Monday, April 5, 2021

Tang Taizong, Chinese gæopolitics and religion

Emperor Taizong of Tang

My most recent read was Heavenly Khan, Victor Xiong Cunrui’s epic historical novel about the life and career of Li Shimin, the Taizong Emperor of the Tang Dynasty. This made for an interesting historical companion piece to Jonathan Spence’s biography of Kangxi, Emperor of China, which I blogged about late last year. The two historical personages, the great emperor of Tang and the great emperor of Qing, share a lot of the same attributes, and suffer from many of the same doubts and struggles. Examining their careers also brings up several of the same questions about the Chinese state’s relationships to its neighbours and its relationship to religion generally.

There are, after all, quite a number of parallels to be drawn. Emperor Kangxi was ethnically Manchu but was, we may say, reluctantly Sinicised in his outlook. Emperor Taizong was born to an ethnically-Xianbei mother by a Han Chinese father; he also married a Xianbei empress. Both men were great and accomplished military leaders before coming to the throne, but both men also prised learning and erudition among their advisors.

Their saving graces as leaders were somewhat different. Kangxi, as we can tell from his private writings, was deeply and thoroughly curious about all matters around him – including botanical and zoological, related to religion and philosophy, or related to statecraft. This curiosity and preference for direct firsthand experience led him to accumulate a broad and profound array of knowledge from which he could pursue an enlightened form of statecraft. By contrast, Taizong, though he may have had some curiosity about some things, tended to prefer book reading more than Kangxi did. Taizong’s saving grace was his willingness to listen to criticism, and his reluctance to punish those who spoke honestly – even with brutal candour – to him. Much of Heavenly Khan is invested in Li Shimin’s troubled but mostly respectful relationship with one of his most brutally-honest remonstrating councillors, Wei Zheng.

However, both men also seem to have had similar problems with their heirs-apparent. Both Li Chengqian and Aixin Jueluo Yinreng were very badly pampered, and their educations suffered from neglect. As a result, growing up within the palace, they behaved like spoiled little rich kids. Both of them spent more time on wasteful, riotous and decadent diversions than on their studies. Both of them dabbled in occult studies. Both of them kept homosexual lovers. Both of them surrounded themselves with cliques of yes-men and engaged in intrigue and conspiracy to try and off their brothers or officials who tried to remonstrate with them. As a result, both of them proved to be grave disappointments to their fathers. Li Chengqian was therefore overlooked in preference to Li Zhi (later the Gaozong Emperor of Tang), and Aixin Jueluo Yinreng was overlooked in preference to Aixin Jueluo Yinzhen (later the Yongzheng Emperor of Qing).

Another intriguing parallel is the tolerant attitude both great Chinese Emperors had toward Christianity. Kangxi was a devotee of the new learning provided to him by the Jesuit missionaries, and also showed mercy upon the Albazinian Cossacks who brought Eastern Orthodoxy to China. In a similar way, Li Shimin welcomed the Nestorian subdeacon Aluoben (rendered in Xiong’s book as ‘Abraham’) who came to proselytise China. Xiong provides an English translation of Li Shimin’s verse edict praising Christianity and allowing its practice within China:
The dao does not have a constant name,
Nor does the sage take a constant form.
The religion spreads wherever it goes,
The multitude of creatures reap the benefit.
From the state of the Roman Orient,
Came Archdeacon Abraham.
He travelled from afar with scriptures and portraits,
And presented them to the capital.
Examine its religious doctrine:
Mysterious, marvellous, and committed to non-action.
Behold its original purpose:
Nurturing life and promoting the essential.
Though its language is devoid of complex discourse,
Its reasoning has its share of trivialities,
But it benefits things and humans alike,
And should be allowed to spread among all under Heaven.

Even so, Xiong’s historical novel-slash-biography of Tang Taizong is structured in a very different way than Spence’s, and should be considered on its own merits. Although parts of it read like a historical chronicle, very dense with names and dates and important battles, campaigns, marriages, births and deaths, Xiong’s work does have an emotional core – and that is the relationships of trust that Li Shimin builds with his most trusted officials. Wei Zheng is the central, the most important of these officials – not least because he is willing to deliver harsh criticisms of the throne. He is so important, in fact, that he plays a central role in Li Shimin’s life and rule for years after his death. Not just Wei Zheng, but also people like the immaculately faithful and humble Xianbei Empress Zhangsun, and top officials like Fang Xuanling, Du Ruhui and Chu Suiliang, form a mirror for Li Shimin’s actions. The dramatic tension in Xiong’s novel derives from Li Shimin’s own struggles between honour and mercy, between decisiveness and deliberation, between rewarding loyalty and encouraging merit. In all, though, the portrait of Li Shimin that comes through is of a man who genuinely wants to be close to the people, and who deliberately seeks out criticism of himself so that he can improve. Someone probably should have given him better medical advice, though. (Pro-tip, kids: if you want to extend your life and get to a healthy and active old age, deliberately ingesting mercury is probably not the right way to do it.)

Another one of Li Shimin’s ‘balancing acts’ was between the ideals of wu (military prowess) and wen (cultural achievement). Obviously, Li Shimin got his start serving as a general under his father Li Yuan (posthumously, the founding Gaozu Emperor). Wei Zheng, on the other hand, was very steadfastly devoted to the wen principle and encouraged Li Shimin in that direction: he supported literary pursuits, administrative improvements, lowering restrictions on the peasantry, opposing wars of expansion. One of the challenges facing Li Shimin was making his new administration under the ‘Zhenguan’ government more wen and less wu, but this was a challenge he willingly undertook for the sake of binding the nation together and promoting prosperity.

Li Shimin’s ‘religious’ preferences clearly incline to Confucianism. We can see this in the way that he rules, his emphasis on humaneness and on learning; and we can see this in the way he treats the other two great faith traditions of China: Daoism and Buddhism. Although he has his preference he actively avoids trying to look partizan. He grants certain preferences to Daoism and Buddhism as needed, and of course he was the one who had the Christian Scriptures brought by the Nestorians translated into Chinese, recorded in the court library and disseminated among the people. However, his patience with religious freedom within China was not without limits. In several cases when Buddhist clergy began demanding too many special favours, Li Shimin was quick to pull funding from construction of new monasteries, and reduce the number of registered Buddhist clergy.

Chinese gæopolitics also come into focus here. We are reminded firmly that ‘Han’ is not identical with ‘China’, and ‘China’ is not identical with ‘Han’. Some of Li Shimin’s most loyal officers are non-Han (Xianbei, Tujue, Sogdians), and the Emperor himself gave voice to the (solidly-Confucian) opinion that ‘barbarians’ are first human beings, and that if they are properly educated there should be no difference between them and Han Chinese. On the other hand, we see that Han Chinese people during times of crisis or political chaos flee to and are employed by Tujue and Korean monarchs. We also see that there are troublesome, independent ‘oasis’ states like Gaochang, ruled for much of Tang Taizong’s rule by Qu Wentai, which are mostly Han in makeup. Some of these states, like the state of Liang, were sponsored by the Tujue as buffer-states against the Sui and Tang.

It is also during the opening years of the Tang Dynasty that the ‘Uighurs’, at first a subsidiary tribe of the enemy Tujue, first appear; and also the first encounters between Tubo (that is to say, Tibet) and the Tang state. Both of them would become tributary states of China under Li Shimin’s rule, and in fact many Tujue – and presumably Uighurs as well – would serve within the Tang state bureaucracy with distinction as military leaders and civil officials up to the fifth rank. The book in fact treats with the heqin (diplomatic royal marriage), originally refused by the Tang state, which was so important to the Tibetan ruler that he went to war with Tang over it. One chapter is dedicated to the brave and self-willed Princess Wencheng, a girl of the royal Li family who volunteered to marry the King of Tibet Songzan Ganbu, and took with her a massive material dowry and a number of Han Chinese craftsmen and literary talents besides.

Even the title of ‘Heavenly Khan’ (Tian Kehan 天可汗 – a title which was neither created nor appropriated by Li Shimin, but bestowed upon him by the Tujue) attests to the culturally cosmopolitan – that is to say, not narrowly Han – nature of his reign. The end of the novel has Li Zhi surrounded by fourteen statues, depicting ‘four Tujue [Turkic] khans, a Tubo [Tibetan] king, a Khotan king, a Gaochang king, a Yanqi king, a Xueyantuo khan, a Tuyuhun khan, a Qiuci king, a Linyi king, a Silla queen and an Indian king’: all of the monarchs of the tributary states that had sworn fealty to Li Shimin.

There are some blind spots in Xiong Cunrui’s biographical treatment of the second Emperor of Tang. For one thing, although he spends a good deal of time discussing the personal austerities, foregone luxuries and wen-ification of the Tang government, he barely mentions at all the fact that the Emperor actively redistributed land from the wealthy landowners to the poor and landless. This was one crucial piece of the reason the early Tang Dynasty saw that productivity boom which Dr Xiong hails and credits to Li Shimin’s policies, as many landless peasants suddenly found themselves smallholders in order to put unused land to the plough. At the same time, though, this is a crucial and creative introduction to the historical topic of the Sui-Tang transition. As with many Chinese historical epics, it can be a bit difficult to keep all the names of various Tang advisors and adversaries straight; for this reason Dr Xiong has helpfully included a fantastic glossary of names at the back, bolding the ones who are of particular importance to the Emperor’s career. I highly recommend this book to the readers of this blog.

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