Tang Taizong

Tang Taizong, second emperor and co-founder with his father of the Tang dynasty, demonstrated a combination of military and political skill that made him one of China’s great emperors. His mastery of the nomadic threat is especially notable.

Tang Taizong: “Questions and Answers”

Tang Taizong, the second Tang dynasty emperor, was a skilled military leader as well as civil administrator. His military leadership came from practical experience and through study of the Chinese military classics. In the following selection, the emperor engages in discussion of his military experience with Li Ching, possibly the Tang dynasty’s most successful military commander, who was also deeply knowledgeable regarding the military classics. The emperor wishes to place his military experience in the context of the ancient Chinese military classics.

The Taizong said: “At the battle in which I destroyed Song Lao-sheng, when the fronts clashed our rightward army retreated somewhat. I then personally led our elite cavalry to race down from the Southern plain, cutting across in a sudden attack on them. After Lao-sheng’s troops were cut off to the rear, we severely crushed them, and subsequently captured him. Were these orthodox troops? Or unorthodox troops?”

Li Ching [one of Taizong’s generals and strategists] replied: “Your majesty is a natural military genius, not one who learns by studying. I have examined the art of war as practiced from the Yellow Emperor on down. First be orthodox, and afterward unorthodox; first be benevolent and righteous, and afterward employ the balance of power and craftiness. Moreover, in the battle at Huo-I the army was mobilized out of righteousness, so it was orthodox. When Jian-cheng fell off his horse and the Army of the Right withdrew somewhat, it was unorthodox.”

The Taizong said: “At that time our slight withdrawal almost defeated our great affair, so how can you refer to it as unorthodox?”

Li Ching replied: “In general, when troops advance to the front it is orthodox, when they [deliberately] retreat to the rear it is unorthodox. Moreover, if the Army of the Right had not withdrawn somewhat, how could you have gotten Laosheng to come forward? The Art of War states: `Display profits to entice them, create disorder [in their forces] and take them.’ Lao-sheng did not know how to employ his troops. He relied on courage and made a hasty advance. He did not anticipate his rear being severed nor being captured by your majesty. This is what is referred to as using the unorthodox as the orthodox.”

The Taizong said: “As for Huo Qubing’s tactics unintentionally cohering with those of Sunzi and Wuzi, was it really so? When our Army of the Right withdrew, Gaozu [Taizong’s father and the emperor] turned pale. But then I attacked vigorously and, on the contrary, it became advantageous for us. This unknowingly cohered with Sunzi and Wuzi. My lord certainly knows their words.”

The Taizong said: “Whenever an army withdraws can it be termed unorthodox?”

Li Ching said: “It is not so. Whenever the soldiers retreat with their flags confused and disordered, the sounds of the large and small drums not responding to each other, and their orders shouted out in a clamor, this is true defeat, not unorthodox strategy. If the flags are ordered, the drums respond to each other, and the commands and orders seem unified, then even though they may be retreating and running, it is not a defeat and must be a case of unorthodox strategy. The Art of War says: `Do not pursue feigned retreats.’ It also says: `Although capable display incapability.’ These all refer to the unorthodox.”

Tang Taizong

Tang Taizong (T’ang T’ai-tsung), meaning “Grand Ancestor of the Tang,” is the title of the second ruler and real founder of the Tang (T’ang) dynasty in China (618–909). Born Li Shimin (Li Shih-min), he was the second son of Li Yuan, the duke of Tang, who was an important governor under the Sui dynasty. Taizong’s achievements and the policies that he laid down would make the dynasty the most powerful, successful, and prosperous since the Han dynasty. The Li family was descended from Li Guangli (Li Kuang-li), a famous general under Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty. As most aristocratic families in northern China, it had intermarried with nomads who had settled in the region; Taizong’s mother, the empress Dou (Tou), came from a powerful Turkic clan.

In 617 the Sui dynasty was collapsing and revolts were widespread. Eighteen-year-old Li Shimin maneuvered his father to revolt and played a leading part in defeating numerous other contenders to establish him on the throne of the new Tang dynasty in 618. Li Yuan is known in history as Tang Gaozu (T’ang Kao-tsu), meaning “High Ancestor of the Tang.” As second son, Shimin was the object of jealousy of his older brother, the crown prince, who planned to murder him. In a final showdown in 624 the crown prince was killed, Shimin became crown prince and de facto ruler, and two years later Gaozu retired and Shimin ascended the throne.

Brilliant and precocious, he had by his late teens mastered the Confucian Classics and literature, had gained experience in administration and martial skills, and had led men into battle. A dashing and fearless leader who placed himself at the forefront of cavalry charges and who excelled in hand-to-hand combat, he boasted that he had personally killed over 1,000 enemies before taking the throne. Taizong was immediately confronted with a crisis along the northern frontier. Taking advantage of China’s internal chaos the Eastern Turks had launched massive annual expeditions along the borders beginning in 623, to plunder and also to instigate revolts against the new dynasty. The one in 626 reached within a few miles of the capital Chang’an (Ch’ang-an). Only three weeks on the throne Taizong, who was a man of imperial and intimidating bearing, led his men to confront the enemy and secured their retreat with a combination of bravado and bribes. His long-term response was to train and bolster his army, which allowed him to launch a massive six-pronged offensive with 720 miles separating the easternmost and westernmost columns in 629.

A combination of superior Tang tactics and internal disaffection among the Turkic tribes resulted in a one-sided Tang victory at the battle at Iron Mountain in which some 10,000 nomads were killed and more than 100,000 surrendered. This campaign ended the Eastern Turkish Khanate and established Chinese dominion over the Mongolian steppes. Taizong was acknowledged “Heavenly Khan” by the Turks, the first Chinese ruler to hold that title. The surrendered Turks were treated with kindness; many were settled along the Ordos region of the Yellow River and other borderland areas. Thousands of others settled in Chang’an and served the dynasty. Peace would reign in the northern borders for 100 years.

Other campaigns broke the power of the Western Turks; established Chinese power throughout Chinese Turkistan, across the Pamirs into Afghanistan to the border of Persia; and also brought Tibet under Chinese suzerainty. The marriage of a Tang princess to the Tibetan ruler, the first of several throughout the dynasty, would bring Chinese culture to that land. In 648 a Chinese force, with Tibetan assistance, crossed into India and brought an Indian rebel who had assassinated King Harsha Vardhana of India (Taizong and Harsha had diplomatic exchanges thanks to the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s [Hsuan-tsang’s] journey to India) to Chang’an for punishment. Taizong also sent two expeditions to Korea in the 640s but failed to bring the king of Koguryo to heel. Taizong rode six horses to battle. Relief carvings of all six, with accompanying inscriptions detailing their names and deeds, decorate the entrance to his mausoleum.

Taizong was a rationalist and believed that men, not heaven, determined the course of history. He was conscientious and hardworking, was concerned with the welfare of the people, and respected the opinion and sought the criticism of his advisers. He surrounded himself with able ministers. Wei Cheng was the most fearless of his critics, yet never suffered from his blunt rebukes of the emperor. Taizong called Wei his mirror for showing up all his blemishes and mourned Wei’s death as a great loss to good government. Because the basic institutions of the Tang were already in place when he ascended the throne, Taizong’s task was to consolidate, rationalize, and improve where necessary.

He halted the growth of the bureaucracy, redrew the empire’s administrative units, and continued the codification of the laws but lightened many punishments. His economic policies led to recovery and prosperity after the wars that marked the end of the Sui dynasty and led to surpluses that financed his military expansion. He established a network of granaries that provided against natural disasters and stabilized the prices. He also extended and improved the militia system begun by his father.

Taizong’s last years were marred by poor health; the death of his wife, the Empress Zhangsun (Chang-sun), who had been his wise and able adviser; the demotion of his heir for plotting against him; and rivalry among his other sons for the succession. He finally settled on a younger son by the empress, who would be known as Emperor Gaozong (Kao-tsung). But in death his reputation would grow and he would be acknowledged one of the greatest rulers of all Chinese history. His reign came to represent exemplary civil government, unrivaled military might, and unmatched cultural brilliance.

Further reading: Adshead, S. A. M. T’ang China, the Rise of the East in World History. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004; Graff, David A. Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300–900. London: Routledge, 2002; Wechsler, Howard J. Mirror to the Son Of Heaven: Wei Cheng at the Court of T’ang T’aitsung. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974.

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