Andrew Eisenburg of Northeastern Illinois University ( http://www.neiu.edu/~history/eisen.htm ) wrote an article in 1994 ("Kingship, Power, and the Hsuan-wu Men Incident of the Tang", in T'oung Pao LXXX) arguing that the Xuanwu Gate Coup was instigated by Li Yuan himself to ensure that the strongest and most ruthless contender for the position of heir apparent would get it.
His conclusion: "Tang Gaozu purposely arranged for his three eldest sons to compete with each other, and ultimately, to endeavor to kill each other in a bid for the position of heir apparent. Li Shimin (later known as Tang Taizong) emerged the winner. In order to ensure political stabiliy and continuity in imperial policy and personnel, Gaozu 'retired' in the eighth month of 626 and remained at the palace center for another three years, before relocating to the suburban Taian Palace."
Eisenburg has three starting points:
1. He accepts the revisionist approach that Li Yuan, and not Li Shimin, was the key decision-maker from the time of the rebellion against the Sui government until his 'retirement'. He was not pushed into rebellion by Li Shimin, and was a forceful leader himself. So Eisenburg finds it unlikely that Li Yuan was passive in the face of the factional fighting between his three sons, placidly accepted Li Shimin's act of fratricide at the Xuanwu Gate, and then allowed himself to be forced into retirement by Li Shimin.
2. In North Asian (i.e. steppe) regimes, violent free-for-all civil wars to determine the most competent successor to the rulership were common. Eisenburg accepts the argument by Thomas Barfield and the late Joseph Fletcher (scholars studying the relations between nomad societies and China) that the Xuanwu Gate Coup reflected the influence of Xianbei or Turk political culture on the Tang dynasty. He argues that Li Yuan avoided a large-scale conflict between his sons by carefully overseeing the contest and setting the parameters such that in the end, only one or two of the sons would die instead of having massive bloodshed between armies led by them.
3. In the Northern Wei and Northern Qi dynasties of the Age of Fragmentation, two relatively young emperors had 'retired' (i.e. taken the position of Taishanghuang) and handed their thrones over to heirs still under ten years of age. This was done, Eisenburg argued in another article in 1991, so that the 'retired emperors' could oversee a stable succession, allowing the new child-emperor to acquire legitimacy and experience before his father died and left him to fend for himself. The idea is that father-to-son succession was not well-established in Xianbei politics, and that challenges to the heir could be expected from other members of the imperial clan unless the father was around to protect him.
Eisenburg's further argument is that in the Tang, there was a slightly different approach to retiring emperors in that the heirs whose fathers retired were all mature adults. Li Yuan's motivation for handing the throne to Li Shimin was to develop a system of 'power-sharing' between a senior emperor and junior emperor, so that the junior emperor had time to gain the loyalty of the senior emperor's 'old guard' of officials and generals. After his retirement, Li Yuan actually remained active in court affairs until 629 when he moved to the Taian Palace in the suburbs of Chang'an. This ensured a smooth and stable transition of power between father and son.
Do you find this theory convincing?
Zunjing de Yun the Sage-King,
Hmm, it is certainly an interesting topic worthy of more discussions if a new theory had emerged! I must admit this new theory was so different than the other two speculations.
Some people believe Li JianCheng’s accomplishments were seriously undermined by historians with the insistence of Tang Taizong since Tang Taizong was the only Emperor who requested to see the historical records himself and his wish was granted. However, we really don’t have any proofs regarding any aspects of this sibling rivalry being altered by later historians. Nevertheless, it is always a great idea to question everything you read, and never completely trust any sources.
Others put most of the blame on Tang Gaozu since he was so indecisive and was giving out mixed signals. The worst part was that he practically did nothing to prevent the factional fighting among his sons. Before establishing the Tang Dynasty, Tang Gaozu had promised the throne to his second son because he had made the most contributions. However, after ascending to the throne, Tang Gaozu conveniently forgot his promise because he did not wish to go against traditions and create a second son the Crown Prince. After creating Li JianCheng as the Crown Prince, Tang Gaozu continuously entrusted Li Shimin with many major court affairs and fighting a lot of crucial battles. These actions undermined Li JianCheng’s position as the heir apparent, thus, intensifying the jealousy and rivalries among his sons.
Eisenburg has a very interesting theory here; therefore, I would like to pose some questions and make a few analyses.
I agree Tang Gaozu was placed in a very delicate situation; however, it was really no different than the problems also encountered by other dynastic founders.
1.] The traditional view was that Li Shimin initially insisted on starting a rebellion himself and replaced the Sui Dynasty. However, Li Shimin was far too young to win respect of other followers. Hence, he forced his father into the rebellion by tricking him into sleeping with two of Sui Yangdi’s concubines.
I have never read any revisionist versions regarding Li Yuan as a forceful leader himself and rebelled partly because he also had ambitions of becoming the next Emperor. If this was the case, then he would have been a shrewd politician; therefore, it was rather unlikely for him to not be so active in his sons’ battles for the throne. It would be even harder to believe that he would have abdicated in favor of his son so easily. However, can we really trust this revisionist version?
2.] Yes, primogeniture was practically a Han Chinese custom. Tribes living in nomadic societies did not really follow the same practice. Nomads were a lot more democratic in choosing the next leader. The next leader usually had to work really hard to obtain his position and then do the same thing to maintain it. There were far less rigid rules in nomadic societies. That is why Tang Gaozu had promised to make his second son the Crown Prince as an incentive for making the most contributions as it was not such a radical idea. Well, the Xuan Wu gate incident did result in only the deaths of Li JianCheng, Li Yuanji, and their followers rather than a large scale conflict with massive bloodshed between armies. This consequence was very fortunate for the Tang Dynasty. However, this was not due to Tang Gaozu’s careful intentions, but because Li Shimin was far more talented than his brothers; hence, he was able to organize his army more efficiently and had better strategies. Honestly, his brothers stood no chance against him since this was a head to head battle, so it was impossible for them to use dirty tricks.
3.] Hmm, I believe the idea that an Emperor should retire early is a wonderful one! I mean even Emperors cannot fight old age, which is one of the saddest things! When you are old, you are more likely to make silly/stupid mistakes that you would not normally do. If an old Emperor retired early, then he can ensure that he won’t be making unintentional errors due to old age, and live peacefully for the remainder of his life. If Tang MingHuang had retired a little earlier, then the prosperity of the Tang Dynasty might have lasted even longer.
It is also a really thoughtful idea to have an Emperor abdicate in favor of his immature son. Since young Emperors occupying the throne were one of the reasons for usurpations by other family members or major officials, it is really wise for a young Emperor to give the throne to his young son while he was still alive. This way, the Grand Emperor can protect his young son and cement his position in the political court.
However, that was not the case for the Tang Dynasty. Some sources stated that Li Shimin forced his father into an early retirement. I highly doubt that was the issue since all the contenders for the throne were already eliminated. Besides, people would have probably been more than frightened by Li Shimin’s fratricide; hence, his position was already stable. IMO, Tang Gaozu’s abdication was due to his grief over losing his two sons and his incapability in preventing this whole thing from happening.
There had been more than an adequate amount of examples in showing the disputes over the throne among the princes would more often than not result in a rapid decline for the empire as several factions were formed. Of course, competitions can bring out the best of everyone; however, it was way too risky to purposefully set up conflicts for the throne just to select the most suitable successor as it would most likely result in bloodshed, especially since the Tang Dynasty was not fully established with a secured position. Also, I really don’t think Tang Gaozu was astute enough to have this plan in mind.
Lifezard had brought up a really good point when stating that when struggles occurred, the Emperor was likely to be killed along with the heir apparent. Hey, if the heir apparent survived, then he might have started plotting against his father, so that he could quickly ascend to the throne and secured his footing.