Li Shimin: Emperor Taizong of Tang 唐太宗

Music: Prince of Qin Breaks through Arrays (Tang)

An enlightened warrior:  Li Shimin was an curious scholar who was also a warrior capable of extremely bold moves. He possessed a liberal mind that tolerated nearly all forms of criticisms and innovations. He was also a lifelong advocate of religious tolerance and multi-ethnic plurality- especially after he ascended the throne as the Taizong Emperor.

Li Shimin 李世民 was blessed not only with a quick mind but also a simultaneously charming name that bellied great ambitions: his name "Shimin" was a shortened form of the Buddhist prayer "save the earth and gave the people peace" (濟世安民, jishi anmin,) or more shortly could be translated as: "Li- the citizen of the world," "Li- world's folk."

Aside from his frank rationalist outlook, he was equally known as the single most dangerous Chinese general in the years between the fall of Sui and the meteoric rise of Tang. For he was credited with destroying nearly all of his clan's sworn enemies while leading from the front.


Often, Li would don his black armor and lead at the front of his iconic all black armored bodyguards called the 玄甲军  Xuan Jia Jun, or "Jet Black Armored Cavalry." His "Blacks" would go on to become Tang's founding fathers and within a single generation, they would go on from back water rebels to rule over nearly all of East Asia.

Their greatest victory culminated at the Battle of Hulao Pass (or Tiger's Trap Pass) where Li led 1,000 of his cavalry and challenged the massive 100,000- 120,000 army of Dou Jiande and succeeded in ambushing them, capturing the enemy King/ Generalissimo in one fell swoop. In total, Li- with only 3,000 soldiers utterly crushed a combined foe of two armies 30- 40 times its entire size, capturing two enemy warlord Emperors, subduing their provinces, and made Tang the undesputed masters of China.

By the Tang dynasty, northern China was an estuary of many religions- especially "western religions," some of the biggest ones in the western regions included Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and a sizable contingent of Manicheans. 

The Tang Empire at its greatest extent from 648-672. Orange represented provinces directly ruled by the centralized imperial court where as yellow represented the various protectorates and frontier military prefectures on the empire's frontiers. It is in these areas where many vassals of the displaced Gokturk Khaganate remained, that the Tang delegated them autonomy to both preserve their traditional titles as Kings and magnates while they also served as Tang governors


Music: Prince of Qin Breaks through Arrays (Tang)

The song 秦王破敌阵 "Prince of Qin Breaking Through the Enemy Arrays" composed by Li's staff, celebrates the dramatic moment when the blacks broke through the center of Dou's massive army.


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Der said…
The West has Alexander the Great, .. China has Li Shimin. I think the King of Qin was better than the King of Macedonia. Li Shimin was not as megalomaniacal as Alexander and he built a lasting legacy for China in the form of the Tang Dynasty. Alexander's legacy was usurped by the Romans and Parthians.
Dragon's Armory said…
Haha! Well, I tote Taizong's horn a bit because- like all of my narratives I try to focus on the big players and narrate from their POV.

If you remembered before I did say that Taizong was very clever in retroactively making himself look like a fan version of himself, written by himself (Qianlong did so as well with his giant imperial seals he stamped on ancient paintings. Pure Freudian) But then again if narcissistic megalomaniacs like Louis XIV would do it I'm sure so would Emperors who think of themselves as being the gravitational center of East Asia. He also became dangerously obsessed with crushing Goguryeo in his last years. I think ultimately Taizong died when he was still the hero before he makes too much mistakes. But then again, even despite his faults I quite like him. He was uniquely not conservative for a Chinese emperor, even rarer was his ability to be mostly above reactionary. Plus the laws and foundational ethics he instilled in the regime gave birth to my favorite Chinese dynasty so...yeah.

As for comparison to Alexander the Great, well, we have to realize that Alexander's newly conquered domains were mostly inhabited by foreigners so naturally they will default back to regionalism just like the aftermath of the Mongol Khans, it was inevitable. My problem with the ancient Greeks is that they are so trapped in their petty squabbles that there is not a cohesive system for their presence~ just the very vague qualification of "cultural dominance." This is why I am so much more impressed with the Romans.
Dragon's Armory said…
Actually, since we are talking about Alex the Great, I have to say that I am one of the few people not quite impressed with the honey haired invincible conqueror. Ever since I was a child I naively loved his story, I liked that he looked like a Romanticized Greek statue hero with his broad shoulders and athletic bust, I like that he had the quixotic idealism to go bigger and farther than any Greek or Macedonian dared to dream- and conquered to the end of the known world (to the west.) He was like Don Quixote- dreaming the dream of Archilies and actually slew empires until the age was his own.

But then again as soon as the last breath fades from his diseased body everything he was responsible for died. His wife, son, mother were all slaughtered, his empire crumbled immediately before he was even buried. How strange that the zenith of Hellenistic spread ushered by one who is as loved by destiny as Apollo would already began to fade right on the heels of his mortal life? In term of legacy, he might as well have been a lightning flare, brilliant to ignite the world, then gone suddenly as if it had been the flicking of a light switch.

Comparatively, Augustus found a city in breaks and left it in marbles, created a template for a Roman monarchy that lasted even despite several disintegration and remained after the Crisis of the Third Century and the fall of the west as a Greek empire until Constantinople fell to Turkish cannons. I think I prefer the Romans. Rather than the dubious legacy of some loose fitting cloth found on Indian statues, what the Romans and Byzantine had- the millennium long preservation of their ways despite the permutations and little deaths was much more of "cultural dominance."
Der said…
Excellent commentary as always, thank you.

I would say the Chinese are as fractious and squabbling as the ancient Greeks!, hence the Spring Autumn/Warring States Periods and other times of Disunion in China, eras in China's history equally as bloodthirsty as the Peloponnesian War. The only difference is China was blessed(?) with strong leaders/dynastic founders who's legacies survived their deaths and of course China's Sages and philosophers from Confucius, to Hsun Tze, to Mencius to the Legalist and Mohist masters who all advocated for a unified China. In Greece you had exploitative Athenians and their Delian League that did nothing but bully and rob its members, then you had the inept Spartans after they won the Peloponnesian War, and finally Phillip II and his son Alexander who did not survive assassination of their legacies and then the Diadochi warlords who not one was strong enough to overcome the other, not to mention Greek philosophers who were more interested in mathematics and science (nothing wrong with that per se!!) than they were politics, warfare or the social sciences.
Der said…
And I totally agree with you regarding the 'legend' of Alexander the Great. I too when I was younger idolized the man and the legend. Same with Napoleon. But as I've grown up and gotten older, I see these men for what they were ... fancy thugs. They may call themselves King of Macedonia and Emperor of the French, but they're not true leaders, and definitely not people to admire.
Dragon's Armory said…
I actually have an answer that might surprise you, what allowed for the Chinese to be so lasting might have less to do with its thinkers than to the landscape itself.

The Chinese were lucky to have a largely secure fertile interior tucked away and not easily taken by foriegn invaders. With the farmlands in China proper secured they were free to expand until they reached its natural boundaries. In fact I'd say it was the land that shaped its thinking. Because they were able to so regularly and predictably receive harvests they began to view the world in a similar traditional and conservative outlook where they think they have figured everything out. A preserved mentality locked by barriers. I'd say this apply to Tibet too but at even a more dramatic rate because the mountains further served as a barrier for isolation.

Conversely, the many mountains of Europe allowed the Europeans to carve out small areas of autonomy that was hard to be conquered by a greater power. In time- this semi-permanent parity created an environment of higher competition and almost a "democratic" sense of relatively equal representation.
Der said…
You take the view of Jared Diamond and other historians who advocate for the theory that geography and the landscape is the primary determinant of culture and civilization. I must respectfully disagree. I'm not saying natural geography has nothing to do with determining culture, politics and civilization, but I would say geography's influence to be quite inferior to other factors, namely 'un-natural' or human factors, including philosophy, politics and sheer human ambition.

But let's take your factors, ... you say China and Chinese civilization benefited from a 'secure fertile interior'? I am not sure how secure it was, since this interior was invaded and conquered not once but twice by the Mongol Yuan and the Manchus Qing. Besides, if you're talking about heartlands of China, it is the North China Plain (historic 中原) that is the true heartland of China and not Jiangnan (江南) which only was colonized by Han Chinese during the Tang Dynasty. And as you know, the North China Plain was invaded and conquered time and again by the nomads after the Three Kingdoms Period.

And in terms of Europe having natural barriers which China did not, which contributed to their fragmentation, again I disagree. In terms of natural barriers, I would say China has greater natural barriers than Europe ... if we just look at mountains alone, it should be China that is divided into multiple states (which historically it was for centuries during the Zhou Dynasty) and Europe should be unified into one Civilization State. But it is in fact the opposite isn't it? In fact, when it comes to geography, a vast European Civilization State bigger than China should have existed ... stretching from Scandanavia in the North to the Sahara Desert in the South, from the Atlantic Ocean on the West to the Urals, and even down to Mesopotamia in the East. The Pyrennees and Swiss Alps are not barriers historically, the Rhine, Rhone and Mediterranean Sea are bodies of water that facilitate unification, which during the centuries long Roman Empire, they indeed did facilitate a one world state centered in Rome. So why does this mega state not exist, the answer is because of Islam and Orthodox Russia ... incompatible philosophies of Mecca and Kiev/Moscow to Latin Christendom centered in Rome.

Conversely China is the civilization that should have been like historic Europe, ... one civilization divided in multiple related nation states that corresponded to the mountain ranges and rivers of China, which in fact, China has often been divided. The State of Qin protected by its famous mountain passes (more impregnable than the Pyrennees), the Central Plain states of Jin (Zhao, Wei, Han, Zhongshan) who plain if flatter than Germany's North European Plain, the strange states of Ba and Shu in Sichuan (whos mountains were more forminable than the Swiss Alps), the great eastern state of Qi (the France of China with Lin Tze the Paris of Warring States China) with its back to the ocean and the great and massive state of Chu in the south, with the Yangtze a greater barrier and moat than the English Channel (ask Cao Cao!). And yet despite all these geographical barriers, China unified eventually, why? Because Confucianism, and later neo-Confucianism always saw China as one State, one Civilization that SHOULD be unifed despite geography.

Just my humble opinion.
Dragon's Armory said…
Hmmm, I love a disagreement!
I would actually agree with Jared in this case- at least in the old civilizations- especially those before the Bronze Age Collapse and the Migration Period. The Nile River civilization in Egypt is a perfect example of this, they are ancient farmers and because of the predictible Nile floods they tend to view the world through very predictable and conservative lens as if they have figured out the cosmos. Over time this world view also allowed them to have a highly stratified society with God Kings and giant monuments that served them.

For China, China was lucky enough to have a culture that sat right on the breadbasket of the entire east Asia, look at these maps and see if you can spot the place where the first Chinese civilization first started, and lets remember that even before the Zhou the Shang, the Xia, and the mythical Emperors were all in the Yellow River's area.

By the Zhou dynasty (especially after Duke Wen's Regency- which would shape Chinese thought for over 3000) years, China was pretty much defined, and not only that, but ^^^ if you refer to the maps above and a map of the Spring and Autumn Period, the civilization expanded out side of the food production area with many of the frontier states acting as buffers against various barbarians from each cardinal directions. These frontier lords would became Hegemons, then during Warring States Kings in their own right, until one of them united the realm~ and >>> expanded until it extended to China's natural barriers, to the Qin pretty much was the first to claim the shape of China reaching from Sichuan basin and the fills of the Himalayas, the Gobi desert, the boarders of modern Manchuria and very close to Vietnam. The Han would go on further until it extended further until it entered Vietnam, Korean, and the Tarim Basin.

And by then Chinese culture- agrarian and beaurucratic nestled within natural boundaries was pretty much the standard for east Asia. The shape of China, the central "belly" of the rooster shape is just too easy to expand into, aside from the Yangtzee the various provinces in southerh China could be easily flanked

Where as in Europe- one of an extended penninsula, each polity's boundary is usually contained by oceans on sides and mountains on its other sides.

Spain, France, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Italy are all examples of this- distinct cultures thus have a much better change of repelling invaders and preserve their autonomy, and even if they are conquered by the like of Rome, they have a better chance to reassert their identity once the occupier's powers weakens. It's not suprising that Spain- Hispania or whatever polity that wanted to assert supremacy in the region always extended as far as the Pyrenees mountains and the other end to the Mediterranean. Same goes for the various powers that ruled the Pannonian Basin.
Der said…
Yes, I agree with you 100% that the Zhou Dynasty is where and when 'China' and 'Chinese civilization' was born and defined. 華夏 civilization, the only Primary civilization that is still with us today, with Pharaonic Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Harrapan civilizations no longer with us, although their Secondary and Tertiary derivatives continue today.

Sorry, I prefer not to enter into this discussion as my POV is completely the opposite.
Dragon's Armory said…
Do tell, I'm not 100% set on my POV, in fact 5 years ago I had the opposite perspective. So if you have a perspective I'd be happy to listen to.
Kin said…
I have a completely different view on Han Chinese strength, many people think its the geography or other external factors but its simply the strength of the Han culture. The culture of China since the founding of the first dynasty Xia, had been leading other ethnics groups in Asia by a century. From literature to arts and philosophy, other foreign groups always learn to adopt the teachings from the Chinese and many nomadic groups for example during the Sixteen Kingdoms and Northern Dynasties would adopt Han writings and philosophy and slowly abandon their old ethnic roots and become recognized as Han Chinese. China had always been the cultural center of Asia. Another example would be the Liao Dynasty, and although the Khitans never admit being Han, the cultural influence of China it too deeply entrenched in the Khitan society and it eventually turn their initial blood thirty barbaric nature and cause a drastic downfall of their military and eventually overtaken by the Jurchens. Today if you examine the DNA of Chinese today, nearly everyone can trace their lineage to a foreign group other than Han Chinese. China today is made up of past ethnic race being incorporated into what we know today.
Dragon's Armory said…
There are great cultural- scientific achievements by the Han civilization, yes, but I think your view is a bit ethnocentric in bias of the Han no? I mean "but its simply the strength of the Han culture"......Hmmmmmmm, please clarify

What allowed for the Han culture to gain momentum and preserve their culture ^^^the fact that they are able to repeatedly and successfully preserve a healthy agriculture core from invaders of the four direction and allow for their discoveries and wealth to be passed on across generations (even till now.) That crucial factor is what allowed them to dominate for the first 2 millenniums of the last 3 millenniums. The distinct identity that came out of that 2000 year cycle allowed them to further survive in the last millenniums when Han culture was submerged under Mongol and Manchu cultural dominance.

My argument is that their early preservation of a critical geographical area enabled their culture to expand out until they hit natural boundaries, then become something that is culturally strong enough that even when they were conquered its traditions are strong enough that it was able to last till the modern world.
Der said…

I agree partially with your thesis. 'Han culture' or more precisely Huaxia (華夏) culture is a great civilizational force, perhaps the greatest in human history. This assumes of course other cultures was not as strong. Did Hellenism not have what it took to unite the early West?, was Islam not potent enough to unite the Muslim world? ... Christendom, Communism, liberal democracy, etc, etc ...
Kin said…
The west is different, Hellenic culture is not the sole dominant culture in the region and its contented by other cultures like Persian in the East. In Asia however, China is pretty isolated from the rest of the world and its able to exert its cultural influence without other potential competitors as its surrounded by only nomadic tribes or tribes that hadn't reach the stage of feudalism.
Der said…
Yes, you are right, I agree, Hellenism is not the sole civilization. Egypt, Mesopotamia and it's heir, Persia, contended for dominance. If Hellenism had survived and thrived instead of the Semitic Christianity, I would say Europe would resemble its distant cousin India, and Hellenism would be in the same position as Hinduism.

But I would slightly disagree, Chinese culture was not one homogeneous culture that was born in some Big Bang and then spread out over East Asia. Recent archaeology has shown that what is now China Proper was home to multiple civilizations that developed along the Yellow and Yangtze rivers and Sichuan Basins. Ancient cultures with their own religions and even writing systems. This was in the Neolithic Age ... a time long lost, but archaeology has shown that perhaps Xia, Shang and Zhou existed not as chronological dynasties, but rather these Three Dynasties were contemporaries of each other, each representing a different aspect of what would one day become 'China'. What are your thoughts??

And as a side note, with the fall of the Han Dynasty and introduction of Buddhism into China, the time when China 'opened up' to the world and became aware that other civilizations existed, I am surprised China never really adopted some aspects (other than the Buddhist religion of course) of these foreign cultures. I mean, China had no interest in alphabets, republican forms of gov't, monotheistic religion, etc, etc....
Kin said…
Yes, the Han culture is not born out of a single entity, although the age before the Zhou Dynasty is now blurred, what we do know today is that Qin Dynasty helped remerge the culture split which happened after the Zhou Dynasty transitioned itself from Western Zhou to Eastern Zhou/Spring Autumn Period. The feudal states or aristocracy under Zhou became more independent and various arts and writings(even Phonetic Change of Chinese) started to emerge and different states or regions started to develop its own regional culture and the universal Zhou culture is only adopted by a few states like Qin who still used the Phonetic dialect and words used by the Zhou court. For example, the Chu state was known for its highly authentic/ artistic manipulation of bronze and quality compared to the rest of China and they were known to worship the nine head firebird(Phoenix) compared to the rest of China who worshiped dragon. The Qin Dynasty helped recreate a universal system of writing, culture, and law through brutal oppression of the other six states such as the book burning. The Han culture we know today refers to the Han Dynasty's power but few know its origins are from the ashes of the Warring States and Qin. The Phoenix and dragon are both revered as heavenly beasts and the ruling family of Han Liu(刘) were descendants of Chu.

As to why foreign culture rarely gets adopted in China it is due to the monopoly of Confucianism in China. Confucianism is not only a "religion" per say but it also merged itself with other schools of thoughts such as Mohism and it had its own view of government, social beliefs, and humanities. Emperors loved Confucianism for its support of divine right to rule(mandate of heaven) and its support for a social class. Changes were rarely implemented due to the fear and consequence of such changes outside the teachings of Confucianism will result in chaos (huge populations in China 50 million). Confucianism was both a curse and gift because it helped protect the unique Han culture we know today and also the main reason for stagnation.
I've come rather late to this discussion, so I decided not to take part in it.
However, being a Historian, to me comparing two utterly different civilisations, which had thoroughly different mindsets, is beyond the realm of what we do in History.
Each civilisation is unique in its development and the legacy it left behind.
On the other hand, the "Oriental" (just to put a name) and the "Western" (again, just putting a name) had such comprehensively different systems of belief that comparing one with another leads to a very much a-historical conclusion.
And just to make it a little clearer, as the Tangs were not in any possible way contemporary with the Epigonoi, thus right off the bat, the comparison is not only out of the realm of History itself but devoid of any intrinsic value.
It'd be like comparing the highest point of Egypt history with the similar one of the Roman Empire.
That is a No-No (with capital N) in History.
Oh, and by the way, the Tang Dynasty did not fare so well as after a couple (more or less) of generations it entered in the always inevitable Chinese downward spiral which would lead to its ultimate demise (albeit a brief recovery period). It was during the Tang that the catastrophic An Lushan Rebellion took part. After the Dynasty's demise, China was never the same. Admittingly, they were very likely the most successful dynasty in the Middle Kingdom, achieving cultural highs not seen before or even after them. However, in terms of duration and achievement and legacy for the future -at least in terms of Western civilisation, the Epigonoi (not all of them, of course) way surpass the Tang in every other respect.
Yet, all of this has to be viewed in the context of their own time, not projecting our own modern biases into where they most definitely not belong.
Der said…
Hellenist and Han may not have been contemporary, but their affect on the civilizations around them are comparable. Unfortunately Hellenism did not survive, but Han civilization has to this day. The Greeks now worship a foreign god from the Middle East, rejecting the Gods of Olympus. In fact, the Byzantine Basileius Justinian closed the philosophical schools of Athens and thereby committed cultural suicide, destroying his own culture and adopting those of the Semitic east. Nothing comparable happened in China, with Buddhism safely tamed and even persecuted now and then by the Confucians. Surely that is an achievement?
Der said…
@J.L.Fernández Blanco,

First off, I am a great admirer of Classical Greece and Hellenistic Civilization.

You ignore one difference between Huaxia (華夏) and Hellenistic civilization, namely that Huaxia exists and Hellenism does not.

The Han Chinese are still here, the Hellenic Greeks are not. Today's 'Modern Greeks' (I don't call them Hellenes for they do not deserve it) are fundamentally different than your Epigonoi. They are Orthodox Christians, worshiping a foreign Semitic God instead of the Aryan Gods of Mount Olympus. And worse yet, it was the Greeks themselves who rejected their heritage and culture, it was the Byzantine emperor Justinian who closed the philosophical schools of Athens, it was rabid Coptic Christians who murdered Hypatia in Egypt and ended Hellenistic Civilization. What would Alexander the Great, King Leonidas, Aristotle, Plato and Socrates think of Justinian?
Well, if you say so ...
I might not agree with you but that is a topic for another day, you are certainly throwing in the mix a lot of unconnected facts and making inferences that are devoid of historical accuracy.
So, for the time being, let's just agree to disagree.

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