Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Reign of Taitsong the Great

The history of China differs remarkably from that of Japan in one particular. In the latter a single dynasty of emperors has, from the beginning, held the throne. In the former there have been numerous dynasties, most of them brief, some long extended. In Japan the emperors lived in retirement, and it was the dynasties of shoguns or generals that suffered change. In China the emperors kept at the head of affairs, and were exposed to all the perils due to error or weakness in the ruler and ambition in powerful subjects.

The fall of the great dynasty of the Hans left the way clear for several brief dynasties, of whose emperors Yangti, the last, was a man of great public spirit and magnificent ideas. His public spirit was expressed in a series of great canals, which extended throughout the empire, their total length being, it is said, more than sixteen hundred leagues. Several of these great works still remain. His magnificence of idea was shown in the grand adornments of Lo-yang, his capital, where two million of men were employed upon his palace and the public buildings.

Yangti's son was deposed by Liyuen, Prince of Tang, and a new dynasty, that of the Tang Emperors, was formed, which continued for several centuries at the head of affairs. The new emperor assumed the name of Kaotsou, made famous by the first emperor of the Hans. But the glory of his reign belongs to his son, not to himself, and it is with this son, Lichimin by name, that we have now to do.

It had been the custom of the founders of dynasties to begin their reign by the destruction of the families of their deposed rivals. The new emperor showed himself more merciful, by pensioning instead of destroying his unfortunate foes. His only vengeance was upon inanimate objects. Lichimin, on capturing Loyang, ordered the great palace of Yangti, the most magnificent building in the empire, to be set on fire and destroyed. "So much pomp and pride," he said, "could not be sustained, and ought to lead to the ruin of those who considered their own love of luxury rather than the needs of the people."

While his father occupied the throne the valiant Lichimin went forth "conquering and to conquer." Wherever he went victory went with him. The foes of the Tangs were put down in quick succession. A great Tartar confederacy was overthrown by the vigorous young general. Four years sufficed for the work. At the end of that time Lichimin was able to announce that he had vanquished all the enemies of the empire, both at home and abroad.

His victories were followed by a triumph which resembled those given to the great generals of ancient Rome. The city of Singan was the capital of the new dynasty, and into it Lichimin rode at the head of his victorious legions, dressed in costly armor and wearing a breastplate of gold. His personal escort consisted of ten thousand picked horsemen, among them a regiment of cuirassiers dressed in black tiger-skins, who were particularly attached to his person and the most distinguished for valor of all his troops. Thirty thousand cuirassiers followed, with a captive king of the Tartars in their midst. Other captives testified to the glory of the conqueror, being the vanquished defenders of conquered cities, whose abundant spoils were displayed in the train.

Into the city wound the long array, through multitudes of applauding spectators, Lichimin proceeding in state to the Hall of his Ancestors, where he paid obeisance to the shades of his progenitors and detailed to them the story of his victorious career. Unlike the more cruel Romans, who massacred the captives they had shown in their triumphs, Lichimin pardoned his. The principal officers of the army were richly rewarded, and the affair ended in a great banquet, at which the emperor gave his valiant son the highest praise for his services to the country. The rejoicings ended in a proclamation of general amnesty and a reduction of the taxes, so that all might benefit by the imperial triumph.

Yet there was poison in the victor's cup of joy. His brothers envied him, intrigued against him, and succeeded in instilling such doubts in the emperor's mind that Lichimin fell into disgrace and was strongly tempted to leave the court. The intrigues, which had first dealt with his good name, were next directed against his life, a plot to murder him being devised. Fortunately it was discovered in time, and the death they had planned for their brother fell upon themselves, leaving him the emperor's unquestioned heir. The same year (626 A.D.) the emperor retired to private life and raised his great son to the throne.

Lichimin, as emperor, assumed the name of Taitsong, a title which he made so famous that he fully earned the designation of Taitsong the Great. The empire was surrounded with enemies, the nomads of the north, extending from Corea to Kokonor, and the warlike people of the south, from Thibet to Tonquin. During the remainder of his life he was engaged in incessant conflict with these stinging wasps, whose onslaughts left him no peace.

Scarcely was he settled on the throne when the Tartar invasions began. Their raids were repelled, but they instigated Taitsong to an important measure. It had always been evident that the Chinese troops, hitherto little more than a raw militia, were unable to cope with the sons of the desert, and the shrewd emperor set himself to organize an army that should be a match in discipline and effectiveness for any of its foes. The new army embraced three ranks, each corps of the superior rank consisting of twelve hundred, and those of the others respectively of one thousand and eight hundred men. The total force thus organized approached nine hundred thousand men, of whom a large portion were used for frontier duty. These troops were carefully trained in the use of the bow and the pike, Taitsong himself inspecting a portion of them daily. This innovation roused bitter opposition from the literati, whose books told them that former emperors did not engage in such work. But Taitsong, on the theory that in time of peace we should prepare for war, went on with his reforms regardless of their cited precedents.

Taitsong's new army was soon put to the proof. The Tartars were in arms again, a powerful confederacy had been formed, and China was in danger. Marching into the desert with his disciplined forces, he soon had his enemies in flight, forced several of the leading khans to submit, and spread the dread of his arms widely among the tribes. To his title of Emperor of China he now added that of Khan of the Tartars, and claimed as subjects all the nomads of the desert.

The next great war was with Thibet, whose tribes had become subdued under one chief, called the Sanpou, or "brave lord." This potentate, who deemed himself the peer of his powerful neighbor, demanded a Chinese princess in marriage, and when this favor was refused he invaded a province of the empire. Taitsong at once put his army in motion, defeated the forces of Thibet, and made the Sanpou acknowledge himself a vassal of China and pay a fine of five thousand ounces of gold. Then the princess he had sought to win by force was granted to him as a favor. The Sanpou gave up his barbarian ways, adopted Chinese customs, and built a walled city for his princess wife.

The next act of the great emperor was to bring Eastern Turkestan, conquered by Panchow more than five centuries before, under Chinese rule. This country had admitted the supremacy of the emperor, but not until now did it become part of the empire, which it has since remained.

The last warlike act of Taitsong's life was the invasion of Corea. Here he won various great battles, but was at length baffled in the siege of a Corean town, and lost all he had gained, the gallant commandant of the town wishing the troops "a pleasant journey" as they began their retreat.

Taitsong did not confine himself to deeds of war. Under the advice of his wife Changsungchi, a woman as great in her way as he was in his, and celebrated for her domestic virtues, talent, and good sense, he founded the Imperial Library and the great College, decreased the taxes, and regulated the finances of the realm. The death of this good woman was to him a severe blow, and he ordered that she should receive the funeral honors due to an emperor.

His last days were spent in drawing up for the instruction of his son a great work on the art of government, known as the Golden Mirror. He died in 649 A.D., having proved himself one of the ablest monarchs, alike in war and in peace, that ever sat on the Chinese throne.