China Reunited: Sui and Tang Twitchett, Denis & Fairbank, John K., The Cambridge History of China (v3). Sui and T’ang. 589-906; Ch 5: Kao-tsung (reign 649-83) and the empress Wu: the inheritor and the usurper; Ch 6: The reigns of the empress Wu, Chung-tsung and Jui-tsung (684-712).
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Twitchett, Denis & Fairbank, John K., The Cambridge History of China (v3). Sui and T’ang. 589-906; Ch 5: Kao-tsung (reign 649-83) and the empress Wu: the inheritor and the usurper; Ch 6: The reigns of the empress Wu, Chung-tsung and Jui-tsung (684-712).
Also available in Chinese translation
Tung, Jowen R., Fables for Patriarchs: Gender Politics in Tang Discourse, 2000, Ch.2, “The Fate of Imperial Princesses”.
Barfield, Thomas, The Perilous Frontier, Ch 4 pp131-163.
The Rise of Yang Jian (founder of the Sui dynasty)
The Reunification of China under the Sui
The Sui empire: Governance
Influence of Empress Wenxian
The Reign of Sui Yangdi
The end of the Sui
By the time the Sui conquered all of China in 589, China had been fragmented for almost 400 years (not including the 51 years of the W. Jin rule when they were never able to centralize power).
The family of the Empress:
Had served both the Northern Wei and the Western Wei.
Helped to found the Northern Zhou.
Was connected through marriage to all these royal houses.
Her father, Yang Jian 楊堅 (r.581-604), had served the Northern Zhou empire and was rewarded by having his daughter married to the heir-apparent in 573.
When Yang’s son-in-law, succeeded as emperor Xuandi (578-579), he wanted to name his 5th consort Empress but to do so he had to eliminate Yang’s daughter and exterminate her entire clan.
When Xuandi died, Yang first became regent, then eliminated the senior princes, and in 581 proclaimed himself as Emperor Wendi of a new dynasty, the Sui dynasty .
Yang Jian (Sui Wendi) spent the first years of his reign:
Consolidating his rule over a Northern China that had been devastated by war.
Great numbers of people had fled and millions more had died.
Large areas were devastated and depopulated and had fallen out of cultivation.
Much of the north had become self-sufficient farming units and society tended to cluster in small local units dominated by one or more large clans.
For 6-7 years he was preoccupied by the threat of the Eastern Turks.; after he had been victorious over them, he easily conquered the Later Liang, in modern Hubei province in 587.
He then turned to the conquest of the south.
Southern China, was first ruled by the Eastern Jin 晋 (317-420: 13 years).
Due to constant court intrigue, coups, and usurpations, it was ruled successively by short-lived (Southern) dynasties:
The Liu Song (420-479) – 59 years
Southern Qi (479-502) – 23 years
Southern Liang (502-557) – 55 years
Chen (557-589) – 32 years
Ruling from present day Nanjing all these dynasties were dominated by a small group of powerful aristocratic families and by their generals.
Its great families, mostly émigrés had fled from the north and considered themselves to be the pure heirs of Han culture.
Periodically, they tried unsuccessfully to re-conquer the north.
The major achievement of the Southern dynasties was the colonization of the area south of the Yangzi and the pacification and assimilation of its aboriginal population.
Their land had become more fertile and productive than the north as they had better climate and there had been power struggles rather than battles so the land had not been devastated.
In 588, Yang sent a letter to the Chen ruler saying that the Sui had a heaven-imposed obligation to take over Chen territory.
He issued an edict accusing the Chen ruler of bad faith, wastefulness, oppression of the people and other crimes.
He pointed out the unnatural occurrences which gave clear signs of the withdrawal of heaven’s favor.
300,000 copies of the edit were distributed in the south to soften up resistance.
The Chen ruler was captured in 589 and was made to write to aboriginal tribal leaders saying that the Chen had ended and they should give allegiance to the Sui.
The capital of the southern dynasties for 282 years was destroyed.
Ranking Chen nobles and their prized possessions were taken to the Sui capital and presented to the Sui ancestors.
The Chen nobles and elite were forgiven for their crimes and the princes given land in the border areas; some were taken into service by the Sui.
The reunification of China was complete and the south became an important source of wealth and reserves.
Administratively there were difficulties between the north and the south:
Regional and racial differences
Devastation of land due to wars
Inter-racial violence and hatred
Yangzi Valley and further south:
Distinctive civilization based on Han heritage
North – cultural and racial mix – successive waves of conquerors and those who intermarried with the Chinese.
South was16% of the total population and concentrated in the major centers along the Yangzi; behind them lay a untamed wilderness where hostile aborigines lived.
Empress Wenxian (b.544-602), wife of the founding emperor, was from a powerful and long sinicized Xiongnu clan.
Her clan had inter-married with the great families of Northern Wei for centuries.
She was a literate and cultivated woman with strong political instincts.
The Emperor and the Empress were very close and the palace attendants called them “the two sage-emperors”.
She would ride with him in the carriage to the audience hall and wait in side room.
Her eunuchs would be inside the hall observing and reporting.
When his policy decisions seemed to be mistaken she would admonish and correct him.
She kept her family out of positions of great power.
When a relative of hers committed a crime that required the death penalty she said that the emperor should not consider personal factors and the man was executed.
She was a fervent Buddhist and made sure the imperial princes were taught Buddhism; however, when one wanted to become a Buddhist priest, he was denied permission.
She and the emperor were very close and the Emperor had promised her that he would not have any children by any other wife.
When she was about 50 years of age, her husband was attracted by the charms of the grand-daughter of an old rival and she secretly killed the girl.
As she became older, she became more jealous and whenever the concubine of a prince or of a minister became pregnant she would urge that the husband be dismissed.
She became suspicious when the principal consort of her eldest son, the heir, suddenly died and found that the heir was infatuated with his favorite concubine.
Yang Guang (r. 605-618), the second son, saw an opportunity to plot his brother’s downfall and become the heir.
He and his supporters made up evidence to mislead the suspicious emperor and empress and the heir was deposed and Yang Guang was named heir.
After the death of Empress Wenxian, the emperor gradually handed over the management of state affairs to Yang Guang.
In 603, the emperor was persuaded by alleged evidence of black magic to degrade his fourth son.
The evidence also cast suspicion on the fifth son.
The emperor became ill in 604 and Yang Guang and his supporters may have hastened his end.
Yang Guang became emperor in 605 and is known as Yangdi (r.604-17).
Eight days later, the 5th son rebelled but was crushed and died in prison.
He restored Confucian education and the Civil Examination System recruiting Chinese officials into the Government.
Yang Guang was very ambitious and wanted to extend the empire into the old Han territories of the north-west and into northern Korea.
He had large public construction projects.
Li Yuan 李淵, the Duke of Tang, was a favorite of the Sui founding emperor, Wendi.
His mother and Empress Wenxian were sisters; he and Sui Yangdi were first cousins.
When Sui began to fall apart, Li Yuan, led one of the many groups of rebels.
In 619, his armies took the capital and he founded a new dynasty that lasted 300 years.
The dynasty was briefly by the Second Zhou Dynasty (690-705) when Empress Wu Zetian seized the throne, becoming the first and only female emperor.
The Tang built its great empire based on the solid foundations left by Sui who had unified the country.
Li Shimin 李世民, the 2nd son, was not the heir to the throne.
He felt that he had made the greatest contributions in helping to conquer the empire should be the heir.
He accused his brothers of having had illicit relations with members of the imperial harem.
When the brothers learned of this, they went to speak to the emperor but when they came to the entrance to the palace, they were attacked and killed by Li Shimin’s waiting men.
Li Shimin then marched, fully armed, to see his father who was intimidated and named him the heir.
As heir, he forced his father into retirement and Li Shimin became the second emperor, Taizong (r.626-49).
Taizong named the eldest son of the empress as his heir.
He executed those close to the heir so that they would not be influential; the heir became alarmed and plotted his father.
When the plot was revealed, the emperor degraded the heir to the status of a commoner and imprisoned him.
Taizong’s favorite son was his 4th son, Li Tai, who hoped to be made heir.
The ministers recommended another son but the Emperor was not happy with the choice and wanted to name a son whose mother had been the daughter of Sui Yangdi.
They finally decided on Li Zhi 李治, the ninth son, and a high powered group was appointed as his tutors.
Li Zhi became emperor, Gaozong (r.649-83).
Gaozong was in poor health relied on his second empress, Wu Zetian for help.
In 657 he was forced to hold court only on alternate days.
Three years later, he suffered a serious stroke which left him partially paralyzed and with poor eyesight.
The Empress began administering the empire during his sicknesses and was ruler of the empire in fact though not in name –de-facto ruler.
Since there was no precedent for the direct control of the government by an empress, during the Emperor’s lifetime, there was continued opposition from officials to Wu Zhao.
Wu then began to consolidate her power, removing members of the imperial family that might be a threat to her.
The emperor’s second son was banished on trumped up charges.
She wanted to replace her second son, the heir, with her third son who was only 14.
She had a sorcerer say that the heir would not be a good emperor and rumored that he was not really her son but that of her elder sister.
She made a formal complaint that he was intimate with some of his household slaves.
On investigation, several hundred suits of armor were discovered and he was suspected of planning a coup.
The emperor did not completely believe in the charges and wanted to pardon him but Wu insisted that he be demoted to commoner status and imprisoned.
The second son was later banished and ordered to commit suicide.
Wu’s third son, the young boy was then named heir in 680.
Gaozong died (683) naming Wu as regent.
Wu’s third son, Zhongzong 中宗 (r. Jan 3-Feb 26, 684; Feb. 23, 705-July 3, 710) was on the throne for two months before his mother deposed him in favor of his younger brother.
Zhongzong’s chances of succession was remote so he had not been prepared to be Emperor.
As Emperor, his first act was to name his father-in-law, the Chief Minister; this was opposed by officials who had been appointed by the previous Emperor.
Zhongzong then said that he could have given his father-in-law the entire empire; ED Wu decided to take it literally.
She summoned her son to court, charged him with treason and deposed him – the guards dragged him from the throne – he and his pregnant wife, Empress Wei, were banished.
The next day, Zhongzong was replaced by Wu’s fourth son, Ruizong 睿宗 (r.684-690; 710-712).
As regent, Wu presided openly at all the functions of the court, not bothering to hang the curtain.
Ministers began to warn her that she was behaving like Empress Lü of Han but she ignored them.
In 688, some of the princes of the imperial clan revolted and Empress Wu purged the imperial family.
Rebellions arose as many opposed her assumptions of power.
She was able to suppress the rebellions.
In 690, at the age of 65, she made Ruizong abdicate and proclaimed herself emperor of a new dynasty, the Zhou dynasty (690-705) which lasted for 15 years.
Ruizong and his family were kept in isolation in the palace with the title Emperor Expectant.
Wu Zetian -- Wu Zhao -- (b. 625; r.690-705) -- had been a low ranking concubine of Taizong, entering the palace when she was in her early teens.
Her father was a supporter of the founder of the dynasty and her mother was from the Sui imperial Yang family.
Gaozong had been 8 when his mother died and continued to live in the Inner Palaces and might have been intimate with Wu Zetian.
After Taizong’s death, his minor wives were sent into the temple; on the anniversary of Taizong’s death, Gaozong visited the temple and saw her again and revised his interest in her.
Wu allied herself with the other women who hated the Empress and bribed them to spy on the Empress and Consort Xiao.
Wu wanted to be named empress but Gaozong had no intention of deposing his empress.
Wu was said to have created the impression that the Empress had suffocated Wu Zhao’s new-born baby girl.
The Emperor became furious and decided to demote Empress Wang and elevate Wu as empress.
Many officials opposed Wu’s promotion to Empress but Gaozong finally won support and accused Empress Wang and Consort Xiao of plotting to poison him.
Wu was installed empress (655) after Wang and Xiao were demoted to commoner status.
Wu then murdered Wang and Xiao cutting off their arms and leaving them to die in a wine vat.
She had the officials who opposed her promotion transferred and those who supported her promoted–she removed all the chief ministers who had served the previous emperor, Taizong.
Since Gaozong was often ill and Wu had to assist him in court, she tried to gain support from the common people and the bureaucracy by proposing a 12 point program (674).
The main provisions were:
Xuanzong’s troops were resentful of Consort Yang’s brother, attacked him and killed him and members of his family.
They demanded the execution of Consort Yang.
The Emperor had no choice but to order her strangled.
The troops were pacified and they went on to Chengdu.
Meanwhile, the heir-apparent, the future Suzong (r.756-762), organized resistance in the north.
He was in command of 2,000 troops and was persuaded to usurp the throne and give Xuanzong the title, Retired Emperor.
The rebellion continued after An’s death and was finally suppressed in 763.
The Tang had a century of stability until the An Lushan rebellion in 775.
By the time the rebellion was over, China had abandoned its territories in southern Manchuria, and the entire modern Gansu had fallen to the Tibetans.
The most important long-term damage was the loss of authority by the central government as the military governors 节度使 had been given powers over local administration.
The next emperor and his successors had to compromise with these powerful local forces resulting from the rebellion.
In the late 9th century, discontent led to the Huang Chao rebellion and the fragmentation of the country leading to the period known as the Five Dynasties and Kingdoms.
Some parts of northern China fell into alien rule in the early 10th century and northern China remained under foreign domination for about four centuries before all of China was conquered by the Mongols.
Women of the Tang was greatly influenced by the nomadic cultures.
Comparison of Han and Tang handbooks show more freedom for Tang women.
Women of the Tang had the characteristics of:
Princess Pinyang, daughter of founding emperor
Empress Wu; Emperor of the second Zhao Dumasty
Empress Wei, wife of Zhongzong
Princess Anle, daughter of Zhongzong and Empress Wei
Princess Taiping, daughter of Empress Wu and sister to Zhongzong
As the empire began to end, its grip on women tightened.
Princess Pinyang (ca.600-623), daughter of the first Tang emperor, helped her father overthrow the Sui by organizing the “Woman’s Army”.
She formed a woman’s army among the peasants.
Other rebel forces in the region began to join her when they heard of her father’s successes; as she won battles, many new rebel groups were eager to fight under her banner.
After each of her victories, her army would distribute food and win over the people in the captured territories.
When her army grew to 70,000 troops, the Sui army took her seriously and launched an attack on her but were defeated.
When her father became emperor, she was made a marshal with the same entitlements as her brothers.
But the hard struggles of war had worn her out and she died soon after, at the age of 23.
Princess Anle, the only surviving child of Empress Wei, was very powerful and was married to the son of Wu Sansi.
She became rich from selling ordination certificates for 30,000 cash each so that persons of any social rank could be ordained to the Buddhist clergy; for ten times that amount, a person could become an official on the staff of one of the princesses.
Wu Sansi hoped to rule through his daughter-in-law and so lobbied to have Princess Anle named as heir to the throne.
As no woman had ever been considered as heir, the court was upset and the ministers blocked the plan and retained the current heir, the emperor’s second son by a concubine.
Wu destroyed his opponents and had them promoted to empty titles of kings then found pretexts to disgrace and banish them.
He bribed eunuchs so that they would not oppose him.
Wu Sansi tried a second time to promote Princess Anle as the heir.
The heir-apparent – Zhongzong’s only son born of a concubine -- became very uneasy and felt that he had to act and so he marched on the Wu mansion.
He killed Wu Sansi and his son, the husband of Princess Anle.
The widowed Princess Anle started having an affair with another nephew of ED Wu and soon married him.
After the death of Wu Sansi, Empress Wei, Anle and her new husband tried to slander Ruizong and the Taiping Princess 太平公主 but the two easily cleared themselves.
The only persons at court who had matched Wu Sansi’s prestige were Ruizong and his sister, the Taiping princess.
Wu Sansi rewarded them with money to keep them out of politics; he made it possible for Princess Taiping and 6 other princesses to have the same benefits as other royal princes.
After Wu’s death, the Wei faction tried to eliminate her and so she began to build support for her brother, Ruizong.
Ruizong delegated real power to her when she helped place him on the throne.
Xuanzong, Ruizong’s son, was a very popular heir-apparent and Princess Taiping began to fear and slander him.
As the attacks grew, Ruizong was pressured by his ministers to send her away from the capital into temporary exile.
Even in exile, her influence was still strong and the heir, knowing that she blamed him for her banishment asked that she be allowed to return.
When she returned to the capital she immediately replaced five of the top seven officials with her own men.
Ruizong was upset that he could not control the situation and in 712, he decided to abdicate in favor of the heir.
Taiping convinced him to retain the title “Retired Emperor” and control high appointments and capital punishments.
When Xuanzong (r.712-756) became emperor, she became uneasy and tried an armed coup but the plan was leaked and Xuanzong seized her supporters and had them beheaded.
She escaped to a monastery but was forced to commit suicide.
Xuanzong’s empress, Wang, was a member of the prominent Wang clan of Taiyuan.
Her twin brother was married to Ruizong’s 7th daughter and had helped to overthrew Princess Taiping.
Xuanzong kept both him and his father from positions of power but allowed them to become wealthy.
The Empress had no children and since it was important to settle the question of succession Xuanzong’s second son was named heir in 715.
He was probably chosen as his mother was Xuanzong’s favorite concubine.
Xuanzong secretly discussed, with his minister, the removal of the Empress as she was childlessness but this was leaked to her.
The Empress was now fearful of her position and was desperate to produce a son to ensure her position at court.
Her brother arranged for a monk to perform ceremonies for her to ensure that she had a child.
When this was discovered in 724, the Empress was accused of witchcraft and degraded to commoner status.
Her her brother was exiled, divorced from his royal wife, and ordered to commit suicide.
The deposed empress was allowed to live in separate quarters in the palace where she died a few months later.
Soon after Xuanzong came to the throne, he became enamored of his concubine Lady Wu. – daughter of a close relative of the ED Wu.
When the position of Empress became vacant, Xuanzong wished to name her empress but this was opposed by the bureaucracy as:
her family, Wu, had been enemies of the Tang;
she was not the mother of the heir and did not yet have sons – she later gave birth to a son, Prince Mao.
The emperor did not make her empress during her lifetime although she was treated as his most important consort and her family members were given honors and promotion appropriate to the family of an empress.
Consort Wu wanted to get rid of the heir and have her son named heir-apparent.
She had her son-in-law accuse the heir and his fellow princes, together with the heir’s brother-in-law (consort of Xuanzong’s 3rd daughter) of plotting rebellion.
The emperor reduced the princes to commoner status and ordered them to commit suicide; many relatives of the mothers and wives of the princes were sent into banishment.
The position of heir-apparent was now available but Consort Wu died and her son, Li Mao, no longer had the support of his mother.
After the death of Consort Wu, Xuanzong did not have a favorite until the early 740’s when he became infatuated with the wife of his son, Li Mao.
She was descended from the Sui imperial clan.
She left her husband in 741 and registered as a Daoist priestess and took up residence in the palace.
In 745, Xuanzong took her into his own harem with the title of Consort of the First Rank 贵妃after she had been formally separated and her husband had remarried.
From then on, she dominated the palace.
Lady Yang was very talented and shared similar interests as the emperor in music and dance and was a skilled performer.
Several members of her family were given noble titles and high positions at court.
In the late 740’s she became a close friend of a general, An Lushan, and adopted him as her son; they remained good friends.
An Lushan a general who was part Turkish part Soghdian (part of the Persian Empire).
The enemies of Yang and An began to harass An and accuse him of plotting rebellion; his mansion was raided and it was said that plans for rebellion was discovered.
The Turks, China and the Five Dynasties
Wang Gungwu, The Structure of Power in Northern China during the Five Dynasties, Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 1967.