“Father! He has violated your harem!”
Emperor Li Yuan 李渊 was only too familiar with his son’s attempts to frame his elder brother. On at least two occasions, he managed to see through the plot and avoid misjudging the Crown Prince, but strangely, he took Li Shimin’s 李世民 accusations seriously this time. He went pale as a sheet and trembled in spite of the summer heat. After regaining his composure, he immediately assembled his ministers and summoned the Crown Prince Li Jiancheng 李建成 to enter the palace to answer the charges the next morning.
It was the sixth month on the lunar calendar in 626 AD. The Emperor’s orders had given Li Shimin an excellent opportunity to execute his plans. He knew that his elder brother would be anxious to clear his name and would therefore approach the palace on the shortest route, entering via the northern gate, also known as Xuan Wu Gate 宣武门. He flew into action, first bribing the guard commander General Chang He 常和. He then proceeded to set up his ambush. When Crown Prince Li Jiancheng arrived the next morning, the gates were bolted and Li Shimin’s men emerged from hiding. Li Jiancheng and his youngest brother Li Yuanji 李元吉 were surrounded and outnumbered. Curiously, Li Jiancheng sat on his horse, calm even as his brother mounted an arrow on his bow.
Li Shimin was his brother and comrade who once fought shoulder to shoulder with him when their father was serving as governor under the Sui Dynasty. They went through thick and thin. They were so proud of themselves when their father sacked the puppet Sui emperor and declared himself the founder of the Tang Dynasty. Things changed after Li Jiancheng was named the Crown Prince. Li Shimin became jealous of the brother 10 years his senior and started a series of smear campaigns to let the Emperor change his mind and make him the Crown Prince instead. Li Jiancheng had accepted sibling rivalry as something normal. He didn’t believe that his younger brother who had been through so much with him would kill him in cold blood.
He was wrong. It took just one arrow to end Li Jiancheng’s life. Li Yuanji fought valiantly, but was chopped to pieces by Li Shimin’s men. In the commotion, Li Shimin’s horse bucked and he fell.
“Are you all right, my prince?” asked General Yu Chigong 尉迟恭.
“I’m destined for greatness. Nothing can happen to me.” replied Li Shimin as he dusted his clothes and stood up.
Faced with an awkward situation and with the Emperor and his ministers still waiting inside the palace to interrogate the Crown Prince, Li Shimin ordered Yu Chigong to report the matter to the emperor. Yu Chigong knew what this meant. This was a coup. He had to be firm. He had to be intimidating. And so Yu marched into the hall, his blood-stained sword in hand. Before the shocked ministers and a totally livid emperor, General Yu announced that the Crown Prince had attempted to stage a rebellion and was killed at Xuan Wu Gate by Li Shimin.
A thoroughly shaken Emperor Li Yuan dismissed his ministers. He was well aware of the true culprit behind this “rebellion”. The once proud founder of the Tang Dynasty was distraught. He could not imagine that something like this could happen to him just a few years after he had founded the Tang Dynasty in 618 AD. He was only following custom by making his eldest son Crown Prince. From then on, he stopped sending him out to battle. He sent Li Shimin instead. Little did he know that as his second son’s control over the military grew, so did his ambition. He shut himself in his room and refused to see anyone. After two sleepless nights, a heart-broken Li Yuan issued a decree conferring the title of Crown Prince to his only surviving son.
Li Yuan was already 60 years old then, having outlived most of the emperors in the era. We don’t know if Li Shimin had the patience to wait, but the old Emperor was definitely very depressed and unable to attend to affairs of the state anymore. After struggling for two months, he abdicated. For Li Shimin, it was a dream come true. He picked an auspicious date and ascended the throne as the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty in 627 AD. His reign is known as the Zhen Guan 贞观 era.
With Li Shimin at the helm, China saw unprecedented peace, progress and prosperity. With his military experience, he expanded his empire and extended its influence. He allowed free discussion during his court sessions. He also contributed to the arts scene, heralding a powerful arts movement. Li Shimin became the perfectly uncomfortable example of a ruthless usurper who has done a lot of great things. Under today’s democratic system and rule of law, he would have been jailed for life and I can’t imagine him winning an election either. While Chinese emperors were known to have ruled with Confucian values, what Li Shimin and countless other “Confucian” leaders did to gain power and control were most violently unConfucian. The great paradox is that even today, many Chinese people still proudly refer to themselves as “Tang people”, hailing Li Shimin as an enlightened ruler 明君. Is this due to selective memory or does it show an awkward acceptance of immorality as long as it is accompanied by prosperity?
More intriguing tales of palace drama and ancient Chinese military tactics in the Three Kingdoms saga
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