"The waters can both float and capsize a vessel" --- Zhuangzi (Circa 369 - 286 BC)
Taizong was the second of the Tang emperors. He was born as Li Shimin to the Empress Dou, the second son of Emperor Gaozu. Taizong is his posthumous temple name and means "Supreme Ancestor." His rule lasted twenty-three years (626-649) and he is considered to be one of the greatest of the Chinese emperors. His reign, which is known as the Prosperity of Zhenguan, was outstanding as an era of peace and prosperity, one of the most flourishing during the Tang period.
There are three important landmarks in his political career:
'Raising an Army in Taiyuan'
The closing years of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) was marked by civil unrest. At this time, the man who was to become Emperor Gauzu was Li Yuan the Duke of Tang, an administrator in Taiyuan. His ambitious son, Li Shimin persuaded the duke to stage a military coup against the Sui in 617. That year the rebel army captured the capital city, Changan, and the duke placed the Emperor Yangss son, Emperor Gong, on the throne while holding power for himself. When Emperor Yang was assassinated in 618 by an aide, Li Yuan deposed the puppet prince and declared himself emperor, thus establishing the new Tang Dynasty.
Li Shimin continued to lead the army in a campaign to secure the whole of the empire for his father and finally overcame all rebels, creating a united China in 628.
'The Palace Coup of Xuanwumen'
On taking the title and name Emperor Gauzou, Li Yuan who had twenty-two sons in total, decreed that his eldest son, Li Jiancheng should be the Crown Prince. Li Shimin, the second son, was granted the title Prince of Qin. A third son, had died long before, so the fourth son, Li Yuanji was created Prince of Qi.
Of these three sons, Li Shimin was the most ambitious and intelligent. It was he who had made the greatest contribution to the campaign to secure the empire for his father. This fact troubled the Crown Prince for he saw Li Shimin as a threat to his own position. Conspiring with his younger brother, Prince Qi, he tried to get rid of Li Shimin.
Unhappy with his fathers incompetence and tired of the constant threats against him by his brothers, Li Shimin launched a palace coup at the Xuanwumen Gate in 626. Both the Crown Prince and Prince Qi were killed and the emperor was forced to abdicate.
There were no longer any rivals for the throne and Li Shimin became Emperor Taizong. He declared that his reign should be known as the Zhenguan.
'Emperor Taizong and Prosperity of Zhenguan'
During his twenty-three year long reign, Taizong did more for the empire than any emperor before him. As a consequence the Tang Dynasty left a legacy that was to inspire many of those that followed it. By firm leadership and a positive example the new emperor set about reforming agriculture, manufacturing and commerce. The improvements achieved in both agricultural and manufacturing output meant there were surpluses that could be available for foreign as well as internal trade. This led to a strong economy and the commercial enterprise of the country became second to none throughout the known world.
Among the manufacturing industries that became highly developed were porcelain production, bronze and iron smelting and casting, shipbuilding, and textiles (with new techniques for weaving and dyeing).
Political progress was achieved by the overhaul of the examination system first introduced by the Sui for the appointment of officials. This system ensured that administrators were selected on merit rather than nepotism or bribery. In this way only the best men were appointed to vital posts within the government of the country. Political corruption was virtually unknown as a result of these sound administrative structures.
Much was done to enhance the transport infrastructure. This included the improvement of roads and waterway connections between major cities. The long period of stability meant it was possible to train and equip the army with a particular emphasis on strengthening border protection.
Strong economical and commercial links were established with Japan, Korea, India, Persia and Arabia. These factors have all led to the period being referred to as "The Prosperity of Zhenguan."
Having lived through the tumult which characterized the closing years of the Sui Dynasty, Taizong was appreciative of the power held by the common people. Unless the peasant classes were content, they could prove to be a very dangerous opposition under the leadership of anyone prepared to make a stand against the government. He realized that unless he was able to ensure that his people enjoyed a reasonable standard of living, those who had helped him and his father to power could quite easily overthrow him. Taizong would remind himself of this frequently by quoting a maxim of the great philosopher, Zhuangzi, 'the waters can both float and capsize a vessel.' The emperor clearly understood how these words were a metaphor for his relationship with the empire.
The political reforms he introduced were designed to ensure the ship of state sailed on calm waters. There were two main factors that ensured the political stability he sought to achieve. These can be summarized as (a) to pick the right person for the task and (b) to seek the opinion of others before making a decision.
Emperor Taizong paid particular attention to the appointment of officials. He adopted and perfected the examination system that had been set up by the Sui. In this way men of talent, regardless of their class or background, who were prepared to study had an opportunity to gain positions within the administration. Close consideration was given to the selection of magistrates. Also, government inspectors were appointed, who at regular intervals were sent to audit local administration. By these means, promotion of those who had achieved progress in office was decided.
Taizong's capacity for recognising a man's ability, regardless of his background was demonstrated by appointments he made. Yuchi Jingde, a former blacksmith, became one of his ministers. Also, Qinqiong, a minor official, was appointed as a minister.
Possibly his most outstanding appointments was that of Weizheng, a former member of the Crown Prince's retinue. Weizheng had actually recommended the Crown Prince to do away with his brother, the Prince of Qin. Taizong had long recognized Weizheng's talent and rather than punish the man for his former loyalty to the Crown Prince, rewarded him with the position of a counsellor in his court. In time Weizheng was promoted to a position equivalent to that of a prime minister.
Emperor Taizong's willingness to listen to the opinions of others and his ability to both seek and act upon good advice was a major factor of his successful reign. Of all his ministers, his former enemy, Weizheng was probably the most outspoken. Often he would argue vehemently with the Emperor, who would be left wild with anger. Eventually, despite his infuriation, Taizong would come round and see the wisdom of Weis words and benefit from them.
Few men in history would be so frank and honest with their monarch and when Weizheng died, Taizong was overwhelmed with grief. The Emperor said to his ministers, "With a bronze mirror, one can see whether he is properly attired; with history as a mirror, one can understand the rise and fall of a nation; with men as a mirror, one can see whether he is right or wrong. Now Ive lost my faithful mirror by the death of Weizheng."
'The specific policies adopted by Emperor Taizong were as follows:'
Simplification of bureaucracy, strict control of expenses, elimination of corruption.
State sponsored academies, an improved civil service examination system, selection by talent rather than position or birth.
Creation of a professional army (Fubing), deploying forces to defend the frontiers of the Empire.
Inauguration of irrigation schemes, the enhancement of agricultural productivity.
A fair system of taxation (Zuyondiao) coupled with the reintroduction of the land equalization system and reduction of corvee.
Reformation of the penal code, eliminating the harsh laws of the Sui Dynasty.
Defeat of the Eastern Tujue tribe, establish friendly relations with the Tubo (Tibet). [Secured by the marriage of Princess Wencheng to the Tujue king, Songtsan Gambo.]
A sound foreign policy, securing peace with ethnic group nations on the frontiers, cultural, commercial and economic ties abroad, while encouraging foreigners to travel, live, trade and study within the Tang Empire.
Under the management of Emperor Taizong, the Tang Empire emerged as the most powerful feudal empire in the world. However, after 630 AD, towards the end of his reign, Taizong's public works became more grandiose and extravagant. In spite of this he is considered to be one of the most outstanding military strategists and statesmen in the history of China.
Following his death in 649 at the age of fifty-three, he was buried in the Zhaolin Tomb that is located near the present day city of Xian.