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In ancient times, the most important district of China was the landlocked region which is today the province of Shaanxi.  Xi’an, the oldest of China’s historical capital cities was/is located in Shaanxi at the eastern terminus of the silk road.  Xi’an was the capital of the Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Sui and Tang dynasties (or “kingdom” if you are a stickler about the Western Zhou).  Today Xi’an only barely makes the top ten list of Chinese cities by population (it is tenth, with a mere 12 million inhabitants), yet its ancient cultural history is unrivaled.  The Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum (aka the the tomb of the Terra Cotta soldiers) is located in Xi’an as is the great Ming-era Drum Tower of Xi’an, yet the real symbol of the city is one of the most distinctive buildings of the ancient world, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda of Xi’an.


Built in 652 AD during the reign of the third Tang emperor (Gaozong of Tang, the son of the astonishing Emperor Taizong), the pagoda was literally a monument to the great 7th century flowering of Buddhism in China.  Originally the temple was 5 stories tall (but five big stories for an original height of 60 meters).  Although Gaozong built the edifice to honor his mother, it was also designed to house the holy sutras and Buddhist figurines which were brought to China by the traveling Buddhist monk Xuanzang, the real life Golden Cicada monk of “Journey to the West” (although I am still pretty sure that most of that book was fictional/allegorical).  The pagoda was constructed of rammed earth with a stone exterior.


Fifty years after it was built, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (an alternate translation might be the Large Swan Goose Pagoda) partially collapsed.  It was rebuilt in 704 AD by Empress Wu Zetian, one of China’s most remarkable and divisive rulers (which is really, really saying something).  Wu Zetian ordered an extra 5 stories added to the pagoda, and her version stood until a massive earthquake in 1556 reduced the pagoda to near ruins.  The civil engineers of the Ming Dynasty rebuilt the pagoda (this time as a 7 story 64 meter building). It is this Ming dynasty version which stands today,  although it now has a pronounced list of several degrees to the west (even after the Communists repaired it in 1964.

The Large Wild Goose Pagoda’s history mirrors that of China (and intersects several of the biggest names and stories of Chinese history) however it also has a notable “ship of Theseus” quality since it was redesigned and rebuilt so many times.  There is no definitive story about the name (the swan goose is a magnificent migratory bird of central China), however there is an evocative myth.  A group of fasting monks saw a flock of swan geese flying across the autumn sky.  One of the younger brothers said “I wish I could taste one of those geese!”, whereupon the lead goose broke a wing and fell from the sky.  The monks were horrified and saw the accident as a chastisement from Buddha for their weakness.  They rushed to the spot where the bird fell and swore a vow of eternal vegetarianism.  That spot was where this tower was built and has stood for 1300 years as a reminder to be gentle to nature and to be careful what you wish for.

The Emperor Tang Taizong, Lǐ Shìmín

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.

The "Incident" at Xuanwu Gate

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.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

October 2020