Emperor Gaozong of Tang (21 July 628 – 27 December 683) was the third emperor of the Tang dynasty in China, ruling from 649 to 683; after January 665, he gave his wife great power over the empire, and imperial powers were primarily in the hands of his powerful second wife Empress Wu (the future Wu Zetian), and her decrees were carried out with greater force than the decrees of Emperor Gaozong’s.
Emperor Gaozong was the youngest son of Emperor Taizong and Empress Zhangsun; his elder brothers were Li Chengqian and Li Tai.
His reign saw the primacy of the Empress Wu, who became the effective power behind the Tang rule.
Emperor Gaozong was aided in his rule by Empress Wu during the later years of his reign after a series of strokes left him incapacitated.
Emperor Gaozong effectively after January 665 delegated all matters of state to his strong wife. Empress Wu is therefore unique in the annals of the Tang Empire for the political influence she wielded.
In fact, after year 665, Emperor Gaozong no longer ruled and he in all matters fell heavily under the influence of Empress Wu. She came to have total control of the imperial administration.
During the 650s to 670s, Empress Wu gradually accumulated power by consolidating her influence over Gaozong and eliminating potential political opponents, including the emperor’s son Li Zhong and his trusted ministers: Zhangsun Wuji, Chu Suiliang and Shangguan Yi. In fact, the beginning of her rise to power was with sedition and cruelty as well.
Gaozong’s over-affection and trust of Wu led to her wielding a great deal of power in affairs of state until the end of his reign. Gaozong’s disease made it easier for Empress Wu to exert her influence.
For many years until the end of his reign, she effectively wielded imperial power and was recognized as the real force behind the Tang throne. She sat alongside her husband on the imperial meetings to receive audiences, issued orders, and consulted with ministers and chancellors.
Empress Wu’s excessive power caused the wrath of Crown Prince Li Hong. Emperor Gaozong decided to abdicate in favor of his eldest son, but took no real action for fear of his wife. After Emperor Gaozong died in 683, power fell completely and solely into the hands of Empress Wu, who subsequently became the only Empress regnant in Chinese history. After his death, he was interred at the Qianling Mausoleum along with Wu Zetian.
Historians have generally viewed Emperor Gaozong as a weak ruler, inattentive to the business of the state. Because he was always controlled by his wife, Gaozong was criticized for leaving such rule business to Empress Wu.
During the first part of his reign, Tang territorial gains, which started with his father Emperor Taizong, continued, including the conquest of Baekje, Goguryeo, and the Western Turkic Khaganate, but throughout the 670s, much of those gains were lost to the Tibetan Empire, Silla, Khitan, and Balhae. Further, territory previously conquered that belonged to both the Göktürks and the Western Turkic Khaganate were subjected to repeated rebellions.