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 in which 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 was 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). Still, initially, he only controlled one city with around 30000 soldiers that he recruited by himself and his family.
Some of his sons and daughters are excellent generals who defeated and unified the nation alone.
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 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, allowing talented people, regardless of origin and social status, to get involved in the ruling class and obtain power.
Clans that obtained political powers were forbidden to get involved in industry and commerce, so 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 (approximately 33.59 square miles), with 110 districts and over 1.5 million population.
Compared to big cities in the same era, Chang An was seven 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 fought against the Tang 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 was a golden age of Chinese Poetry and had the best poets and poems in history, many of which are still popular today.
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 solid and half-independent regimes were formed and kept growing.
In the late Tang, the eunuch group got military power for the first and only time in Chinese history, allowing them to abrogate and enthrone emperors.
Silver Tea Set (Cha Long) of Tang — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Night Market appeared and became famous.
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.
Women could dress up as men, and low-cut blouses were quite popular during the Tang era.
Men could wear flowers in 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 even made very high ranks, like the minister or marshal.
More importantly, they 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 611, many peasant uprising armies and warlords from powerful aristocratic clans kept fighting against Sui’s troops.
Meanwhile, the former complied Turkic Khaganate started to expand its territory, and their Khan claimed himself as 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 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 primarily expanded thanks to his talented sons and generals.
Then, Li Yuan, Emperor Yang Guang's cousin, occupied the capital city and respected Emperor Yang Guang's grandson as emperor.
The following year, after hearing that Emperor Yang Guang had been assassinated, Li Yuan took the throne and named his new dynasty Tang.
A 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 booming international trade 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 five years, Tang’s army defeated other strong uprising forces and unified the nation.
At the same time, Empire Turkic Khaganate became super large and aggressive and planned to occupy Tang’s land.
Besides those brave warriors, an important reason 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 626, Li Shimin ambushed his big brother, 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
However, Emperor Li Zhi’s queen 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 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 can still 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 Long ji's later years, he met and fell in love with a beautiful woman Yang Yuhuan. He then spent most of his life enjoying life with her.
As excellent musicians, they significantly contributed 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 eight years and caused around 36 million deaths.
This was the turning point of the Tang Dynasty.
Great marshal Guo Ziyi led Tang’s army to defeat the rebel troops and recover 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 Long ji’s great-grandson, Emperor Li Kuo, was the last generation to witness splendid prosperity and cruel destruction.
He tried his best to recover the flourishing empire he had seen, but he failed and 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 vastly expanded their armies to defeat the enemies and made significant 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 secretly left a solid army to his beloved grandson Li Chun. Under Emperor Li Chun’s brilliant leadership, this army defeated many misbehaving or rebellious warlords and took back the centralized power.
However, the following few emperors paid more attention to having fun and enjoying their lives, which gave the eunuch group a great deal of military power, who enthroned, abolished, and even imprisoned some emperors.
After Emperor Li Yan had ascended to the throne, he decisively took power back from eunuch groups after brutal fights and empowered intelligent officials.
Then the double-faced Emperor Li Chen further flourished the empire and brought the last prosperous era of the 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 uprising peasants and some warlords started to rebel in the borders.
When Emperor Li Ye ascended to the throne, the empire fell apart. He was ambitious and brave and tried 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 secretly sent away.
The Tang Empire was officially ended.
Those warlords built their independent kingdoms and claimed themselves kings; the nation then fell into another era of 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 reported 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 were 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 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 specific 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-time 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 considerable chaos and destructions caused by the An-Shi Rebellion War, a simplified tax system was implemented:
Civilians paid in money and fabrics instead of the farmland products and labor forces.
Unearthed Copper and Gold Currency of Tang
Soldiers and their families were given a certain amount of farmland.
They didn't need to pay any taxes, but they should provide weapons and food for themselves.
They cultivated their land when free and fought on the battlefield during wars.
During peace periods, they still needed to perform a month's military service each year.
Since the middle of the Tang Dynasty (around 749), the Recruitment of Professional Soldiers became the primary system (though it had appeared and had already been used as a supplementary means for nearly a thousand years).
Those recruited professional soldiers could take their families with them. The government would pay for their salary, clothes, etc.
Unearthed Painted Pottery Figurines of Taming A Horse in the Tang — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
People were given two types of farmlands based on their social status when they turned 18.
The first type of land should be cultivated while paying a certain amount of taxes and labor services. After this person passed away, the land should be given back to the country.
The second type is the privatized land that one could sell, cultivate, or bequeath to others.
Agate Tea Cup (Zhan Tuo) of Tang — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Scientific Achievements of the Tang Dynasty
Measured the length of the Meridian is 131.11 km per degree (now 110.94 km) firstly in the world.
Wide utilization of Woodblock Printing.
Dunhuang Star Map: the most ancient, numerous star charts that used to hide in the Mogao Grottoes.
Details of Part of the Dunhuang Star Map of Tang — British Museum
Pilgrimage to the West in the Tang Dynasty (by Buddhist Xuan Zang):
A masterpiece that records hundreds of countries’ geology, history, custom, culture, economy, religion, etc.
These countries include Iran, Kyrgyzstan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.
Hundreds of years later, a mythical novel named The Journey to the West was published, which was based on the adventure of the writer Xuan Zang and this excellent book.
First record of producing the formula of Gunpowder by Sun Simiao.
First record of extracting hormones to cure diseases by Sun Simiao.
Wide application of the Bending Plow in agriculture became the traditional Chinese plow used in the next millennium.
Construction of the Potala Palace.
Wide application of the Watertight Compartments in navigation.
Exquisite Artifacts of the Tang Dynasty
Photo by Museum Photographer Dongmaiying