On the Southern Tang imperial genealogy.

Author:Kurz, Johannes L.


This essay is about the imperial genealogy of the Southern Tang (937-976), (1) one of the so-called Ten States (907-960). The study of Ten States history has been until recently a somewhat neglected field, as it has been heavily influenced by the Wudai shi (History of the Five Dynasties, 974), which propagated the idea that the Song dynasty had derived its legitimacy through a transfer of the mandate through the northern Five Dynasties. The southern states were therefore largely ignored as mere expressions of regional autonomy realized by an eclectic mix of founders, who were labeled as "scoundrels, rogues, and refugees," and more generally as "outlaw elements/adventurers" in the relevant volume of The Cambridge History of China. (2) That even for contemporaries some of the Five Dynasties founders had major flaws is apparent for instance in a statement by An Chongrong (?-942), who allegedly remarked that all one needed to be an emperor in northern China were "powerful troops and strong horses" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (3)

The Southern Tang by contrast attempted to realize the vision of an empire building on the Tang heritage, and to do so adopted an imperial genealogy. The present paper will highlight the various versions of the genealogy as they appeared during the Song dynasty, and discuss their historical accuracy and probability. This genealogy undoubtedly was a fabrication to enhance the claims of Li Bian (936-943), the founding ruler, to the Tang heritage. (4) Too many documents that may have provided important clues for the identification of the original version of the genealogy as compiled in 939 are lost today or survive only in fragments. Therefore the plausibility of each genealogy needs to be examined in terms of its consistency, the context in which it was created, and the intentions its author(s) may have pursued by presenting varying versions.


The Tang court in 902 acknowledged the rule of warlord Yang Xingmi (canonized as Wu Taizu over Jiangnan and Huainan by conferring on him the title prince of Wu (Wu wang. (5) After the death of his son and successor Yang Wo (canonized as Wu Liezu, r. 905-908), the power in Wu shifted to Yang Xingmi's lieutenant Xu Wen (862-927). (6) Xu placed young and adolescent members of the Yang family on the throne and when the ruler reached adulthood Xu replaced him with another adolescent ruler. He assigned his own sons and followers influential administrative positions, while he himself retained the position of head of the military establishment. In 919 Yang Longyan (canonized as Wu Gaozu, r. 908-920) proclaimed his own reign title (Wuyi. Until that time the Wu rulers had used reign titles of the last Tang era (Tianyou, 904-907) instead of the Later Liang (907-923) to signify Wu's continued loyalty to the Tang throne. Soon thereafter Yang Longyan died of alcoholism and was succeeded by his younger brother Yang Pu (canonized as Ruidi, r. 920-937).

After Xu Wen's death in 927, Yang Pu finally adopted the imperial title that resulted in an immediate end to diplomatic relations with the Later Tang (923-936), the second of the Five Dynasties. (7) Xu Zhigao Xu Wen's adopted son, consequently assumed command of the state. He then followed precedents set by his adopted father by assuming posts outside the Wu capital Guangling (modern Yangzhou), while making his oldest son Jingtong (8) head of the government. Establishing his residence in Jinling (modern Nanjing), (9) he hesitated to take over the throne since he feared that a large part of the bureaucracy was still loyal to the Yang family. Thus he started the transfer of power from Wu to his own dynasty rather slowly by giving one of his daughters in marriage to Yang Lian, the crown prince of Wu. He proceeded by building an ancestral temple and by renaming Jinling Jiangning fu, turning his residence and headquarters there into a palace. (10)

In March of 937 the emperor of Wu bestowed upon Xu the title king of Qi (Qi wang). (11) About a month later Xu Zhigao gave Xu Wen the honorific title Taizu Wuwang. In early May 937 he dropped the ranking character zhi from his given name, thus separating himself from the generation of Xu Wen's sons. (12) In October 937 the Wu emperor ceded the state seal to Xu Gao, and on November 11 he finally ascended the throne. (13) Upon his accession, Xu Gao changed the reign title to Shengyuan, proclaimed a general amnesty, gave all officials promotions, and conferred honorary titles on immediate family members. Following historical precedents, the new ruler ordered the compilation of a new calendar and of a new set of laws that were going to be published in 940 and 942 respectively. (14) In addition, he assigned Guangling as the Eastern Capital (Dongdu and Jinling as the Western Capital (Xidu and seat of the government.

In the new state of the Great Qi Zhao Kefeng, a chief minister of the Court of the Imperial Treasury, was the first official to bring up the idea to "revert" to the family name Li and the building of Tang ancestral temples in the autumn of 938. (15) In early February 939 Xu Zhizheng adopted brother of the ruler, led a delegation of officials to forward another plea to adopt the Li family name, and two weeks later the ruler agreed. (16) Accordingly, the name of the state was changed from Great Qi to Great Tang. One major problem the new ruler, now named Li Gao, faced was the filial treatment of his adoptive father Xu Wen. Hence he changed Xu Wen's posthumous title from Taizu Wu wang to Yizu. When his adopted brothers Xu Zhizheng and Xu Zhi'e asked permission to assume the family name Li as well, he refused, thus keeping them outside the core ruling family. (17) Consequently, he started mourning for his physical parents Li Rongand the nee Liu for a total of fifty-four days. In March 939 the Tang ruler took the given name Bian and henceforth was known as Li Bian. Shortly thereafter, discussions about a genealogy for the new ruling house began. (18)

The gap of over two years between the fall of the Later Tang in 936 and the proclamation of the (Southern) Tang in 939 can be explained first by Xu Zhigao's reluctance to usurp the throne. Secondly and more importantly, the plans for another revival of the Tang dynasty may have been only formulated after the founding of Qi in 937. Krompart explains the adoption of the Tang designation as an attempt to garner more public support in a region that supposedly had enjoyed Tang "stability and prosperity" comparatively longer than other regions. (19) These regions were those ravaged by war since the last decades of the Tang, especially in the north. None of the other states in the southwest and south at the time of their founding as the Former Shu) (907-925) in Sichuan, the Southern Han (917-971) in Guangdong, or Wu endeavored to wholly adopt the Tang heritage in the way the Southern Tang finally did. (20) These regimes grew out of fiefdoms that the Tang court had originally conferred on regional warlords. They never aspired to a restoration of the Tang, even though at different times they declared themselves an empire, and, as in the case of the Former Shu state, used religion to demonstrate their rightful claims to rule. (21)


The library of the Southern Tang possibly held copies of the major Tang genealogical works such as the Shizu zhi (638), the Xingzu xilu (713), the (Huangshi) Yongtai xinpu (766), or the Yuanhe xingzuan (812). (22) These family registers, largely compiled on imperial orders, (23) may have been instrumental in creating the genealogy Li Bian was looking for. They provided information useful for the purpose of establishing a line of ancestors as well as linking them to the Tang imperial clan.

No contemporary catalogues of the Southern Tang imperial library survive and therefore we do not know if the works mentioned above were still extant at the time of the fabrication of the genealogy. (24) It is not clear whether the genealogy of the Southern Tang imperial family was ever put into writing and given a title. In the early 960s the Southern Tang court historian Gao Yuan had compiled the Record of Wu (Wu lu in twenty juan, but he destroyed the draft shortly before his death in 968. (25)

Zhou Shizong shilu (961) and Wudai shi (974)

The Zhou Shizong shilu (Veritable records of emperor Shizong of the Later Zhou) must therefore be regarded as the earliest surviving record of the genealogy of the Southern Tang ruling house. The Zhou Shizong shilu was the historical account of the second emperor of the Later Zhou dynasty (951-959), who ruled from 954-959 and ended the imperial rule of the Southern Tang in 958 after a lengthy military campaign. Its compilers were Hu Meng(915-986), Zhang Dan Wang Ge, and Dong Chun, who worked under the supervision of Wang Pu (922-982). The Zhou Shizong shilu (forty juan) were presented to the throne in 961. (26)

Since the surviving sources do not indicate the transfer of official documents from the Southern Tang to the Later Zhou court in or around 958, the Southern Tang genealogy in the Zhou Shizong shilu was possibly based on hearsay rather than on original documents. (27) The entry on the genealogy in the Zhou Shizong shilu is preserved in the Ziz.hi tongjian "kaoyi" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (28) and reads as follows:

Both the Zhou Shizong shilu and Xue's history [i.e., the Wudai shi] say that Bian was a descendant of Li Lin, prince of Yong, the sixth son of Tang emperor Xuanzong. (29) The Zhou Shizong shilu most likely were the original source of information for the genealogy in the Wudai shi. This work was compiled upon imperial orders from 973 to 974, at a time when the Song conquest of the remaining southern states was only a matter of time. Jingnan (924-963), the Later Shu (933-965), and the Southern Han had ceased to exist prior to 973, but the remnants of the Southern Tang state and Wu-Yue...

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