Emperor Xuānzong of Tang

Not to be confused with Emperor Xuanzong of Tang.
Tang Xuānzong
Emperor of Tang Dynasty
Reign April 25, 846[1][2] – September 7, 859
Predecessor Emperor Wuzong
Successor Emperor Yizong
Born July 27, 810[1][3]
Died September 7, 859 (aged 49)[1][3]
Burial Zhenling
Issue 11 sons and 11 daughters
Era dates
Dazhong 大中 (January 21, 847[1][2] – December 17, 860[1][4])
Posthumous name
Emperor Yuansheng Zhiming Chengwu Xianwen Ruizhi Zhangren Shencong Yidao Daxiao 元聖至明成武獻文睿智章仁神聰懿道大孝皇帝
Temple name
Xuanzong 宣宗
Dynasty Tang
Father Emperor Xianzong
Mother Empress Xiaoming
Tang Xuanzong
Chinese 唐宣宗
Literal meaning "Declared Ancestor of the Tang"
Li Yi
Chinese 李怡
Literal meaning (personal name)

Emperor Xuānzong of Tang (July 27, 810 – September 7, 859) (reigned April 25, 846 – September 7, 859) was a later emperor of the Tang Dynasty of China. Personally named Li Yi, later renamed Li Chen (Chinese: 李忱), and known before his reign as the Prince of Guang, he was considered the last capable emperor of Tang Dynasty. Succeeding emperors after Xuānzong would either be too young or be dominated by eunuchs or warlords. Emperor Xuānzong was the 13th son of Emperor Xianzong (r. 806–820) and an uncle of the previous three emperors, Emperor Jingzong, Emperor Wenzong, and Emperor Wuzong.

To distinguish Emperor Xuānzong from his ancestor Emperor Xuánzong (personal name Li Longji), as their temple names are rendered identically in Wade-Giles and, when tonal marks are not used, Hanyu Pinyin, Xuānzong is occasionally referred to as Xuanzong II in western sources;[5] in Chinese, however, their temple names (宣宗 for him and 玄宗 for Li Longji) are clearly distinct and this device is not used.


Li Yi was born in 810, at Daming Palace (大明宮),[3] as the 13th of 20 known sons of then-reigning Emperor Xianzong.[6] His mother was Emperor Xianzong's concubine Consort Zheng, who had previously been a concubine of the warlord Li Qi and who, after imperial forces defeated Li Qi in 807, was taken into Emperor Xianzong's palace to be a servant girl to Emperor Xianzong's wife Consort Guo, but who at some point bore Li Yi for Emperor Xianzong. Consort Zheng is not known to have borne any other children for Emperor Xianzong.[7] After Emperor Xianzong died in 820, Li Yi's older brother Li Heng, born of Consort Guo, became emperor (as Emperor Muzong), and in 821, when Emperor Muzong created a number of his sons and brothers to be imperial princes, Li Yi was created the Prince of Guang.[8]

As imperial prince

In Li Yi's youth, he was said to be shy and a poor speaker, and (falsely) considered by others to be unintelligent. Later, during the reigns of Emperor Muzong's sons Emperor Wenzong and Emperor Wuzong, Li Yi was said to try to hide himself from the political scene, and rarely spoke anything at all. When the emperors visited the imperial princes' residences, known as the Sixteen Mansions, they would, as a game, try to get Li Yi to speak, and they referred to him as "Uncle Guang." It was said that Emperor Wuzong, who had an outgoing personality, particularly disrespected Li Yi.[3]

In early 846, Emperor Wuzong became extremely ill and was unable to speak. The palace eunuchs gathered and decided on Li Yi as Emperor Wuzong's successor, probably because they considered him unintelligent and therefore easier to control. They had an edict issued in Emperor Wuzong's name creating Li Yi crown prince and changing his name to Li Chen and putting him in charge of the imperial affairs. It was said that only when Li Chen met the officials in his role as crown prince that his appropriate expressions of sadness and actions on pending matters caused people to begin to see that he was truly intelligent. Soon thereafter, Emperor Wuzong died, and Li Chen took the throne (as Emperor Xuānzong).[2]

Early reign

Emperor Xuānzong honored his mother Consort Zheng as empress dowager. Immediately after taking the throne, Emperor Xuānzong acted against the powerful chancellor Li Deyu, who had dominated the court during Emperor Wuzong's reign, as he despised Li Deyu for monopolizing power. Emperor Xuānzong removed Li Deyu from his chancellor position and sent him out of the capital Chang'an to serve as the military governor of Jingnan Circuit (荊南, headquartered in modern Jingzhou, Hubei), and also removed Li Deyu's fellow chancellor Zheng Su.[2] Over the next few years, Emperor Xuānzong purged those officials he considered sympathetic to Li Deyu, and further pursued charges against Li Deyu based on Li Deyu having executed the minor official Wu Xiang (吳湘) on charges that should not have warranted death (Li Deyu was resentful of Wu Xiang's uncle Wu Wuling (吳武陵)). Li Deyu was repeatedly demoted and sent farther and farther away from Chang'an, eventually dying in exile around the new year 850 in Yai Prefecture (崖州, in modern Haikou, Hainan). These actions were considered to have largely ended the factionalism among imperial officials known as the Niu-Li Factional Struggles, which had plagued the imperial government ever since the reign of Emperor Muzong.[2][9][10] A number of policies that Emperor Wuzong and Li Deyu had pursued, including persecution against Buddhism and alliance with Xiajiasi, were reversed. In Li Deyu's place, Emperor Xuānzong installed Bai Minzhong as the leading chancellor, and over the next few years, Bai recommended a number of other officials, including fellow chancellor Ma Zhi.[9]

Meanwhile, Emperor Xuānzong also turned his attention against Tufan, which had fallen into intense civil war after the death of its king Langdarma in 842.[11] Starting in 848, and over a period of several years, Emperor Xuānzong commissioned border troops to recapture various prefectures lost to Tufan since the Anshi Rebellion, taking the region constituting modern eastern Gansu, southern Ningxia, and western Sichuan. Further, after the ethnic Han Chinese Zhang Yichao seized control of the Hexi Corridor from Tufan officials and submitted to Emperor Xuānzong in 851, Tang had largely reversed the losses to Tufan.[2][9][12] He, however, was initially having little success with rebellions by the Dangxiang. After he came to realize that the Dangxiang were repeatedly rebelling because of mistreatment by Tang officials, he modified the policies to install officials who were known for mild temper and honesty in the Dangxiang regions, and he further put Bai in charge of the operations against the Dangxiang, giving him a large staff that included many well-known imperial government officials. With Bai overseeing the operations, the Dangxiang largely submitted in 851. Bai, however, was not returned to chancellorship within Emperor Xuānzong's lifetime, and was effectively replaced by Linghu Tao.[9]

Emperor Xuānzong was said to govern diligently, paying much attention to how his capable ancestor Emperor Taizong ruled and trying to follow Emperor Taizong's examples. He also took the time and effort to familiarize himself with imperial officials' capabilities, as well as the customs of the various prefectures throughout the realm, such that he could properly commission officials based on their abilities and review whether they were governing capably.[2][9] He also encouraged frugality, and tried to demonstrate it by reducing the expenditures for the wedding of his favorite daughter Princess Wanshou to the imperial official Zheng Hao (鄭顥). It was said that throughout his reign, the imperial clan members and their relatives all carefully obeyed laws.[9]

In 848, Emperor Muzong's mother Grand Empress Dowager Guo—whom Empress Dowager Zheng had previously been a servant for—died. Traditional historians noted that popular perception at the time was that Emperor Xuānzong might have murdered her. (It had said that she was depressed over Emperor Xuānzong's disrespect toward her, because Empress Dowager Zheng had resented her, and also because he suspected her and Emperor Muzong of having instigated the death of Emperor Xianzong at the hands of the eunuch Chen Hongzhi (陳弘志).) Initially, he would refuse to allow Grand Empress Dowager Guo to be buried with Emperor Xianzong or to be enshrined in Emperor Xianzong's temple, but eventually allowed her to be buried with Emperor Xianzong. (He would still refuse to enshrine her, however, with Emperor Xianzong, during his lifetime.)[2]

Late reign

Zhenling (貞陵), the tomb of Emperor Xuānzong, in Jingyang County, Shaanxi

One of the major themes later in Emperor Xuānzong's reign was the high-level officials' concerns that he was not creating a Crown Prince, as this refusal to do so left the imperial succession uncertain. The issue was raised repeatedly, including by chancellors Wei Mo, Pei Xiu, and Cui Shenyou, but he rebuffed all of them, leading to Pei's resignation and Cui's removal. (The reason why Emperor Xuānzong repeatedly refused to create a crown prince was said to be his disfavor for his oldest son Li Wen the Prince of Yun and favor for his third son Li Zi the Prince of Kui. He wanted Li Zi to be his heir, but was hesitant to create Li Zi crown prince because Li Zi was not the oldest.)[9]

Emperor Xuānzong was said to be careful in promoting and rewarding officials, such that it was not often that he rewarded officials with the highly honorable red and purple uniforms, and was also said to be fair in his promotions such that he did not unjustly favor those who were close to him. Further, he punished those who were close to him when they deserved to be punished, and did not spare them on account of their closeness to him. In order to make sure that the prefects that he commissioned were suitable for the prefectures, he required that they report to Chang'an to meet with him before heading to their posts. It was also said that he was stern, even with the chancellors, such that even though Linghu Tao was chancellor for 10 years, he continued to fear the emperor.[9]

Meanwhile, Emperor Xuānzong also considered curbing the eunuchs' power, but could not think of a good way of doing so. On one occasion, when he conferred with the imperial scholar Wei Ao (韋澳), Wei told him that he was already the emperor who had exerted the most power over the eunuchs within recent memory—to which Emperor Xuānzong, appearing stressed, stated, "You are not correct. In reality, I am still fearful of them." He tried to promote eunuchs that he trusted such that they would wield power, but according to himself, this tactic was not particularly successful, as the eunuchs that he promoted, once they became highly ranked, joined with the less obedient powerful eunuchs as well. At one point, he discussed with Linghu the possibility of massacring the eunuchs, which Linghu opposed because Linghu feared that the innocent as well as the guilty would be harmed; Linghu instead suggested gradually reducing the eunuchs' numbers. Linghu's proposal was leaked to the eunuchs, and the eunuchs were said to continue to despise the imperial officials because of this.[9]

Late in Emperor Xuānzong's reign, he came to favor certain alchemists who promised immortality, and he took pills that they made. It was said that as a result, he became paranoid and easily angered. By 859, as a side effect of those pills, he had a large ulcerous boil on his back, such that he was bedridden and could not meet with the chancellors or other officials. He entrusted Li Zi to three high-level eunuchs that he favored—the directors of palace communications (Shumishi) Wang Guizhang (王歸長) and Ma Gongru (馬公儒) and the director of the southern court affairs (宣徽南院使, Xuanhui Nanyuanshi) Wang Jufang (王居方). After Emperor Xuānzong died, Wang Guizhang, Ma, and Wang Jufang did not initially announce his death, and were set to send one of the eunuch commanders of the Shence Armies (神策軍), Wang Zongshi (王宗實), who was not on good terms with them, out of Chang'an to Huai'nan Circuit (淮南, headquartered in modern Yangzhou, Jiangsu) to serve as the eunuch monitor for Huai'nan. Wang Zongshi, however, reacted by intruding into the palace; finding that Emperor Xuānzong had already died, he arrested Wang Guizhang, Ma, and Wang Jufang for falsely issuing edicts, and then put them to death. He welcomed Li Wen to the palace, and then issued an edict in Emperor Xuānzong's name creating Li Wen crown prince and changing his name to Li Cui. The next day, Emperor Xuānzong's death was announced, and Li Cui became emperor (as Emperor Yizong).[9]

Relations with Muslims

During Sulaiman al-Tajir's stay at the city of Guangzhou he noted that the Chinese used fingerprint records to maintain the identities of newly arrived foreigners and charges extortionate rates for imported goods, and that the route to China by sea was dangerous due to piracy and frequent rain. He mentioned that the local Muslim populace of Guangzhou had their own Mosque and Bazaars. He mentioned that the Muslim community had its own Imam and Judge (appointed by Emperor Xuānzong of Tang).[13] He also observed the manufacturing of porcelain, the granary system of Guangzhou, and how its municipal administration functioned.


Because of the prosperity of Emperor Xuānzong's reign, it was said that in subsequent years, including after Tang's eventual fall in 907, the people missed him bitterly, referring to him as "Little Taizong."[9] The lead editor of the Old Book of Tang, the Later Jin chancellor Liu Xu, wrote of Emperor Xuānzong in glowing terms, while lamenting that much of the records from his reign had been lost by the time of Later Jin such that he could not write more.[3] The lead editor of the New Book of Tang, Ouyang Xiu, however, commented that Emperor Xuānzong, while having good judgment, lacked kindness or grace.[14]

During Emperor Xuānzong's reign, Chinese chemists first experimented with fireworks.

Chancellors during reign

Personal information


16. Emperor Daizong
8. Emperor Dezong
17. Empress Ruizhen
4. Emperor Shunzong
18. Wang Yu
9. Empress Zhaode
19. Lady Zheng
2. Emperor Xianzong
20. Wang Nande
10. Wang Yan
5. Empress Zhuangxian
1. Emperor Xuānzong
3. Empress Xiaoming

In fiction

Played by Moses Chan, a fictionalized version of Xuanzong was portrayed in 2009 Hong Kong's TVB television series, Beyond the Realm of Conscience.

Notes and references

  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Academia Sinica Chinese-Western Calendar Converter.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 248.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Old Book of Tang, vol. 18, part 2.
  4. Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 250.
  5. E.g., Chung, Tan (1994). Dunhuang Art Through the Eyes of Duan Wenjie. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi Centre for the Arts, New Delhi. p. 173. ISBN 81-7017-313-2.
  6. 1 2 Old Book of Tang, vol. 175.
  7. New Book of Tang, vol. 77.
  8. Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 241.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 249.
  10. Bo Yang Edition of the Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 60 [847].
  11. Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 246.
  12. Bo Yang Edition of the Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 60 [848–850].
  13. http://www.muslimheritage.com/uploads/China%201.pdf
  14. New Book of Tang, vol. 8.
  15. New Book of Tang, vol. 82.
  16. Old Book of Tang, vol. 19, part 1.
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Emperor Wuzong of Tang
Emperor of Tang China
Succeeded by
Emperor Yizong of Tang
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