By Elizabeth Smithrosser
Guo Ziyi is remembered for saving the Tang dynasty from rebellions and invasions. His many sons went on to great things in the military and at court. What was it like to have this famous general as a father?
China’s dynasties tend to contain an enormous rupture halfway through. Sometimes this shock comes in the form of an invasion from outside, others it is a coup or rebellion which has bubbled up from within. The rupture would cause decades of turmoil. It could even involve enemy control of the capital, from which a new, replacement dynasty is declared.
But this mini-dynasty lasts only until members of the original dynastic family gather support, rise up, and eventually regain control. And so what had seemed to be the end of a dynasty ends up a mere “enormous rupture.” The original dynasty lives to see another day, perhaps even several further centuries.
In the case of the Tang dynasty (618–907), the enormous rupture was the An-Shi rebellion, named for its leaders: An Lushan 安祿山 (c.703–757), and Shi Siming 史思明 (703–761). The rebellion caused immeasurable upheaval and millions of deaths. In 756, An Lushan took the city of Luoyang as his capital and declared himself the founding emperor of a new, Yan dynasty.
Thereafter, accounts see An slip into bad health and a dangerously paranoid state, moving his son Qingxu 安慶緒 to murder him in 757 and take the throne for his own.
But Qingxu would rule only until his next encounter with his father’s loyal general Shi Siming with his army in the spring of 759. Shi executed him on the spot, not as an usurper, but rather for the sin of patricide, one of the worst imaginable crimes in any strand of Confucianist thought.
And so Shi Siming became the third Yan emperor in four years. But the patricide was not over yet. As resurgent Tang forces closed in on the Yan, panicked figures in the army persuaded Shi’s own son Chaoyi 史朝義 to join a plot to overthrow him. His father was captured and strangled, after which Chaoyi took up the imperial reins.
In 763, the Tang alliance retook Luoyang. Shi Chaoyi hanged himself to avoid capture, thereby closing the chapter on what had been a fairly gruesome Yan story of royal succession enacted through murder rather than inheritance. For those in powerful positions, parenting could be a perilous business.
Guo Ziyi and his family
But this article is about a general from the victorious side.
Guo Ziyi 郭子儀 (697–781) was not only instrumental in putting down the Yan forces, but in subsequent years also repelled several large attacks by Tibetan and Uighur armies from the west. Such invasions represented an existential threat to the dynasty as it stumbled back into a functional state. However, with Guo leading the fight, sometimes with the assistance of his older sons, the dynasty was able to stagger past this initial stage.
A Tang man would first marry a principal wife. This match was typically agreed in childhood by the pair’s families, with a mind to strengthen existing bonds or forge new alliances. When they reached an appropriate age, the bride would be sent to live in the bridegroom’s household.
A man was also entitled to take in concubines. These were secondary wives – of official status, but inferior to the principal wife. There were legal limits on the permissible amount of concubines. Essentially, the higher a man’s social status, the more concubines he was permitted. But practically speaking, he was also limited by means, since he was expected to provide the space and resources to sustain his concubines, as well as any children they might bear.
This setup meant it was common for rich men at the upper levels of society to father many, many children, since their household could contain several potential mothers.
Back to Guo Ziyi, our case in point. The records confirm that eight sons and eight daughters survived into adulthood. Guo’s first principal wife died young after bearing his eldest son, after which he married a second, Madame Wang, from a well-connected aristocratic family.
Madame Wang gave birth to five of eight sons, and eight daughters. Guo Ziyi also had two concubines, who gave him two sons and quite possibly other daughters of whom there is no historical record. Madame Wang’s eight daughters were married off into other families of high social stature, and crucially as principal wives, rather than as concubines.
Guo’s sons all went on to illustrious careers. The elder sons, who came of age during the rebellion, entered the military. Guo Gan, the second son, was killed in battle in 757. Guo Xi, the third, and first by Madame Wang, led successful battles against Tibetan forces. And Guo’s esteemed stature in court after the rebellion ensured prime political positions and matrimonial matches for his younger sons.
His sixth son, Guo Ai, was married to one of Emperor Daizong’s daughters, Princess Shengping in 765. Several of Guo Ai’s children were married back into the imperial family. Most notably, their daughter became the principal wife of Emperor Xianzong (r.805–825). With her son’s inheritance of the throne, Guo Ziyi became the maternal ancestor of the Tang dynastic line.
The above vase depicts a birthday celebration for Guo in his later years. Seated beside an aged Madame Wang, he cheerfully receives wellwishers, sons and grandsons. The elderly couple are flanked by two smiling female figures, most likely concubines.
The vase dates from the Qing dynasty Kangxi period (1662–1722), and serves to show that the idea of Guo in later dynasties went far beyond what one might expect for a rebellion-crushing general.
After all, things had not ended so well for other generals of comparable fame. Many died gruesome deaths – if not on the battlefield, then as a result of ugly political maneuvers in the turbulent periods that tended to follow military triumph. Guo is remembered as the exception to this rule. He lived to the grand old age of 85, and oversaw that his sons and daughters married well. This did not just ensure the protection of his immediate descendants, but moreover safeguarded his line of descent, thereby fulfilling a vital duty to one’s ancestors in Confucianist thought.
“So what if your daddy is Emperor?!”
The power balance in the newly reestablished Tang dynasty was precarious. Therefore, each marriage match forged by Guo Ziyi for his children was a strategic decision aimed to better equip both himself and his descendants to navigate an extremely sticky environment at court and beyond. Here the personal was intrinsically political, and the more children one had, the more such decisions had to be made.
Marriage alliances with other powerful families could be the path to greater security, but they often gave rise to their own problems. An anecdote from the marriage of his sixth son, Guo Ai (752–800), to the daughter of Emperor Daizong (r.762–779) provides us with a particularly illustrative example of this.
The below account is the version from a work of history by Song dynasty statesman Sima Guang (1019–1086).
Once, Guo Ai was quarreling with Princess Shengping. He said, “Don’t count on your father being Son of Heaven! My father scorns the role of Son of Heaven and chooses not to take it!” The Princess was enraged, and rushed off by carriage to report this.
In this flippant moment of one-upmanship, the teenager had committed treason. Any kind of disrespectful speech of an Emperor was not permitted, and what he had said fell just short of inciting rebellion.
Ai’s remark nevertheless has some truth to it. Guo Ziyi was one of the most powerful men in the realm, with great influence at court and much of the military at his disposal. A successful coup d’état was certainly within his grasp. Instead, however, Guo has gone down in history as the epitome of a loyal general.
This was in fact acknowledged by the pragmatic Emperor Daizong when his daughter arrived at the imperial residence, bent on showing her husband once and for all whose father was boss.
“Let’s say this was truly the case, and that man did want to be Son of Heaven. Do you really suppose the realm would still be in the family?”
And so Daizong brushed the matter aside and sent her home. But when word reached Guo Ziyi, he did not take it quite so lightly. On the contrary, he locked Ai up and headed to court to demand punishment.
This move on Guo’s part may seem a little extreme. But accusing someone of plotting a rebellion was a classic method of taking down one’s political opponents. All one had to do was convince the Emperor that the plot was real, and the consequences for the accused could be dire. In many cases, the accused was punished by having his entire line of descent “extinguished,” i.e. the execution or forced suicide of all living family members.
Guo’s main concern was that Ai’s remark might be misused as evidence for his guilt sometime in the future, perhaps at a time when the family’s position was less secure, under a new, less trusting emperor. By demanding punishment in this way, he could have the matter resolved in the open and on record.
His Highness said, “As the common saying goes, ‘The role of household head should be the preserve of the mad or deaf.’ Why bother paying attention to the chatterings of our son and daughter in their chambers?”
The Emperor’s word was final. But it did not stop Ziyi promptly returning to give his son a thorough caning.
Sima Guang took care to mention this caning, but left the reason to be inferred by the reader. Was it a sincere punishment for the immoral act of insulting the Emperor? Was it to flesh out his performance of the paternal anger of a loyal subject?
Perhaps, it was because the teenager, in a single moment of reckless flippancy, had jeopardized years and years of painstaking steps and decisions that Ziyi had taken to safeguard his family. And all to score a cheap point in a spat with his wife.
Only father and son could know for sure.
Elizabeth Smithrosser is a PhD Student in Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. Click here to view her university page.