Gaozu: The First Emperor of the Tang Dynasty

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Emperor Gaozu established the Tang Dynasty in 618 and ruled for eight years before being ousted by his ambitious second son.

Gaozu (or Kao Tzu) was the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty, the Dynasty that lasted from 618-907 and which represented perhaps the most glorious period of Chinese history.

Gaozu himself had been born in 566 with the name Li Yuan and had been an official in the preceding Sui Dynasty. He was the grandson of the Li Hu who had been instrumental in founding the Northern Zhou Dynasty. His imperial name, Gaozu, may be translated as ‘High Progenitor.’

Gaozu’s family was not quite as pure-bred Chinese as he himself later led others to believe but had intermingled with Steppe nomads to the north in several generations, as was also the case in so many different families. He claimed to have been descended from the great Lao-tzu, founder of Taoism, and he was subsequently understood to be a kind of messiah who had been promised to the Chinese people for many years. This aspect of his reputation Gaozu was pleased to promote.

Although he was to father 22 sons, it was his second son Li Shimin, who was later to rule as Emperor Taizong from 626-649 who powered Gaozu’s determination to rule the empire. As Sui central authority began to disintegrate, Gaozu raised troops and advanced on the capital of Chang’an. He allied himself with Turkish nomads from the Steppes and they provided him with a military advantage that was eventually to propel him to the throne.

Once in power, Gaozu proved himself to be a capable and active ruler, creating a number of administrative institutions and methods which persisted throughout the length of the dynasty. Perhaps the most important aspect of his rule was his ability to salve the wounds of civil war by forgiving most of the Sui officials and ruling family against whom he fought and permitting them to continue with their posts. Granting an amnesty meant that potential rebels had more incentive to keep the peace than to go on the run. This brought unity to the country and a much-needed period of peace.

The same could not really be said of the personal life of Gaozu, who acquired a reputation of fondness for dancing girls and musical entertainment that may well have been embellished by his successor. In 626, a palace coup led to the death of the emperor’s eldest son and heir and, in the aftermath of this, Gaozu was persuaded by his second son to abdicate and let him rule in his place. The retired emperor lived a further nine years until 635.