said “Well, I guess I have the Mandate of Heaven.” In 618, Li Yuan declared himself Emperor Gaozu of the new Tang Dynasty. Of course, it wasn’t going to be that easy. If Li Yuan could just take the capital and declare himself Emperor, so could anyone else, and he had just painted a big target on his back. Soon every military leader in the Empire was honing in on the brand-new Tang Dynasty. Who has the Mandate of Heaven? Whoever wins, I guess.
Li Yuan had a secret weapon – his son. Li Shimin was all of 20 years old and already full of piss and vinegar, having led armies since his teens, an expert warrior and brilliant general. Li Shimin is unusual for high-profile Chinese figures due to his rationalist and cynical mindset. He combined the cold politics of a Machiavelli with the military professionalism of a Caesar. As Li Yuan sorted out imperial issues, Li Shimin blitzed around north and south China defeating all his father’s enemies one by one. His victories were outstanding; at Hulao Pass in 621, outnumbered ten to one, Li Shimin led the enemy army on a feigned retreat before turning around and smashing them, inflicting heavy losses. This and many other victories quelled all the unrest within China.
But Li Yuan/Gaozu of Tang had forgotten the central lesson of Chinese imperial history: never let your subordinates get more popular than you, even if he’s your son. Emperor Xuan had been overthrown by his scheming father-in-law. Yang of Sui had gotten complacent and been overthrown by his general Li Yuan. Now it was Li Yuan’s turn to face the music. Because Li Yuan had three sons, and Li Shimin wasn’t the oldest.
Li Yuan/Emperor Gaozu’s eldest son, Li Jiancheng, came to realize that his younger brother was gaining far more popularity and prestige than he or the youngest brother, Li Yuanji. Soon the Tang Court became divided into factions between the two brothers, and the conflict between these brothers overshadowed the Emperor’s own reign. With his three sons at each other’s throats, Emperor Gaozu declared that Li Jiancheng would remain Crown Prince. Li Jiancheng was supported by Gaozu’s concubines and the court staff, but Li Shimin was supported by the army. Army versus concubines, I wonder who’s gonna win this one?
After several years of feuding, the Crown Prince decided to get rid of his famous brother. After his brothers launched several failed assassination attempts, which Li Shimin effectively dodged, and after even MORE intrigues, Li Shimin had enough. He planted rumors that his older and younger brothers had been gettin’ it on with his dad’s concubines – a big no-no in Imperial China – which caused the Emperor to summon his sons to the palace at Chang’an.
As Li Jiancheng and Li Yuanji rode through Xuanwu Gate in summer 626, a force of cavalry suddenly burst out from behind the walls, their brother Li Shimin at their head. Li Shimin personally fired the arrow that killed his older brother, and his younger brother fell under the swords of the cavalry escort. The victorious, bloodsoaked, fratricidal prince rode into his father’s palace with the armored cavalry clanking behind him. His horrified father had no choice but to make him Crown Prince. Li Shimin had his brother’s sons put to death and even took his brother’s wife as a concubine.
It took only two months for Li Shimin, brother-killer, wife-stealer, rebel, right arm of his father’s war effort, to convince his dad that maybe it was time for a change. On September 4, 626, Emperor Gaozu “retired”, and was replaced by Li Shimin, who now took the name of Taizong Emperor.
Despite all of the horrible things he did to gain power, the Taizong Emperor would prove to be, hands down, one of the best Emperors China ever had. For the next 23 years, Tang China would flourish economically and militarily, and his rule brought peace within the kingdom for over a century. The land prospered, the armies won, the land was calm and orderly, and the Emperor kept firm control and ruled unchallenged. Taizong’s reign was later regarded as THE standard by which all subsequent Emperors were measured. Few could equal him.
Success is its own justification for rule, in the end. No matter how you gain power, wielding it well will always earn you a good place in the history books. Kill your brothers, usurp your father? “Mandate of Heaven.” All the justification you need. We learned that lesson only two days ago with Augustus, and we learn it again today with Taizong.
I wonder if the Mandate of Heaven helped him when he woke up at night, haunted by what he had done. God only knows.