Tang Taizong Research Paper

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Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) was a benevolent ruler who created perhaps the greatest administration in Chinese history. He encouraged people to criticize his policies, he established a bureaucracy based on merit, and in foreign affairs he built alliances and won allegiance by fair treatment.

Emperor Taizong (reigned 626–649 CE) of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), hailed in Chinese history as exemplifying the ideal Confucian rule of benevolence and righteousness, established a cosmopolitan empire and facilitated the spread of culture and trade in East, Central, and Southwest Asia and beyond. The effective administration and prosperity of his reign lay the foundation of a strong Tang dynasty; his empire extended to the steppes, and he controlled the Silk Roads in Central Asia.

The Empire

During Taizong’s reign, Chinese government, laws, and culture (including Confucianism, poetry, and architecture) spread to other East Asian states and was incorporated into the local culture. Japan’s Taika Reforms (from 645), in which the Japanese court adopted a Chinese-style centralized government, system of taxation, and law code, is one example. Unlike rulers of later dynasties, Taizong also embraced cultural diversity. While adopting Confucianism as state guideline, he also honored Laozi and Daoism, supported Xuanzang, the great monk who made a pilgrimage to India to translate Buddhist sutras into Chinese, and built a Nestorian Christian church along with Zoroastrian temples in Chang’an, the capital city. Chang’an, magnificent in appearance and culture, attracted foreign envoys, traders, and clerics who traveled there along the Silk Roads and by sea. People from all over Asia and even Africa, including the Turks, Persians, Arabs, Japanese, and Koreans lived among the Chinese in Chang’an and in southern port cities. Their food, clothing, arts, and the religion of Buddhism became part of the Tang culture, while Chinese silk, goods, and technology spread to the other lands.

The Emperor

Tang Taizong (the emperor’s reign title; his birth name was Li Shimin) came from an aristocratic family from northern China. His mother and his wife were both of non-Chinese descent but they were known for Confucian propriety and were skilled in Chinese literature and calligraphy. Shimin was the second son of Li Yuan, a provincial governor under the Sui dynasty (581–618). In 617 Li Yuan rebelled against the unpopular Sui emperor Yangdi. Modern historians questioned the traditional account of Shimin’s pivotal role leading to the uprising, but all agree that in the next four years Shimin defeated various contenders for the throne. At age twenty-four, he secured the empire for his father, whose warfare established the Tang dynasty.

Shimin excelled in cavalry and was an excellent strategist and commander. His exceptional achievements, however, led to fierce rivalry with his elder brother, who was the crown prince, and with his younger brother. In 626 Shimin triumphed over both brothers, who were killed, and ascended the throne at the age of twenty-nine as Tang Taizong when Li Yuan retired.

Bureaucratic Policies

Shimin inherited a war-torn economy from over a decade’s fighting amongst rival forces since the end of the preceding Sui dynasty. To rejuvenate a land devastated by wars, Taizong adopted benevolent policies. He distributed land to farmers and collected taxes accordingly (approximately one-fortieth of income), and in kind. He was frugal in his expenditures and adopted a conciliatory foreign policy in his early reign to avoid wars. Taizong also ordered the revision and compilation of a penal code; the revised code reduced cruel punishments and became the foundation for later Chinese penal codes.

Tang Taizong also established a bureaucracy based on merit, responsible officials, and thoughtful policy (state policies were prepared and reviewed by different offices before implementation). He discussed policy with chief ministers, appointed officials and generals based on their ability, regardless of class, ethnicity, or personal connections, and he held civil-service exams with questions based on the Confucian classics. Many of his most accomplished and devoted officials and generals had been on the staff of his former enemies or rivals. Independent examiners regularly reviewed officials; the emperor tolerated no abuses even from his own kinsmen.

He also encouraged criticism of any of his policies or behavior that people judged inappropriate. His most outspoken critic was Wei Zheng (580–643), who had once served one of the emperor’s brothers. It was not always easy for a powerful and highly accomplished monarch to hear disagreement, frank criticism, or interventions, but the emperor restrained himself and rewarded his critics when their arguments were reasonable and sound. He kept Wei Zheng at his side and referred to him as his mirror that allowed him to see his mistakes. In fact, he credited Wei Zheng and other officials for making him a good ruler.

By 630, the fourth year of his reign, which the Chinese called the “Fine Governance of the Zhenghuan,” official Tang dynastic histories compiled by court historians of later dynasties recorded this scene of prosperity: “The price of the grain was cheap. Cows and horses gazed freely in the field, people did not lock their outside gates, and there were few people in the jail. Merchants were no longer bothered by the bandits, the powerful families no longer dared to threaten the small people and in some regions people did not need to bring provisions when traveling because they receive the hospitality of the people on the road” (Liu 1975, 3.41).

Frugality and Virtuous Customs

Besides sound policies and practices, prosperity was also achieved through frugality by the state and among the people. Tang Taizong was not only frugal in government expenses, but he also prohibited imperial clansmen and officials from extravagance in dwellings, carriages, and clothing. Concerned with luxurious and wasteful practices, he issued an edict to ban elaborate weddings and funerals among nobles and commoners. Tang Taizong blamed extravagance and indulgence for the fall of bad rulers throughout history, including Yangdi of the preceding Sui dynasty. He believed that “calamities derived from lascivious desires,” and “if arrogance and luxurious indulgence were unchecked, one can expect danger and destruction in no time” (Wu 1965, 1.1, 3.185). He also reminded his officials that taking bribes caused their eventual downfall and destroyed both their personal and their professional reputations. In Difan, an instruction manual for rulership that he prepared for his heir, Tang Taizong devoted two of the thirteen chapters to rail against luxury and indulgence, considering frugality essential for a good and lasting state. Therefore, throughout his more than twenty-year reign of during Zhengguan, the state was strong and prosperous, the customs were pure and simple, there were no embroidered robes or fine linen, and there were no problems of hunger or shortage of clothing.

The Confucian Goal of Life

Some of Tang Taizong’s trusted officials, such as Wei Zheng, Wen Yanbo, Chen Wenben, as well as the emperor himself, especially in his early reign, lived modestly, despite their power, wealth, and high positions. In what did they find joy, and what did they strive for in life? Tang Taizong once commented that the price of grain was low and people had surplus; this general prosperity gave him great pleasure even as he refrained from his favorite hunting trips. Zuo Zhuan, one of the well-known commentaries for Confucian’s book, the Spring and Autumn Annuals, described the three works that gave an individual everlasting existence or immortality—to manifest great virtue, to make great contributions (to all under heaven) or to leave works or writings of enduring value. Instead of treasuring material possessions or the perpetuation of one’s physical life, the Confucian work exhorts the individual to strive for a lasting legacy by bettering the lives of others with memorable deeds, words or virtue.

Tang Taizong was well versed in Chinese classics, and he frequently studied and discussed them with his officials. His officials could also recite Confucian values by heart because they engaged in the extensive review and compilation of commentaries for the five Confucian classics to prepare a standard version for the civil service examination. Tang Taizong’s political achievements were also complemented by a cultural spirit that valued virtue, public well-being, and works of wisdom. These Confucian goals have helped to produce many fine administrators in Chinese history as well as a large number of fine writings that have been preserved with great effort for later generations.

Stable domestic development was also connected to the alleviation of external threat. The statement about from the Tang court histories about peace and prosperity quoted above was also realized because of the defeat of the Tujue (Turks in Mongolia) in 630.

Foreign Affairs

In foreign affairs, Taizong preferred alliances and winning allegiance through the appeal of fair and kind treatment, but he used military force when necessary. In 630 he dispatched troops and defeated the eastern Turks (in modern Mongolia), who often raided Tang cities and were the serious threat of the Tang dynasty. In the following years his army conquered more territory, but more importantly, it secured the submission of tribes and kingdoms in central Asia and around the Silk Roads without wars. Often, Taizong offered Tang princesses in marriage to tribal leaders to forge friendly diplomatic relations. When leaders submitted to Tang rule, Taizong made them governors of the regions they had formerly ruled independently, and he rarely intervened in their affairs. He allowed migration and in some instances ransomed back nomad clansmen who had been seized by their enemies. While considering weapons as unfortunate instruments that should not be used often, Tang Taizong nevertheless considered it important to maintain an adequate arsenal to protect the state.

Arts and Culture

Taizong loved fine horses, but he was also well versed in poetry and was an accomplished calligrapher. He ordered the compilation of the five Confucian Classics, as well as a commentary on them, and these became the standard texts for later dynasties. He wrote a preface for Xuanzang’s monumental translation of hundreds of Buddhist sutras and ushered the robust development of Buddhism during the Tang dynasty. Tang Taizong engaged his officials to undertake the writing of the official history of the previous dynasties, and he also wrote three commentaries in these works. He revered Daoism and claimed its legendary founder Laozi, whose family name was Li, as his royal ancestor. His broad interest and open attitude set the tone for a cosmopolitan and vibrant Tang culture.


When Taizong died in 649, he was buried in Zhaoling, on a majestic mountain, which eventually was home to a constellation of over 160 tombs. Some of these were the resting places of imperial relatives, but most of the tombs housed meritorious officials, including over a dozen nomadic generals: Taizong had granted meritorious ministers the right to be buried in his mausoleum complex and included them in his extended political family.

Tang Taizong and his officials created a political legend in Chinese history. His recorded discussions with officials, the Zhenguan zhengyao (Essentials of Government of the Zhenguan Period) became part of the imperial curriculum for later Tang and all subsequent Chinese emperors, as well as for the rulers of Japan and Korea. It even influenced the non-Chinese Khitan, Jurchen, and Mongol peoples. Tang Taizong manifested the validity of Confucian benevolent rule, but he was also fully aware of the difficulties and complexity of governing a large empire. Throughout his reign, Tang Taizong and his officials remained vigilant, consciously preserving good rule and bequeathing it to their descendants.


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