The T'ang, 618-907


The T'ang, 618-907 AD

   When Li Yuan seized power after the assassination of Sui Yang-ti, he founded the T'ang dynasty which would rule from 618 to 907 AD. Li Yuan promptly set about building a powerful central government; in order to do so, however, he had to make concessions to provincial governments (he himself had been a provincial governor under the Sui). His efforts, though, were not successful.China Atlas
The T'ang Empire


T'ang T'ai-tsung, 627-649 AD

   Although he founded an incredibly long-lived dynasty, Li Yuan himself only reigned for a few years before he was ousted by his son, Li Shih-min. Upon ascending the throne, Li Shih-min assumed the title, T'ang T'ai-tsung. He was a vigorous and energetic emperor and set about solving the internal problems that had so plagued past dynasties. In the process, he recreated Chinese government. At the top of the hierarchy was the emperor; below him were three adminstrations: Council of the State, Military Affairs, and the Censorate. The most important of these administrations was the Council of the State which drafted policy (the Secretariat), reviewed policy (the Chancellery), and implementing policy (the State Affairs, which consisted of six Ministries). The administration of Military Affairs directed the military under the control of the emperor. The Censorate watched over the government and government officials to ferret out misgovernance and official corruption.

   In order to quash class antagonisms, T'ang T'ai-tsung seized all the property of China as his own. Property was then distributed to "the most able" cultivators. This attempt, however, to reform land inequities was sabotaged even before it began. Being an aristocrat himself and faced with the immense political and economic power of the aristocrats, T'ang T'ai-tsung simply handed land back to the wealthiest landowners. In addition, although the civil service examination was reinstituted by T'ang T'ai-tsung, almost all bureaucratic positions went to aristocrats during the entirety of the T'ang dynasty and only a small handful went to individuals recruited on the basis of the examination.

The Empress Wu, 684-705 AD

   Wu Chao (626-705 AD) was a concubine of the second T'ang emperor. She removed or killed all of her rivals at court and eventually became his empress. As empress, she vigorously and brilliantly got the lay of the political landscape and steadily exiled political opponents in the imperial court. In 660, the emperor was debilitated by a stroke and Wu Chao took over the government of China. When the emperor died in 684, she then became the regent of China, ruling in place of her young son, and in 690, she finally deposed her son and became Emperor herself, the first and only woman ever to occupy that office in Chinese history. The Chinese tend to vilify Empress Wu and tell (most likely false) stories of her sexual appetites and her Buddhist fervor, but she was perhaps one of the most able and brilliant of the Chinese emperors and had a profound influence on Chinese culture. She oversaw the greatest expansion of T'ang military power, and recruited her government heavily from the civil service examinations. It is unquestionable that she was a devout Buddhist, and she contributed greatly to a flowering of Buddhist culture in the T'ang period, especially through her vigorous founding of Buddhist monasteries. She was the first emperor of China to assume a Buddhist title, "Divine Empress Who Rules the Universe," but she also contributed to the ascendancy of state Taoism. In 666 AD, while she reigned in the place of her incapacitated husband, Lao Tzu was officially recognized as the Most High Emperor of Mystic Origin.

Hsuan-tsung and Chang-an, 713-756

   The T'ang empire reached its military apogee during the reign of Empress Wu; when she was deposed in 705, the empire soon fell into a series of court schemes and intrigues which severely weakened the central government. For a brief period, during the reign of Hsuan-tsung (713-756), the government revivified. Hsuan-tsung greatly reduced the number of civil-service examination officials, began massive building projects, especially on the Great Canal connecting the Yellow and the Yangtze rivers that had been built by the Sui, and generally increased the wealth and power of the court. His capital, at Chang-an, became incredibly wealthy and a flowering of Chinese culture, such as had never been seen before, concentrated itself in this captial city during the decades of his rule. The T'ang dynasty is known as the "golden age" of Chinese culture, and the bulk of the cultural flowering of this age was concentrated in the reign of Hsuan-tsung and confined to his magnificent capital, Chang-an.

   Because of massive, dynamic trade with other cultures, Chang-an became a meeting place of many cultures and religions: Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Islam, all of which entered China during the T'ang and especially influenced Chinese culture in the heyday of Chang-an. Syrians, Jews, Arabs, Persians, Koreans, Tibetans, and Japanese all lived side by side with the Chinese of Chang-an. In 636, Nestorian Christians from Syria were allowed to build in church and hold Christian services barely six hundred years after the founding of Christianity and less than three hundred years after Christianity had become the state religion of Rome. The foreigners not only brought in new religions, but new clothes, cuisine, literature, and music as well. The imperial court itself had several performing troupes gathered from surrounding nations permanently installed at the court.

   Chinese poetry entered its most productive phase and the greatest of the Chinese poets, Li Po (701-762), came to prominence at this time. Considered one of the most powerful Chinese lyric poets, Li Po was a large, strong man hopelessly entranced with sensuality. He wrote over two thousand poems, and over eighteen hundred of them still exist. His poetry is about immediacy, about seizing the phenomenality of the moment and communicating it directly through language. While his poetry is Buddhist and is suffused with the sense of the brevity of life, nonetheless this tragic view of the transience of mortal leads him rather to embrace desperately experience and phenomenality. It is perhaps this aspect of his poetry that led to the birth of the legend of his death: he is said to have drowned while trying to embrace the image of the moon in a pool.Chinese Poetry
Li Po


   The second great poet of the time was Tu Fu (712-770). Like Li Po, Tu Fu was not a product of the civil service examination. Li Po refused to take it; Tu Fu failed it. In 751, however, he was appointed to the imperial court on the strength of his poetry, but lost his post shortly after the death of Hsuan-tsung. While Li Po strove for immediacy, Tu Fu wrote a poetry that was about putting obstacles between the reader and the poet's experience. His is an allusive poetry, one which suggests possibilities and hides immediate experience under the veils of language rather than trying to communicate a phenomenal or emotional experience as directly as possible. As with Li Po, his poetry is permeated with the Buddhist notion of the brevity of life, but his poetry is less about celebrating phenomenal experience as it is about the tragedy of human suffering.Chinese Poetry
Tu Fu


   Hsuan-tsung, who was regarded as a perfect prince in culture, courage, and wisdom, was himself a talented musician and great patron of music. He greatly expanded the imperial musical bureau, the Jiaofang ("House of Precepts," founded around 620 AD), which employed and trained literally thousands of musicians, acrobats, dancers, writers, and actors. He also founded the first musical academy in China, the Liyuan ("pear garden"), which produced legions of musicians. The professional training of a musician (Yin Sheng Jen) took fifteen years and five examinations. After successfully negotiating the training and memorizing fifty classical pieces, the musician was then appointed automatically to the imperial court. The Liyuan was unique, however, for it had as its goal the development of new musical styles under the personal direction of Hsuan-tsung. Together, the Jiaofang and the Liyuan produced a tremendous synthesis of Chinese arts, setting the lyrics of the major poets, such as Li Po and Tu Fu, to music, and producing spectacular banquet music. During this period was developed the daqu , or "grand song and dance," which fused musical performance with poetry and dance in a large and spectacular format.

   The cultural flowering of the T'ang, especially during the reign of Hsuan-tsung, was characterized by the fusion of several arts and the fecund intermingling of Chinese culture with an infinity of foreign cultures, religions, and arts. It was a period of unparalleled cultural synthesis and fusion that saw the great expansion of poetry and music, and the unprecedented cultural sophistication of a larger part of the non-aristocratic Chinese people.

The Decline of the T'ang

   The T'ang in its earliest years expanded its military power greatly, reaching its apogee under Empress Wu. Like all dynasties before them, the military expansion of the T'ang was followed by a slow contraction under the pressures of foreign countries. The T'ang were pushed back primarily by the Mongols in Manchuria, the Turks to the west, and the Tibetans to the south.

   The T'ang met these challenges by sending armies, which always succeeded in the short-run but failed to keep these foreign powers down for good. Although the T'ang forged alliances with other foreigners, and built up defensive works, none of these strategies really worked, and eventually the Empire's borders slowly contracted back to the original T'ang kingdom.

   Disaster struck in the later years of Hsuan-tsung's reign; in 751, T'ang armies were defeated in western Asia by the Turks, and in 755, An Lu-shan, a general commanding three northern provinces, led a rebellion that resulted in the capture of Chang-an while the emperor escaped to Szechwan. Eventually, Chang-an was recovered by Hsuan-tsung's successor, but at a terrible price. Aided by the Uighur Turks, the forces of the emperor had to allow the Turks to pillage the city as their reward.

   The end result, however, was a century of peace, even though China had severely retracted its borders. China's population had been devestated by the wars and the An Lu-shan rebellion: before the rebellion, China had a population of over 53 million people; after the rebellion, the population had plummeted to seventeen million. The government, which remained strongly centralized, set about reforming land allocations in order to increase productivity, but the small size of the population did not permit them to reinstate equal distribution of land. Instead, they instituted the Twice-A-Year Tax of Yang Yen, which remained in place up until the end of the Ming dynasty in the sixteenth century. Under the Twice-A-Year Tax, fixed taxes were levied on each province. This allowed the government to remain in operation while encouraging economic growth in the decimated provinces.

   The centralized government, however, continued to lose authority to the provinces all through the ninth century. Civil war with the state of Nan Chao in southern China, roving bands of thieves, wars with border territories, and frequent rebellions slowly converted the provinces into autonomous kingdoms under the control of warlords. Chang-an itself was sacked by one of these warlords, Huang Ch'ao, and the remaining decades of the T'ang dynasty were essentially a period of chaos among small, fractious kingdoms. Finally, in 907, the dynasty fell and the country fell into a fifty year period of disunion before another strong dynasty would reunify the country, the Sung.

The Later Empire: The Sung, 960-1279

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 6-8-97