Emperor Taizong of Tang

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"Emperor Taizong" redirects here. For the emperor of the Song Dynasty by this name, see Emperor Taizong of Song.
  • Reign: 626-649
  • Other Names: 世民 (Li Shimin)
  • Chinese/Japanese: 唐太宗 (Táng Tàizōng / Tou Taisou)

Emperor Taizong, also known as Li Shimin, was the second emperor of China's Tang Dynasty. He is known as an active patron of Buddhism and of the arts, and for establishing the Tang Law Code, which would have a profound influence upon all later Chinese dynasties, as well as upon legal structures throughout East Asia. The Japanese Taika Reforms of 645, for example, were based closely upon the Tang Code.

Taizong secured his succession to the throne by outright killing his eldest brother, and having one of his officers kill the next in line. In 624, he forced his father, Emperor Gaozu of Tang, to abdicate, and two years later, took the throne himself. Despite these terrible violations of filial piety, for which he is said to have been put on trial by King Yama, Lord of Hell, Taizong is generally regarded as an upright and virtuous emperor. Indeed, he is among the most prominent emperors in Chinese history. The legend of his trial ends with him being characterized as a Sage King, and his actions justified by the logic that a great Sage King will do anything to ensure the prosperity and security of the kingdom.

Taizong initially banned travel beyond the empire's borders, and the famous traveler Xuanzang (hero of Journey to the West) had to sneak out of the country on his famous journey to India; however, upon his return, he was warmly welcomed by Emperor Taizong.

The Tang Law Code formulated during Taizong's reign is the earliest fully extant Chinese law code. It consisted chiefly of lists of crimes and the appropriate punishments, and was frequently revised. However, despite these revisions, the basic forms, and legal or ethical logic, of the Code continued to have profound impacts throughout East Asia. The Code established many of the basic frameworks of administrative and judicial bureaucracy which would be adopted or adapted by later dynasties and foreign regimes, as well as the categorization of crimes, and the division of Chinese society into elites, commoners, and the "mean" (inferior) class.

Taizong attempted to avoid the succession disputes that brought himself to power, and so officially named his eldest son his heir quite early in his reign. That son, however, grew up to be rather problematic, insisting on living a heavily Turkic lifestyle and refusing to speak Chinese, as well as engaging in certain activities his father found disagreeable. When it was discovered that this eldest son plotted to kill his younger brother, the eldest son was executed, and the younger brother made heir.

When Taizong died in 649, he was buried with the original copy of Wang Xizhi's Orchid Pavilion Preface, which continues to survive today in later copies, and which is the most famous and celebrated of all works of Chinese calligraphy. As the crown prince was seen to be overly infatuated with nomadic ("barbarian") culture, even going so far as to live in a yurt, and as the next in line after him was seen as being too involved in political intrigues to be trusted, Taizong was then succeeded by his son, who became Emperor Gaozong of Tang. To him, Taizong left a Plan for the Emperor (Difan) to help guide Gaozong in successful, effective, and virtuous rule.[1]

Preceded by
Emperor Gaozu of Tang
Emperor of Tang
Succeeded by
Emperor Gaozong of Tang


  • Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 196-199.
  1. William Theodore de Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol 1, Second Edition, Columbia University Press (2001), 85-89.