L: Li Shimin
The Han Chinese – the world’s largest ethnicity– get their name from the Han Dynasty whose powerful emperor Wudi (see W for Wudi of Han) helped forge their national identity. However, in many cities around the world, the local Chinatown translates literally as “Tang people’s street”.
That’s because the Tang Dynasty is considered as another high-point of Chinese civilisation. Li Shimin, or Taizong of Tang, the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty, has also been categorised as one of the two greatest Han Chinese rulers.
What is Emperor Taizong known for?
Taizong’s era, from 629 to 649, is often described as “the Reign of Zhenguan” and classed as an exemplary model against which later emperors were measured.
China at the time was so affluent and stable that an idiom claimed that people didn’t need to lock their doors at night. According to a chapter in Zizhi Tongjian (“Comprehensive Mirror to Governance”, another of China’s most important history books), only 390 criminals were sentenced to death across the entire Tang empire in the year 635. Famously Taizong set all of these condemned men temporarily free so that they could visit their families for the Spring Festival – on a promise that they would return to the capital Chang’an to receive the death penalty in the autumn.
Rather surprisingly, they all returned on time. Taizong then set them free in a general amnesty.
Why are historians so kind to him?
Many of China’s emperors are wrapped up in myths that they likely fostered themselves and which their own court historians incorporated into the dynastic record.
Many of the accounts about Taizong have been heavily influenced by an eighth century compendium on the emperor compiled by the respected historian Wu Jing. He described a utopian model of government, portraying the emperor as decisive and hardworking, but also willing to listen to a group of talented (and outspoken) advisors.
But Wu also mentioned that Taizong asked to have a look at what his court historians were saying about him. Presumably this meant that some of the records were written in a more rose-tinted fashion.
Recent historians have argued that the more ruthless aspects of his rule – for instance, how he killed his two brothers and forced his father to abdicate – have been downplayed.
Was the Tang empire a superpower?
One of Taizong’s achievements is that he laid the foundation for China to thrive as a superpower for more than a century. Similar to Han Wudi’s achievements, ambitious military campaigns by Taizong extended the Tang empire’s control across Central Asia, Mongolia, Manchuria and parts of Siberia. As a result Taizong was also titled as Tian Kehan, (aka ‘heavenly khan’, or khan of all khans).
Satellite kingdoms that recognised Tang China’s authority spanned as far west as Persia and Afghanistan. This stirred vibrant commercial contact between Islamic and Chinese civilisations. But the Chinese today take most pride in the Tang Dynasty’s almost unmatchable cultural influence. The Tang era saw Chinese poetry reach its pinnacle, something recalled in Chinese literature lessons for schoolchildren. Tang China was also famous for its porcelain, decorated furniture and musical instruments.
Superpowers generally enjoy cultural influence and this was how the Tang empire excelled too. Japan, for example, underwent centuries of “cultural borrowing” during the Tang Dynasty (including the Chinese writing system; see J for Japan). It has even been claimed that the traditional kimono was influenced by the fashion sense of the Tang.
But perhaps most importantly, the Tang Dynasty has been celebrated for its self-confidence, which was primarily reflected in its openness to the wider world. Chang’an (see C for Capital Cities) was the world’s most cosmopolitan city of the time and Tang China welcomed new faiths including Mahayana Buddhism (from India, which inspired the Chinese literary classic Journey to the West). The dynasty even produced the only female emperor in Chinese history (see F for Female).
How does modern China benchmark against the Tang?
Taizong of Tang and Wudi of Han are always discussed in parallel by the Chinese in debates about the past glories of their civilisation. There is no agreed assessment of which of the two emperors was “greater”. Both led superpowers in their respective eras but Taizong could be said to have represented a freer, more cultured and more open Middle Kingdom.
Today, the Chinese government hankers after a similar expression of its soft power overseas. In a meeting of the Communist Party elite in late 2019, there was even talk of a new phrase: ‘the Reign of China’. This is thought to be an effort to connect the country’s rise as a superpower with the peace, prosperity and open government epitomised by Taizong’s reign 14 centuries ago, according to an opinion piece written by Wang Xiangwei, a former editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.
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