Foreign Influences in the Tang Dynasty

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Foreign Influences in the Tang Dynasty


Capital. Chang’an, the capital of the Tang dynasty (618-907), was the biggest city in the world at that time, with a population of about two million within its walls and surrounding areas. Chang’an was the heart of the empire, served by a network of roads and canals that connected it to the Silk Road to the west and the Yangzi (Yangtze) River valley to the south. The people of the Tang dynasty knew more about the world than those of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.). Tang people were familiar with regions that had only been known to the Han people by rumor or by occasional and dangerous exploring expeditions. Merchants brought exotic goods from different countries to the markets in Chang’an. Moreover, the city became the meeting place of all kinds of peoples, such as Sogdians, Persians, Arabs, Tibetans, Japanese, Koreans, Turks, Uighurs, Greeks, Kashmiris, and Indians.

Sogdians. Persian and Indian influences mixed and equally enriched each other in the whole area extending from Afghanistan to the valley of the Amu Dar’ya (Oxus) River and the oases of the Tarim basin. The most active traders in central Asia and North China came from Samarkand, Meymaneh, Kish, and Bukhara. Their language, Sogdian, an eastern Iranian dialect, was the standard means of communication in Central Asia. Since the commercial route continued from Bukhara to Merv, Balkh, and into China Proper, Sogdian influence was quite extensive, especially in the Chinese art and crafts-manship of the seventh and eighth centuries.

Byzantines. The western limit of Tang control was the kingdom of Fulin, the Chinese name for the Byzantine empire in the seventh century. When Emperor Taizong assumed the throne in 643, the Byzantine emperor dispatched a delegation to Chang’an with presents of red glass and gold dust. Between 643 and 719 the Byzantines sent a total of four embassies to China, seeking Tang assistance in wars against the Arabs.

Persians. Yazdegerd III, the last Sassanian king of Persia, also appealed to China for assistance against the conquering Muslims. In 638 Yazdegerd sent an embassy to Chang’an, bringing the first news of the rise of Islam to the Chinese. Emperor Taizong refused to provide support on the grounds that his empire, recovering from civil war and Turkish attacks, was in urgent need of peace, and Persia was too far for military expeditions. In 642 the battle of Nahavand decided the destiny of the

Sassanid empire, which fell before the Arab armies. The failure to aid Yazdegerd laid western China open to intrusion, and Muslim embassies entered the Chinese empire in 655.

Refugees. After the death of Yazdegerd, his son Prince Firuz fled to Chang’an in 674 through Turkestan. The Tang emperor accepted him as a refugee and still called him “king of Persia.” He later became a general of the Imperial Guard, and when he died his son remained in the capital. The Persian refugees were permitted to build temples and to practice the Zoroastrian faith, which thrived among the refugee community for many years.

Arabs. From both Persian refugees and Chinese travelers the Tang government soon gained knowledge of the origins of Islam and the country of the Arabs. Arabia was known to the Chinese as “Dashi,” which comes

from the Persian word Tarzi, meaning Arab. From 707 to 713 Walid I, a general of the Umayyad Caliphate, conquered Afghanistan, which was then a powerful Buddhist country. The kingdoms of Samarkand, Bokhara, and the confederacy of the western Turks, unable to resist the Arabs’ invasion, appealed to the Tang government for help but failed. In 713 the ambassadors of the Caliph arrived in Chang’an and were politely received. However, in 751 Tang forces began fighting against the new Abbasid caliphate, known to the Chinese as the “Black Cloth Arabs.” The Muslims defeated the Chinese and wrested Turkestan from their control. The Arabs finally dominated Central Asia, but land travel continued between China and the Middle East in the following centuries.

Tibetans. In 747 the Tibetans started a series of aggressive assaults on the cities of Chinese Turkestan. In response the Tang court dispatched a large army to cut off the invaders. It followed the North Road to Kashgar and set up a series of military posts. The army then crossed the Pamirs and penetrated into India as far south as Gilgit.

Strategic Alliance. Chinese expansion in the seventh and eighth centuries resulted in extending the influence of Tang culture in many neighboring areas, such as Tibet, Transoxiana, Korea, and Japan. The marriages between Chinese princesses and Turkish and Uighur princes helped introduce Chinese learning into the nomads’ societies. After the alliance between the Tang government and the Tibetans was established, the first Chinese princess given in marriage to the Tibetan royal family arrived in Lhasa in 641. Thereafter, the road to Tibet was opened, which allowed Chinese pilgrims to go to the Buddhist holy places via the Tibetan capital and Nepal. Many Chinese monks thereafter made their trips to India in the second half of the seventh century. As a result, the first Buddhist influence infiltrated into Tibet in the second half of the eighth century from China rather than from India.

Japan. Chinese influence in Japan was never so broad and intense as in the Tang era. Japan was then barely known to the Chinese people. Jianzhen, a medical monk from Yangzhou in Gansu, left for Japan in 753 with four other Chinese monks and died at Nara in 763. Monk Gembo was one of the most famous Japanese monks who traveled to China to study the laws and to go to Buddhist holy places, such as Chang’an, Luoyang, and Tientaishan in Shanxi. Gembo started out with an embassy for Chang’an in 716 and brought back to Japan five thousand Buddhist texts in Chinese and various objects of piety after eighteen years. Kukai (Kibo Daishi), the eminent founder of the Shingon sect, was in China between 804 and 806, escorted by Saicho (Dengyo Daishi). The monks Jogyo and Engyo traveled to China between 838 and 839. In addition to pilgrimages and embassies, there were also commercial relations. By the end of the Tang period many Chinese ships could be found in Japanese ports.


Christopher I. Beckwith, The Tibetan Empire of Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).

C. P. Fitzgerald, China: A Short Cultural History (London: Cresset, 1950).

Ryoichi Hayashi, The Silk Road and the Shoso-in (New York: Weatherhill, 1975).

Edwin O. Reischauer, Ennins Travels in T’ang China (New York: Ronald, 1955).

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Foreign Influences in the Tang Dynasty

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