Tang Dynasty — Flourishing Golden Age of Ancient China
Building Complex of Daming Palace, the Royal Palace of the Tang Dynasty, Based on Architectural Historian Yang Hongxun's Restored Model.
What Is Tang Dynasty?
Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) was one of the most prosperous empires that included a series of great reigns when culture, economy, science, poetry, art, and technology all developed preeminently.
It inherited valuable legacies from the former transient but flourishing Sui Dynasty (581 — 618), and further expanded the empire to a golden age in the ancient history of China.
Tang Empire lasted for 289 years and had been ruled by 21 emperors.
Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils of Tang — National Museum of China (Photo by Kanjianji)
Facts About the Tang Dynasty
The founder of the Tang, Li Yuan, was a cousin of Emperor Yang of Sui (the last emperor of the previous Sui Dynasty), but in the beginning, he only controlled one city with around 30000 soldiers that he recruited by him and his family.
Some of his sons and daughters are excellent generals, who defeated and unified the whole nation by themselves.
The writer of Tao Te Ching and the founder of Taoism, Li Er (also honored as Lao Zi or Lao Tzu), was respected as the ancestor of the Tang’s royal family.
Golden Dragons (Zou Long) that Were Used as Ritual Implements of Taoism Religion Ceremony in Tang — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
The Imperial Examination was completed and widely applied by the only Empress in Chinese history Wu Zetian.
She selected and empowered more talented commoners to balance strong, old noble clans.
The system was inherited and well developed since then, which allowed talented people, no matter what their origin and social status were, to get involved in the ruling class and obtain power.
Clans that obtain political powers were forbidden to get involved in industry and commerce so that they couldn’t use their power and privilege to gain profit through unfair competition with commoners.
Inlaying Gold Ruler of Tang — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)
The capital city of Tang Chang An (now named Xi’an) was the biggest in the world during that period.
Chang An was about 87 square kilometers (about 33.59 square miles), with 110 districts and over 1.5 million population living in.
Compared to big cities in the same era, Chang An was 7 times bigger than Constantinople, and 6.2 times bigger than Baghdad.
This fabulous city had been occupied six times by rebellions during the entire Tang Dynasty and was destroyed by Zhu Wen before the empire ended.
The leader of the most destructive rebellion army that heavily jeopardized the empire in late Tang, had participated in the Imperial Examination but failed. Then he started to rebel and fight against the Tang’s army.
The terminator Zhu Wen, who destroyed the Fabulous capital city Chang An, was from this rebel army.
Restored Picture of Part of the Chang An City of Tang
Tang is a golden age of Chinese Poetry and had the best poets and poems in history, many of which are still popular in the present day.
The turning point of Tang was an eight-year-long rebel war that happened during the reign of Emperor Li Longji, the An-Shi Rebellion.
Around 36 million people were dead during this war.
After this war, many strong, half-independent regimes were formed and kept growing.
In late Tang, the eunuch group, for the first and only time in Chinese history, got military power, which gave them the ability to abrogate and enthrone emperors.
Silver Tea Set (Cha Long) of Tang — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Night Market appeared and became popular.
The earliest record of the takeout service was in the Tang Dynasty.
Polo and Tug-of-War were popular sports in Tang. Empress Wu Zetian was very good at Polo.
Incense was widely used by everyone.
Women could dress up as men, and low-cut blouses were quite popular during the Tang era.
Men could wear flowers on their hair, both royals and commoners.
Figurines Made During Tang Era (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Many foreigners participated in the Imperial Examination and became political or military officials, some of them even made very high ranks, like the minister or marshal.
More importantly, they even didn’t need to change their nationality to Tang.
Application of the international law: when two foreigners disputed, if they were from the same country, then applied their laws; if they came from different countries, then they should follow the Law of the Tang.
Nestorianism was disseminated and got many believers.
Brocade Embroidery of Tang — Datang Xishi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the Tang Dynasty
Chaotic Era and Warfare Among Warlords
In the later years of the Sui Dynasty, since the year 611, many peasant uprising armies and warlords from powerful aristocratic clans kept fighting against Sui’s troops.
In the meanwhile, the former complied Turkic Khaganate started to expand territory, and their Khan claimed himself the most honorable king again.
Therefore, most of those warlords who wanted Khan’s support complied and respected Khan as their monarch.
In the year 617, a warlord named Li Yuan, who came from a powerful military clan, claimed that he would try his best to bring peace to the country.
Unearthed Tri-coloured Glazed Pottery Horse (Tang San Cai) of Tang — Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Rise of the Tang Dynasty
Starting from only one city Taiyuan, Li Yuan's territory was largely expanded, thanks to his talented sons and generals.
Then, Li Yuan, who was also Emperor Yang Guang’s cousin, occupied the capital city and respected Emperor Yang Guang’s grandson as emperor.
In the next year, after hearing that Emperor Yang Guang had been assassinated, Li Yuan took the throne over and named his new dynasty Tang.
A brand new chapter was opened up; the Tang Empire was another unified and glorious dynasty in China when agriculture, economy, art, and science all developed to an advanced level, as well as frequent cultural communication and prosperous international trades through Silk Road and maritime routes.
Gilding Silver Cup of Tang — Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Expansion Led by Genius Li Shimin
In the next 5 years, Tang’s army defeated other strong uprising forces and unified the whole of the nation.
At the same time, Empire Turkic Khaganate became super large and aggressive and was planning to occupy Tang’s land.
Besides those brave warriors, an important reason that the early Tang army could achieve such extraordinary success in such a short time was that they had an excellent chief commander.
This military genius was the second son of Emperor Li Yuan, named Li Shimin. He suggested his father rebel, he led Tang’s army to win countless decisive wars and gained a good reputation among civilians.
Sculpture Stone Horses in Li Shimin's Mausoleum (Zhao Ling), War Horses of His Six Important Wars.
Their Names Are Te Le Biao, Qing Zhui, Shi Fa Chi, Bai Ti Wu, Quan Mao Guan, Sa Lu Zi.
The Last Two Are In Penn Museum, The Rest Are in the Forest of Stone Steles Museum of Xi'an.
Prosperity Under Reign of Tang Taizong
In the year 626, Li Shimin ambushed his big brother, also the crown prince.
Afterward, his father Li Yuan nominated him as the crown prince, and soon abdicated the throne.
Emperor Li Shimin, also respected as Tang Taizong of Emperor Taizong of Tang, started his 23 years long reign.
He defeated his biggest enemy the Empire Turkic Khaganate, vastly extended the territory, and brought wealthy and stable lives to his people.
After he departed, he left the prosperous Tang to his ninth son, Li Zhi, another excellent sovereign who flourished the empire further.
Tang Taizong or Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan (Tu Bo) Envoy, Painted by Politician/Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673) — Palace Museum
Wu Zetian The Only Female Emperor of China and Her Governance
Emperor Li Zhi’s queen, however, was his late father’s imperial concubine, the ambitious Wu Zetian.
After Emperor Li Zhi passed away, Wu abolished two of her sons from the crown, claimed the throne, and changed the name of the empire to Zhou, as the only Empress in the history of China. Under her governance, everything had developed well.
In her late years, some political conflicts became quite severe among her sons, her lovers, her daughters, and some of her grandchildren.
In the end, one of her grandsons won the throne and became another controversial monarch.
Prime Flourishing and Destructive Turning Point
This was Emperor Li Longji, also respected as Emperor Xuanzong of Tang or Tang Ming Huang. The Tang reached its peak under his reign.
Today, people still could see civilians' wealthy and comfortable lives during that period, in masterpieces of great poets, such as Li Bai, Du Fu, and Wang Wei.
In Emperor Li Longji’s late years, he met and fell in love with a beautiful woman Yang Yuhuan. He then spent most of his life enjoying life with her.
Together, as excellent musicians, they made a great contribution to ancient Chinese music.
Jade Flying Deity of Tang — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Soon, the unjust An-Shi Rebellion War (755 — 763), also called An Lushan Rebellion, outburst in the north, lasted for 8 years and caused around 36 million people’s deaths.
This was the turning point of the Tang Dynasty.
Great marshal Guo Ziyi led Tang’s army to defeat the rebel troops and recovered Tang’s territory, with the assistance of loyal, talented generals like Zhang Xun and Yan Zhenqing, and large numbers of brave warriors and civilians.
Yan Zhenqing's Calligraphy Draft to Memorize His Heroically Sacrificed nephew Yan Jiming (Ji Zhi Wen Gao), Recorded Brave Soldiers of Tang and the Intense Fights in the An-Shi Rebellion — Taipei Museum
Arising Warlords and Struggling Emperors of Tang
Emperor Li Longji’s great-grandson, Emperor Li Kuo, was the last generation who had personally witnessed the splendid prosperity and the cruel destruction.
He tried his best to recover the flourishing empire that he had seen, but he failed, and then became a sovereign who made a series of self-contradiction policies.
An important reason for Emperor Li Kuo’s failure was the powerful, half-independent warlords.
During the An-Shi Rebellion War, many loyal generals largely expanded their armies to defeat the enemies and made great contributions.
After the war, therefore, those warlords were still loyal to the royal family of Tang, but they also tried their best to maintain their army and power.
Golden Deer Decoration of Tang — Qinghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Regaining of Prosperity
Emperor Li Kuo failed in his dreams, but he secretly left a strong army to his beloved grandson Li Chun. This army, under Emperor Li Chun’s smart leadership, defeated many misbehaving or rebellious warlords and took back the centralized power.
However, the next few emperors paid more attention to having fun and enjoying their lives, which gave the eunuch group paramount military power, who enthroned, abolished, and even imprisoned some emperors.
After Emperor Li Yan had ascended to the throne, he decisively took the power back from eunuch groups after difficult fights and empowered intelligent officials.
Then the double-faced Emperor Li Chen further flourished the empire and brought the last prosperous era of Tang.
Disintegration and End of the Tang Dynasty
Two emperors afterward were quite incapable and lost power to the eunuch group again.
In the central government, the eunuchs and civil officials kept fighting over authority; while in the borders, uprising peasants and some warlords started to rebel.
When Emperor Li Ye ascended to the throne, the empire was falling apart. He was ambitious and brave, and tried his best to fight against the eunuch group and the disrespectful warlords.
However, he failed.
The fabulous capital city Chang An was destroyed; Emperor Li Ye and his entire family were assassinated by warlord Zhu Wen, except for a baby boy who was secretly sent away.
The Tang Empire was officially ended.
Those warlords built their own independent kingdoms and claimed themselves kings; the whole of the nation then fell into another era of big separation, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms.
Unearthed Copper Mirror of Tang — Shanxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Political Structure and Social Systems of the Tang Dynasty
12 million — 80 million — 60 million (beginning — peak — ending)
Political System: Three Departments and Six Ministries
Three Departments were independent of each other and report to the emperor:
Department of Imperial Secretariats: Draft and Publish Decrees
Department of Chancellors: Review of Decrees by Imperial Censors
Department of Imperial Affairs: Supreme State Administration that Executive Decrees
Subordinate to the Department of Imperial Affairs was the Six Ministries:
Ministry of Personnel: Appointment, Assessment, and Removal of Officers
Ministry of Revenue: Household Registration, Finance, and Tax
Ministry of Rites: Ceremony and Education
Ministry of National Defense: Military Affairs
Ministry of Justice: Law, Judiciary and Punishment
Ministry of Constructions: Design and Implementation of National Constructions
Epitaph from mausoleum of Yuan Gongyu, Wrote by Remarkable Prime Minister Di Renjie of Tang — Qian Tang Zhi Zhai Museum in Luoyang City (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Official Selection System
Imperial Examination, which allows talented men to enter the ruling class based on their talents, instead of class origin.
Jade Cup of Tang Carved with Lonicera Japonica Pattern — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Peasants who got farmlands from the nation should pay certain amounts of products as taxes.
Men from 21 to 50 should do labor service 20 days each year.
People also could pay a certain amount of products to offset the labor service.
If the country required longer services or encountered some natural disaster that caused bad harvest, taxes and labor services would be exempted.
However, the destructive An-Shi Rebellion War caused irreversible chaos and death.
Since the year 780, to adjust to the huge chaos and destructions caused by the An-Shi Rebellion War, a simplified tax system was implemented:
Civilians paid in money, and then fabrics, instead of the farmland products and labor forces.