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I am circling back to write about one of the most important men in history, Lǐ Shìmín, aka Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. Although he is the success against whom all subsequent rulers of China are judged, I am not going to address his remarkable reign (nor his mythical journey to hell) but rather how he killed two of his brothers in order to assume the throne.
Lǐ Shìmín lived from 599 AD to 649 AD and ruled from 626 AD to 649 AD. It was he who convinced his father to rise up against the tyrannical Sui dynasty. Leading his father’s troops, he crushed the Sui and dominated the ensuing civil war (a thrilling conflict which involved ominous prophecies, turncoat sisters, and the fall of princely houses). He is thus credited as co-founder of the Tang dynasty–even though he was in fact its second emperor.
Although he was clearly the force behind the rebellion and the chief architect of the new dynasty, Lǐ Shìmín had an older brother who was crown prince and heir apparent. Lǐ also had a younger brother who hated him and schemed together with the eldest brother to bring Lǐ down: united they tried to poison him and implicate him in various crimes.
Lǐ Shìmín went before his father, the Emperor Gaozu, and accused his two brothers of sleeping with the aging emperor’s concubines and plotting regicide. A disloyal concubine informed the crown prince and the younger brother of this accusation, which lead the two to ride to the palace to find out the details from their father himself. They were shocked to discover that Lǐ Shìmín and his loyal troops had seized control of the palace’s north gate (through which they habitually rode). From horseback, as his younger brother fired arrow after arrow at him, Lǐ Shìmín shot his elder brother with an arrow and killed him. Lǐ Shìmín’s faithful guard and favorite commander Yuchi Jingde then arrived with 70 handpicked soldiers, but Lǐ’s horse became spooked and bolted into a forest with the younger brother in close pursuit. The horse slipped and fell on its rider, leaving Lǐ unable to escape as his younger brother tried to strangle him with a bow. At this critical point the faithful Yuchi arrived in the glade and personally killed the malicious younger brother. Two months later, the old Emperor Gaozu abdicated his throne in favor of his son, who quickly purged away his brother’s families.
As a side note, posterity rewarded Yuchi Jingde richly for his loyalty: over the centuries he evolved into a guardian god whose image is still seen on doors today.