Li Linfu (李林甫; pinyin: Lǐ Línfǔ) (died January 3, 753), nickname Genu (哥奴), formally the Duke of Jin (晉公), was an official of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, serving as a chancellor for 18 years (734–752), during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong—one of the longest terms of service for a chancellor in Tang history, and the longest during Xuanzong’s reign.
Li was known for his flattery of the Emperor and skill in the political scene, which enabled him to remain powerful throughout his lengthy duration as chancellor. His treachery in cutting off all routes for all potential political challengers, including false accusations against other officials and the granting of key military commands to non-Han commanders, were blamed for the deterioration of Emperor Xuanzong’s reign, which culminated in the An-Shi Rebellion after Li Linfu’s death.
In 734, Li Linfu was made the minister of rites (禮部尚書, Libu Shangshu) and was further given the designation Tong Zhongshu Menxia Sanpin (同中書門下三品), making him a chancellor de facto, serving alongside Pei Yaoqing and Zhang Jiuling. By 736, he, who gained further favor from Emperor Xuanzong by flattering the emperor, was in serious conflict with the blunt Zhang.
In 738, Li Linfu was made the deputy military governor of Longyou Circuit (隴右, headquartered in Haidong Prefecture, Qinghai), but did not report to Longyou and remained in the capital as chancellor. He was soon also made the military governor of Hexi Circuit (河西, headquartered in Wuwei, Gansu). Meanwhile, he was repeatedly urging Emperor Xuanzong to create Li Mao crown prince, but Emperor Xuanzong hesitated—with Consort Wu having died in 737. Instead, at Gao’s urging, Emperor Xuanzong created an older son, Li Yu the Prince of Zhong crown prince instead.
In 739, Li Linfu was given the additional title as minister of civil service affairs (吏部尚書) and was put in charge of selecting civilian officials.
Meanwhile, Li Linfu was said to be constantly bribing the eunuchs and ladies in waiting himself to keep an eye on Emperor Xuanzong’s emotions and acts, to allow him to carry out actions that would help him stay in power.
With Li Linfu serving as chancellor, he entrusted the official selection process to the deputy ministers of civil service affairs Song Yao (宋遙) and Miao Jinqing. In 743, a scandal involving the imperial examination process thus developed, with Song and Miao wanting to ingratiate the official Zhang Yi (張倚), who was then favored by Emperor Xuanzong, by allowing Zhang Yi’s son Zhang Shi (張奭) to pass the imperial examinations. When the results were announced, they were largely viewed as unfair. The military governor An Lushan reported this to Emperor Xuanzong, and Emperor Xuanzong personally retested the 64 persons who passed the examination. Zhang Shi was unable to even write anything in response to Emperor Xuanzong’s question. As a result, Song, Miao, and Zhang Yi were all demoted, but Li Linfu did not suffer any consequences.
By this point, Li Linfu was said to be so powerful that officials needed his recommendations for promotion, and that those who were commissioned without such recommendations would soon fall prey to his false accusations. Emperor Xuanzong, who was very trusting of Li Linfu at this point, considered formally letting Li LInfu take over all matters of state. Gao spoke against it, pointing out then that no one would be able to control the chancellor. Emperor Xuanzong was displeased with Gao’s response, but did not formally bestow Li Linfu with such authorities.
In 747, Emperor Xuanzong wanted to expand the government’s talent pool, and so issued an edict ordering that the people who had unusual talents to come to Chang’an to be examined by himself. Li Linfu, fearing that these examinees might accuse him of improprieties when they get to meet the emperor, suggested that these examinees go through two levels of preliminary examinations—by the local governments, and then by the executive bureau. As a result, no one passed the first two levels of preliminary examinations, and Li LInfu subsequently submitted a note to Emperor Xuanzong congratulating him that no talent has been overlooked by the imperial administration.
Li Linfu was described to be also responsible for a policy that Emperor Xuanzong implemented late in his reign—that non-Han generals were not only promoted to important border positions, but given large commands, Li Linfu argued that non-Han generals were less likely to be engaged in factionalism and were more likely to be brave in battles. By 748, the main border posts were commanded by four non-Han generals—An Lushan, An Sishun, Geshu, and Gao Xianzhi.
In 749, the commander governor Zhao Fengzhang (趙奉璋) submitted a petition to Emperor Xuanzong accusing Li Linfu of over 20 crimes. Before the petition could arrive, however, Li Linfu already found out, and had Zhao arrested and caned to death.
By 750, however, a realistic threat against Li Linfu’s power was rising—as Ji Wen and Yang Zhao, the cousin to Emperor Xuanzong’s then-favorite concubine Consort Yang Yuhuan—were aligned with each other, and they had Li Linfu’s close associates Xiao Jiong (蕭炅) and Song Hun (宋渾) demoted, to gradually reduce Li Linfu’s power, with the intent of having Yang Zhao replace Li Linfu.
Li Linfu tried to defuse Yang’s threat to him by requesting that Yang, who was also military governor of Jiannan, be sent to Jiannan to defend against Nanzhao attacks. Despite Yang’s repeated pleas, Emperor Xuanzong sent him on his way, but promised to recall him soon to be chancellor. Li Linfu was seriously ill by this point, and when a sorcerer indicated that if the emperor looked at him, he would be cured, Emperor Xuanzong considered visiting him. Ultimately, though, at the opposition of the imperial attendants, Emperor Xuanzong did not do so, but had Li Linfu brought out to the courtyard of his mansion and then ascended a tower to look toward Li Linfu. This had no beneficial effect on Li Linfu’s illness, however.
Once Yang reached Jiannan, Emperor Xuanzong recalled him. When Yang, after arriving back in the capital, went to visit Li Linfu, Li Linfu tried to ingratiate him and entrust his family to Yang. Li Linfu died around the new year 753.
After Li LInfu’s death, Emperor Xuanzong initially awarded him a number of posthumous honors, including ordering a grand funeral with imperial guards serving as honor guards and the use of royal funeral items. However, in spring 753, Yang Guozhong induced An Lushan into accusing Li Linfu of having been complicit with Li Xianzhong’s rebellion, and then had Li Linfu’s son-in-law Yang Qixuan (楊齊宣) corroborate this. Before Li Linfu’s funeral could be held, Emperor Xuanzong issued an edict stripping all of his honors and exiling his descendants. Li Linfu’s casket was split open, and three of the funereal honors—the pearl in his mouth, the purple robe of chancellorship, and the golden fish to show rank—were stripped, and he was instead buried with ceremony fit for a mere commoner, in a small casket. It was said that while the people hated Li Linfu for his corrupt and harsh reign, they nevertheless mourned at how he was falsely accused after his death. After Li Heng later became emperor (as Emperor Suzong), he considered further infliction of humiliation on Li Linfu’s body—by exhuming and burning it and scattering the ashes. At the suggestion of the imperial advisor Li Mi, however, he did not do so.