The Golden Age of Tang

views updated

The Golden Age of Tang



Establishment. The Tang dynasty (618-907) is regarded as one of the two golden ages in China’s history (the other is the Han dynasty of 206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), in which Chinese civilization was at its highest and most powerful. The Tang empire emerged from the disintegration of the Sui dynasty (589-618). Its founder, General Li Yuan, was a member of a northern aristocratic family. Appointed to quell a peasant revolt, Li Yuan instead negotiated with the Turks, promising them riches and his vassalage. In 617 Li began to rebel, and within only one year he occupied the capital city of Chang’an, where he declared the founding of the Tang dynasty. He was later given the posthumous title of Gaozu. He took another six years to conquer the whole country.

Reign. Supported by the same northern aristocratic clans that had backed the Sui dynasty, Gaozu initially continued Sui practices in government administration and maintained the existing legal and taxation systems. The first few years of the Tang dynasty were a time of internal consolidation. After all resistance had been crushed, Gaozu began to reorganize the administration. The empire there-after was divided into ten big regions, which were directly controlled by inspectors of administration, finance, and justice. Gaozu also did much work in the fields of law, agri-culture, tax, and education.

Xuanwu Gate Incident. Gaozu’s regime ended suddenly in 626. Li Shimin, the emperor’s second son, who helped his father rise to power, was a bitter rival of his elder brother, the heir to the emperor. Li had played a major part in the campaigns to consolidate Tang control and won considerable success as a military commander. With support from the military, Li Shimin plotted to carry out a coup to become emperor. After killing the crown prince and another brother, Li forced his father to abdicate. The


By the middle of the Tang dynasty (618-907) the system of equalized landholding administered by the ruler had seriously deteriorated. As a result the government found difficulty in collecting taxes and there was less revenue for the state. In the eighth century Yang Yen, a high-ranking official, expressed concerns over the growing financial crisis in a memorial to the Tang emperor:

When the dynastic laws were first formulated there was the land tax, the labor tax on able-bodied men, and the cloth tax on households. But enforcement of the law was lax; people migrated or died, and landed property changed hands. The poor rose and the rich fell. The Board of Revenue year after year presented out-of-date figures to the court. Those who were sent to guard the frontiers were exempted from land tax and labor tax for six years, after which they returned from service.

Source: Hsin Tan? Shu (New Tang History), in Sources of Chinese Tradition, edited by William Theodore de Bary (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960).

event, known as the Xuanwu Gate Incident, resulted in the succession of Li Shimin, then known as Taizong.

Military Campaigns. The Tang dynasty began its expansion in Asia in 630. After the defeat of the Turks, Tang armies extended their influence to central Asia between 630 and 645. In 648 the emperor organized an expedition (which included Nepalese and Tibetan troops) in order to extend Tang influence to the little kingdom of Magadha in northeastern India. By 660 Tang armies had conquered the whole of Northeastern China—Manchuria and almost the entire Korean peninsula. Tang expansion from Korea to Iran and from the Hi valley to central Vietnam was the most important movement in the political his-tory of Asia in the seventh century. The success of military campaigns resulted from remarkable military and administrative organization, quick-moving cavalry forces, efficient horse breeding, and the establishment of military colonies for the provisioning of Tang armies in Central Asia.

Rise of An Lushan. By the eighth century the frontier was divided into nine districts, each headed by a military governor. At the beginning this system worked well because the military governors came from aristocratic back-grounds and had close relationships with the bureaucracy. Some governors enhanced their own reputations by waging successful frontier campaigns. The central government, however, began to appoint non-Chinese governors in the 740s on the grounds that they were better soldiers and had no political ambitions. This new policy gave An Lushan, whose father was a Sogdian and whose mother was a Turk, an opportunity to rise to prominence. In 742 he was given the key military governorship of Pinglu in Northeast China, where the powerful families nurtured some antipathy

toward the aristocracy of Chang’an. An Lushan’s military success ingratiated him with the emperor Xuanzong.

Court Intrigue. The immediate causes of An Lushan’s rebellion (755-763) related to the situation at court and the military arrangements on the frontier. In the 740s Xuanzong had increasingly left the conduct of government to Li Linfu while first immersing himself in a search for personal enlightenment and then becoming infatuated with his concubine, Yang Guifei. (Although Yang Guifei had some powerful personal connections, she came from a family of modest standing; her father was a minor official in Sichuan.) After gaining her emperor’s favor, Yang Guifei obtained various court posts for her relatives, including her second cousin Yang Guozhong, who became a law officer working for Li Linfu. In 746 Li Linfu began a series of bloody purges directed against his critics, and Yang Guozhong used this opportunity to advance the interests of the Yang family. From 749 onward, Yang Guozhong began to intrigue against Li Linfu himself, who later died in 752. After Li’s death, Yang Guozhong, who held the military governorship of Sichuan, took his place and became the most powerful figure at court. Rivalry also developed with An Lushan when Yang Guozhong tried to alienate him from the emperor.

Revolt. Realizing that he was in danger, An Lushan began to revolt in 755 with 160,000 troops in the northeast. He soon occupied both Chang’an and Luoyang and declared the establishment of a new dynasty. For the next 8 years the country was in a civil war. After Yang Guozhong failed to recapture Luoyang, the emperor was forced to abandon Chang’an and flee north. During the flight, the commander of the emperor’s escort killed Yang Guozhong on the grounds that he was responsible for the catastrophe. The commander then demanded the death of Yang Guifei; with immense grief Xuanzong ordered her execution. The emperor then fled to Chengdu in the southwest and later that year abdicated in favor of his son, who had gone to the northwest to mobilize military forces. An Lushan was assassinated by his son in 757, but the rebellion did not col-lapse. Led first by another general, Shi Siming, and then by his son, the rebellion continued until 762. Xuanzong’s grandson, the Emperor Daizong, succeeded to the throne in 762 and thereafter defeated the remaining rebels with the help of Uighurs and Tibetans. In 763 the court was able to move back from Sichuan to the capital.

Turning Point. Although the rebellion was eventually defeated and the Tang empire survived for another 150 years, the dynasty never recovered its former authority or glory. The rebellion had several immediate and long-term consequences. Some regions of the country became depopulated, while others suffered severe economic and social crisis. The state’s financial system collapsed. The northeast of the empire became independent, while some regions were controlled by military governors. The fall of the capital deeply shocked the Tang aristocracy and forced many of them to migrate to the south. The violence of the rebellion had a profound impact on the minds of some writers, who thereafter concentrated their studies on the lessons of his-tory. The involvement of the frontier armies in a civil war incited the Tibetans to attack the empire, and in 763 they briefly occupied Chang’an. Although they retreated later, their attacks continued in the following years. By that time the Tang empire was no longer an expanding power, having difficulty defending its frontiers. An Lushan’s rebellion, which shook the Tang empire to its foundations, has been identified as one of the great turning points in the history of the Chinese world. The crisis seemed to speed up changes. Foreign relations, economic policies, societal developments, and intellectual life all changed rapidly from the crisis of 755-763.

Restoration. Tang rulers began to rebuild after the rebellion. The central and regional governments continued to function, and reforms of the administrative systems and a new frontier policy were introduced. The central government lost much of its power to regional governors, and the Tang dynasty became highly decentralized. The emperor Xianzong, who ruled from 805 to 820, decided to use force to regain control of those provinces that had in effect become autonomous. In 806 he sent a punitive expedition to Sichuan, defeating the general who had usurped the command there and replacing him with a new governor who was willing to accept central government order. Xianzong thereafter retained control of the central provinces but was not successful in the northeast. In the meantime he carried out reforms to reduce provincial autonomy by imposing more taxes on the wealthy Yangzi regions. Since the rebellion had completely damaged the Tang frontier strategy, the regime abandoned the system of military colonies and therefore lost the pasture lands from which it had obtained its supply of war horses to Tibet. Since Tang rulers had to purchase expensive horses from the Uighur empire, Emperor Dezong concluded a formal alliance with the Uighurs against the Tibetans. This alliance continued to be the cornerstone of Tang frontier policy until the Uighurs disintegrated in 840.

Signs of Decline. The Tang dynasty began to decline after 820 when a series of young emperors were unable to assert their authority over the courts. In its last fifty years the Tang dynasty was further weakened by divided loyal-ties in the central government, by mistrust between officials in the capital and the military commanders in the frontier, and by mismanagement, corruption, and incompetence. In the meantime bandit gangs became a refuge for the desperately poor and dislocated people. They organized themselves into confederations and progressed from raiding to rebellion. The number of civil disturbances increased each year, and the government was unable to suppress all of them. When another emperor named Xuanzong came to the throne in 846, he tried to reform the grain transport system and the salt monopoly, but he ignored the most serious problems: the growth of large landed estates, chronic fiscal problems, and a deteriorating situation on the frontiers.

Renewed Civil Strife. The fall of the dynasty came about because of a rising tide of revolts. The first wave of rebellions occurred in the lower Yangzi in the 850s, but the government crushed them. In the 860s, when the state of Nanzhao in southeast China attacked Annam, the Tang armies forced the Nanzhao to retreat. This military campaign exhausted the Chinese treasury, which prompted a wave of mutinies. Headed by Pang Xun, some rebels pillaged the lower Yangzi region. In 874 another disastrous rebellion broke out in the area between the Yellow and Huai Rivers because this area had been overtaxed and had suffered from a succession of floods and droughts. The most serious uprising was led by Wang Xianzhi. After Wang was killed in 878, Huang Chao led the rebellion, making a dramatic sweep south. He occupied Guangzhou in 879, killing many foreign as well as Chinese inhabitants in the city. He then returned to the lower Yangzi, where he should have been defeated and captured but he escaped. In 880 he occupied Chang’an, forcing the emperor to flee to Chengdu, and established a new dynasty. Yet, he failed to win public support and establish an effective government. The Tang forces rallied with the assistance of the Shatuo Turks, defeated the rebels, and killed Huang Chao in 884. After this insurrection, China was greatly weakened and thoroughly divided.

Shatuo Turks. After Huang’s rebellion, the survival of the Tang court depended on the support of foreigners who inhabited the northern borderlands. The Shatuo Turks were the most important among these foreign peoples because their intervention on behalf of the Tang government rescued it from collapse several times and enabled the dynasty to survive the Huang Chao rebellion. In 905 the Shatuo Turks established an alliance with a Mongolian people called the Khitans. During the period of the Five Dynasties (907-960) the Shatuo Turks established a new dynasty, the Later Tang (923-936), which, as its name implies, tried to rule in the Tang tradition but did not last for a long time.

Imperial Commissioners. The men who directly contributed to the downfall of the Tang court were the imperial commissioners in command of military regions. These individuals, members of the aristocracy or the scholarly class, were the administrative staff in the military regions. They chose their own successors while the Tang court only approved their choices. After 900, each independent region assumed either the name of dynasty or kingdom, while each leader usurped the title of emperor. The only difference between the Five Dynasties of the North and the Ten Kingdoms (902-979) of the South was that the five northern governments in the capital areas controlled a more extensive territory and claimed to be the true successors of the Tang dynasty. The founding of these ten small independent kingdoms caused a breakup of the Tang regime.

Demise. By the beginning of the tenth century, non-Chinese forces occupied a large part of the Tang empire in the North, military governors had seized power in the East, and independent states were formed in much

of Central and South China. The final demise of the powerful Tang dynasty occurred in 907 when military governor Zhu Wen extended his control over a large part of North China, deposed the last Tang emperor, and established the Later Liang dynasty (907-923), the first of the Five Dynasties. This event marked the end of the hereditary high aristocracy that had dominated the imperial government for a long time, and ended a period of Chinese martial vigor and self-assertion in relation to its nomadic and seminomadic neighbors.


Charles Hartman, Han Yu and the Tang Search for Unity (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986).

Edwin Reischauer, The Background of the Rebellion of An Lu-shan (London: Oxford University Press, 1955).

Denis Twitchett, Financial Administration under the T’ang Dynasty (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988).

Twitchett and Arthur F. Wright, eds., Perspectives on the Tang (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973).