Tang Xuanzong, named Li Longji, ninth Emperor of China’s Tang dynasty, is also known as Tang Minghuang and Illustrious August. Li Longji, a man of competence, was the grandson of Empress Wu Zetian, the only female monarch in China’s history. When he was young, Li Longji with his aunt Princess Taiping, daughter of Wu Zetian, started a coup and helped his father to ascend the throne, from whom he succeeded. He was later named as Tang Xuanzong.
When Emperor Xuanzong had firmly established a strong empire with a cosmopolitan capital in Chang’An (near Xi’an) and a brilliant Court, he ordered a search throughout the land to find China’s greatest beauty. One day, at Huaqing Hot Springs, Yang Yuhuan (later to become Yang GuiFei – “Precious Consort Yang”), the 18-year-old concubine of Li Mao, the Prince of Shou, and the 18th of the Emperor’s sons, caught Xuanzong’s eye. Amidst protestations from his son, Xuanzong took Yang to be his own concubine, and she grew to wield enormous influence over the emperor, who began neglecting matters of state to spend time with her.
Tang Xuanzong’s abilities in poetry, arts and martial arts were exceptional. He was an enthusiastic patron of music and theater. He made the imperial theatrical garden a center for music, dance and folk opera that incorporated an imperial performing arts school. Yang GuiFei supported him in this, particularly in recruiting artists to teach at the school. Under the imperial couple’s sponsorship, the development of Tang Dynasty dance, music and theater reached its apex. In the following centuries, Emperor Xuanzong is justly acknowledged as the founder of the Chinese theatre.
He was well versed in music. On hearing a Brahman Melody from the Western Regions, he was enchanted by the music and recomposed it by adding some local elements from the central plains. And he renamed the tune Dance of Rainbow Skirt & Feathered Dress.
With astute political talents as well, he managed to prevent Princess Taiping from usurping the throne, putting her and her henchmen to death. With that Tang Xuanzong stabilized his rule and the country enjoyed almost 40 years’ prosperity, recorded as the Prosperity of Kai Yuan Period. After a hundred years of development China’s social economy entered peak prosperity, during which the capital, Chang’an, became the richest and most populous city in the world.
The Tang Empire presented a scene of general prosperity in which people lived and worked in such peace and contentment that no one would take any articles left by the wayside and doors were not bolted at night. Furthermore, political, economic and cultural contacts between the Tang Empire and foreign countries became more and more frequent. Diplomatic envoys, merchants, scholars, artists, monks and priests from Asia, Europe and Africa came to visit the Tang Empire constantly. The Tang army reoccupied lost territories from surrounding minority groups and resumed sovereignty over China’s Western Region.
However, this splendid outward appearance covered up great injustice and depravity.
During the later, Tian Bao, period of his reign, Tang Xuanzong became more and more lordly and extravagant. He doted upon his Yang GuiFei and, spending his time in search of pleasure, neglected both politics and the court. His appointment of fraudulent and treacherous ministers such as Li Linfu and Yang Guozhong (Yang GuiFei’s cousin) resulted in political corruption, leading to Tang Xuangzong’s inevitable road to destruction.
In 755AD, An Lushan, taking advantage of Tang’s corruption, rose against the government in an attempt to take it down. The treacherous army soon sacked big cities Luo Yang and Chang’an. Tang Xuanzong escaped west to Cheng Du. In the middle of the flight the army refused to advance because Yang GuiFei’s cousin – prime minister Yang Guozhong – had connections with the traitors. After the execution of Yang Guozhong the army’s anger was turned on the Emperor’s concubine, who they blamed for the uprising. Faced with the refusal of the army to advance. Xuanzong had no choice but to order Yang GuiFei’s death by strangulation. She was buried at Mawei village and Tang Xuanzong, broken hearted, fled west.
With Tang Xuanzong’s escape to Cheng Du, his oldest son Li Yu, the crown prince, succeeded the throne at Lin Wu to become Tang Suzong. He ordered generals Guo Ziyi and Li Guangbi to counterattack, successfully retrieving Chang’an and Luo Yang. In 763, the rebellion was finally quelled, but 8 years of war severely weakened the power of the Tang Dynasty, which never fully recovered.
Tang Xuanzong, inconsolable after the loss of Yang GuiFei, died a broken man a few years later. He was buried in Tai Mausoleum.