Emperor Xuānzong of Tang

Emperor Xuānzong of Tang (唐宣宗) (July 27, 810 – September 7, 859) (reigned April 25, 846 – September 7, 859) was a later emperor of the tang dynasty of China. Personally named Li Yi (李怡), later renamed Li Chen (李忱), and known before his reign as the Prince of Guang, he was considered the last capable emperor of tang dynasty. Succeeding emperors after Xuānzong would either be too young or be dominated by eunuchs or warlords. Emperor Xuānzong was the 13th son of Emperor Xianzong (r. 806-820) and an uncle of the previous three emperors, Emperor Jingzong, Emperor Wenzong, and Emperor Wuzong.

To distinguish Emperor Xuānzong from his ancestor Emperor Xuánzong (personal name Li Longji), as their temple names are rendered, when tonal marks are not used, identically in pinyin, Xuānzong is occasionally referred to as Xuanzong II in western sources; in Chinese, however, their temple names (宣宗 for him and 玄宗 for Li Longji) are clearly distinct and this device is not used.


Li Yi was born in 810, at Daming Palace (大明宮), as the 13th of 20th known sons of then-reigning Emperor Xianzong. His mother was Emperor Xianzong's concubine Consort Zheng, who had previously been a concubine of the warlord Li Qi and who, after imperial forces defeated Li Qi in 807, was taken into Emperor Xianzong's palace to be a servant girl to Emperor Xianzong's wife Consort Guo, but who at some point bore Li Yi for Emperor Xianzong. Consort Zheng is not known to have borne any other children for Emperor Xianzong. After Emperor Xianzong died in 820, Li Yi's older brother Li Heng, born of Consort Guo, became emperor (as Emperor Muzong), and in 821, when Emperor Muzong created a number of his sons and brothers to be imperial princes, Li Yi was created the Prince of Guang.

As imperial prince

In Li Yi's youth, he was said to be shy and a poor speaker, even though he was actually intelligent. Because of his shyness and difficulty in speaking, he was considered by others to be unintelligent. Later, during the reigns of Emperor Muzong's sons Emperor Wenzong and Emperor Wuzong, Li Yi was said to try to hide himself from the political scene, and he rarely spoke anything at all. When the emperors would visit the imperial princes' residences, known as the Sixteen Mansions, they would, as a game, try to get Li Yi to speak, and they referred to him as "Uncle Guang. " It was said that Emperor Wuzong, who had an outgoing personality, particularly disrespected Li Yi.

In early 846, Emperor Wuzong became extremely ill and unable to speak. The palace eunuchs gathered and decided on Li Yi as Emperor Wuzong's successor, probably because they considered him unintelligent and therefore easier to control. They had an edict issued in Emperor Wuzong's name creating Li Yi crown prince and changing his name to Li Chen and putting him in charge of the imperial affairs. It was said that only when Li Chen met the officials in his role as crown prince that his appropriate expressions of sadness and actions on pending matters caused people to begin to see that he was truly intelligent. Soon thereafter, Emperor Wuzong died, and Li Chen took the throne (as Emperor Xuānzong).

Early reign

Emperor Xuānzong honored his mother Consort Zheng as empress dowager. Immediately after taking the throne, Emperor Xuānzong acted against the powerful chancellor Li Deyu, who had dominated the court during Emperor Wuzong's reign, as he despised Li Deyu for monopolizing power. Emperor Xuānzong removed Li Deyu from his chancellor position and sent him out of the capital Chang'an to serve as the military governor of jingnan Circuit (荊南, headquartered in modern Jingzhou, Hubei ), and also removed Li Deyu's fellow chancellor Zheng Su. Over the next few years, Emperor Xuānzong purged those officials he considered sympathetic to Li Deyu, and further pursued charges against Li Deyu based on the execution of the minor official Wu Xiang (吳湘) on charges that should not have warranted death, which occurred because Li Deyu was resentful of Wu Xiang's uncle Wu Wuling (吳武陵); Li Deyu was repeatedly demoted and sent farther and farther away from Chang'an, eventually dying in exile around the new year 850 in Yai Prefecture (崖州, in modern Haikou, Hainan ). These actions were considered to have largely ended the factionalism among imperial officials known as the Niu-Li Factional Struggles, which had plagued the imperial government ever since the reign of Emperor Muzong. A number of policies that Emperor Wuzong and Li Deyu had pursued, including persecution against Buddhism and alliance with Xiajiasi, were reversed. In Li Deyu's place, Emperor Xuānzong installed Bai Minzhong as the leading chancellor, and over the next few years, Bai recommended a number of other officials, including fellow chancellor Ma Zhi and future chancellor Linghu Chu.

Meanwhile, Emperor Xuānzong also turned his attention against Tufan, which had fallen into intense civil war after the death of its king Langdarma in 842. Starting in 848, and over a period of several years, Emperor Xuānzong commissioned border troops to recapture various prefectures lost to Tufan since the Anshi Rebellion, taking the region constituting modern eastern Gansu , southern Ningxia , and western Sichuan . Further, after the ethnic Han Chinese Zhang Yichao seized control of the Hexi Corridor from Tufan officials and submitted to Emperor Xuānzong in 851, Tang had largely reversed the losses to Tufan. He, however, was initially having little success with rebellions by the Dangxiang. After he came to realize that the Dangxiang were repeatedly rebelling because of mistreatment by Tang officials, he modified the policies to install officials who were known for mild temper and honesty in the Dangxiang regions, and he further put Bai in charge of the operations against the Dangxiang, giving him a large staff that included many well-known imperial government officials. With Bai overseeing the operations, the Dangxiang largely submitted in 851. Bai, however, was not returned to chancellorship within Emperor Xuānzong's lifetime, and was effectively replaced by Linghu.

Emperor Xuānzong was said to govern diligently, paying much attention to how his capable ancestor Emperor Taizong ruled and trying to follow Emperor Taizong's examples. He also took the time and effort to familiarize himself with imperial officials' capabilities, as well as the customs of the various prefectures throughout the realm, such that he could properly commission officials based on their abilities and review whether they were governing capably. He also encouraged frugality, and tried to demonstrate it by reducing the expenditures for the wedding of his favorite daughter Princess Wanshou to the imperial official Zheng Hao (鄭顥). It was said that throughout his reign, the imperial clan members and their relatives all carefully obeyed laws.

In 848, Emperor Muzong's mother Grand Empress Dowager Guo — whom Empress Dowager Zheng had previously been a servant for — died. Traditional historians noted that popular perception at the time was that Emperor Xuānzong might have murdered her. (It had said that she was depressed over Emperor Xuānzong's disrespect toward her, because Empress Dowager Zheng had resented her, and also because he suspected her and Emperor Muzong of having instigated the death of Emperor Xianzong at the hands of the eunuch Chen Hongzhi (陳弘志). ) Initially, he would refuse to allow Grand Empress Dowager Guo to be buried with Emperor Xianzong or to be enshrined in Emperor Xianzong's temple, but eventually allowed her to be buried with Emperor Xianzong. (He would still refuse to enshrine her, however, with Emperor Xianzong, during his lifetime. )

Late reign

One of the major themes later in Emperor Xuānzong's reign was the high-level officials' concerns that he was not creating a Crown Prince, as this refusal to do so left the imperial succession uncertain. The issue was raised repeatedly, including by chancellors Wei Mo, Pei Xiu, and Cui Shenyou, but he rebuffed all of them, leading to Pei's resignation and Cui's removal. (The reason why Emperor Xuānzong repeatedly refused to create a crown prince was said to be his disfavor for his oldest son Li Wen the Prince of Yun and favor for his third son Li Zi (李滋) the Prince of Kui. He wanted Li Zi to be his heir, but was hesitant to create Li Zi crown prince because Li Zi was not the oldest. )

Emperor Xuānzong was said to be careful in promoting and rewarding officials, such that it was not often that he rewarded officials with the highly-honorable red and purple uniforms, and was also said to be fair in his promotions such that he did not unjustly favor those who were close to him. Further, he punished those who were close to him when they deserved to be punished, and did not spare them on account of their closeness to him. In order to make sure that the prefects that he commissioned were suitable for the prefectures, he required that they report to Chang'an to meet with him before heading to their posts. It was also said that he was stern, even with the chancellors, such that even though Linghu was chancellor for 10 years, he continued to fear the emperor.

Meanwhile, Emperor Xuānzong also considered curbing the eunuchs' power, but could not think of a good way of doing so. On one occasion, when he conferred with the imperial scholar Wei Ao (韋澳), Wei told him that he was already the emperor who had exerted the most power over the eunuchs within recent memory — to which Emperor Xuānzong, appearing stressed, stated, "You are not correct. In reality, I am still fearful of them. " He tried to promote eunuchs that he trusted such that they would wield power, but according to himself, this tactic was not particularly successful, as the eunuchs that he promoted, once they became highly-ranked, joined with the less obedient powerful eunuchs as well. At one point, he discussed with Linghu Chu the possibility of massacring the eunuchs, which Linghu opposed because Linghu feared that the innocent as well as the guilty would be harmed; Linghu instead suggested gradually reducing the eunuchs' numbers. Linghu's proposal was leaked to the eunuchs, and the eunuchs were said to continue to despise the imperial officials because of this.

Late in Emperor Xuānzong's reign, he came to favor certain alchemists who promised immortality, and he took pills that they made. It was said that as a result, he became paranoid and easily-angered. By 859, as a side effect of those pills, he had a large ulcerous boil on his back, such that he was bedridden and could not meet with the chancellors or other officials. He entrusted Li Zi to three high-level eunuchs that he favored — the directors of palace communications (樞密使, Shumishi) Wang Guizhang (王歸長) and Ma Gongru (馬公儒) and the director of the southern court affairs (宣徽南院使, Xuanhui Nanyuanshi) Wang Jufang (王居方). After Emperor Xuānzong died, Wang Guizhang, Ma, and Wang Jufang did not initially announce his death, and were set to send one of the eunuch commanders of the Shence Armies (神策軍), Wang Zongshi (王宗實), who was not on good terms with them, out of Chang'an to Huai'nan Circuit (淮南, headquartered in modern Yangzhou, Jiangsu ) to serve as the eunuch monitor for Huai'nan. Wang Zongshi, however, reacted by intruding into the palace; finding that Emperor Xuānzong had already died, he arrested Wang Guizhang, Ma, and Wang Jufang for falsely issuing edicts, and then put them to death. He welcomed Li Wen to the palace, and then issued an edict in Emperor Xuānzong's name creating Li Wen crown prince and changing his name to Li Cui. The next day, Emperor Xuānzong's death was announced, and Li Cui became emperor (as Emperor Yizong).


Because of the prosperity of Emperor Xuānzong's reign, it was said that in subsequent years, including after Tang's eventual fall in 907, the people missed him bitterly, referring to him as "Little Taizong. " The lead editor of the Book of Tang, the later jin dynasty chancellor Liu Ji, wrote of Emperor Xuānzong in glowing terms, while lamenting that much of the records from his reign had been lost by the time of later jin dynasty such that he could not write more. The lead editor of the New Book of Tang, Ouyang Xiu, however, commented that Emperor Xuānzong, while having good judgment, lacked kindness or grace.

During Emperor Xuānzong's reign, Chinese chemists first experimented with fireworks.

Chancellors during reign

Li Deyu (846)

Li Rangyi (846)

Li Hui (846-847)

Zheng Su (846)

Bai Minzhong (846-851)

Lu Shang (846-847)

Cui Yuanshi (847-848)

Wei Cong (847-848)

Ma Zhi (848-849)

Zhou Chi (848-849)

Cui Xuan (849-855)

Wei Fu (849-850)

Cui Guicong (850-851)

Linghu Tao (850-859)

Wei Mo (851-857)

Pei Xiu (852-856)

Zheng Lang (856-857)

Cui Shenyou (856-858)

Xiao Ye (857-859)

Liu Zhuan (858)

Xiahou Zi (858-859)

Jiang Shen (858-859)

Personal information


Emperor Xianzong of Tang


Consort Zheng, posthumously honored as Empress Xiaoming


Consort Chao, ranked Meiren (晁美人), posthumously honored Zhaorong (昭容), later posthumously honored Empress Yuanzhao (元昭皇后), mother of Prince Cui and Princess Wanshou

Consort Wu, ranked Zhaoyi (吳昭儀)

Consort Zhang, ranked Jieyu (張婕妤)

Consort Liu, ranked Jieyu (柳婕妤)

Consort Liang, ranked Meiren (梁美人)

Consort Luo, ranked Cairen (羅才人)

Consort Shi, ranked Cairen (史才人)

Madame Qian, created (長城郡夫人)

Madame Cao, created (封武威夫人)

Madame Qiu, created (封南安夫人), posthumously honored Cairen (才人), had one son who died young


Li Wen (李溫) (b. 833), name later changed to Li Cui (李漼) (changed 859), the

Prince of Yun (created 846), later the Crown Prince (created 859), later Emperor Yizong of Tang

Li Han (李漢), the Prince of Yong (created 846, d. 852), posthumously honored Crown Prince Jinghuai

Li Jing (李涇), the Prince of Ya (created 847)

Li Guan (李灌), the Prince of Wei (created 857, d. 860)

Li Zi (李滋), the Prince of Kui (created 846), later the Prince of Tong (killed by Han Jian 897)

Li Yi (李沂), the Prince of Qing (created 846, d. 860)

Li Ze (李澤), the Prince of Pu (created 848)

Li Run (李潤), the Prince of E (created 851, d. 876)

Li Qia (李洽), the Prince of Huai (created 854)

Li Rui (李汭), the Prince of Zhao (created 854, d. 876)

Li Men (李汶), the Prince of Kang (created 854, d. 877)

Li Yong (李澭), the Prince of Guang (created 857, d. 877)

Princess Wanshou (萬壽公主)

Princess Yongfu (永福公主)

Princess Xihua (西華公主), posthumously honored Princess Gonghuai of Qi

Princess Guangde (廣德公主) (killed by Huang Chao's forces 880)

Princess Yihe (義和公主)

Princess Raoan (饒安公主)

Princess Shengtang (盛唐公主)

Daughter, posthumously created Princess Pingyuan (平原公主)

Princess Tangyang (唐陽公主)

Princess Zhuangsu of Xuchang (許昌莊肅公主)

Princess Fengyang (豐陽公主)

Last update 20-06-2012

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