Tang Dynasty — Flourishing Golden Age of Ancient China

Building Complex of Daming Palace

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 from the Tang Dynasty

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. 

 

Therefore, the Taoism philosophy was highly respected by the ruling class, and the Taoism Religion was the national religion of Tang. 

Golden Dragons (Zou Long) that used as Ritual Implements of Taoism Religion Ceremony in the Tang Dynasty

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 the Tang Dynasty

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.

Capital Chang An City of the Tang Dynasty

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.

 

  • Many famous civil officials were also excellent at military and martial arts; great poets and artists, like Yan Zhenqing and Li Bai, were also brave and excellent warriors. 

 

  • 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.  

Unearthed Silver Tea Set (Cha Long) of the Tang Dynasty

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 the Tang Dynasty

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 the Tang Dynasty

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 of the history of China was opened up; the Tang Empire was another unified and glorious dynasty 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 the Tang Dynasty

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 Tang’s 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 Tang Tai Zong's Mausoleum (Zhao Ling), War Horses of His Six Important Wars.

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 Tai Zong or Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan (Tu Bo) Envoy, Painted by Politician/Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673)

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. 

Unearthed Gold Card in the Mount Song, Writing that Emperor Wu Zetian Prays for the Forgiveness from Deities about All the Sins that She had Committed

Gold Card Unearthed in the Mount Song, Writing that Emperor Wu Zetian Prays for the Forgiveness from Deities about All the Sins that She had Committed — Henan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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 the Tang Dynasty

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.

The Draft to Memorize Heroically Sacrificed Yan Jiming (Ji Zhi Wen Gao) that Recorded Brave Soldiers of Tang and the Intense Fights in the An-Shi Rebellion, Written By Great General and Extraordinary Calligrapher Yan Zhenqing

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. 

Unearthed Golden Decoration of A Deer Running

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. 

Nanchan Temple of Mount Wutai

Nanchan Temple of Tang in Mount Wutai, Rebuilt in the Year 782, Photo from qyer.

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 Decorated with Mythical Animals and Grape Patterns

Unearthed Copper Mirror of Tang — Shanxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Political Structure and Social Systems of the Tang Dynasty

 

Population

 

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 

Unearthed Epitaph from mausoleum of Yuan Gongyu, Wrote by Remarkable Prime Minister Di Renjie of the Tang Dynasty

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.

 

Empress Wu Zetian added the subject of martial art to the Imperial Examination. Many excellent soldiers and generals were selected and promoted, such as the remarkable general Guo Ziyi.

Unearthed Jade Cup Carved with Lonicera Japonica Pattern

Jade Cup of Tang Carved with Lonicera Japonica Pattern — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Tax

 

  • 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. 

Unearthed Copper Currency of the Tang Dynasty
Unearthed Gold Currency of the Tang Dynasty

Unearthed Copper and Gold Currency of Tang

Military Service

  • Soldiers and their families were given a certain amount of farmland.

 

They didn't need to pay any type of taxes, but they should provide weapons and food for themselves. 

 

They cultivated their land when they were free, and fought on the battlefield when there was war.

 

During peace periods, they still needed to perform a month's military service each year. 

 

  • Since the middle of the Tang Dynasty (around the year 749), the Recruitment of Professional Soldiers became the main 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 Dynasty

Unearthed Painted Pottery Figurines of Taming A Horse in the Tang — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Land System

People were given certain two types of farmlands, based on their social status when they turned 18 years old. 

 

  • 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 the Tang Dynasty

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 as 131.11 km per degree (now is 110.94 km) firstly in the world.

  • Wide utilization of Woodblock Printing. ​

  • Dunhuang Star Map: the most ancient, numerous star charts, which used to hide in the Mogao Grottoes

Dunhuang Star Map of the Tang Dynasty

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.

Gilding and Painted Clay Sculpture Buddha of the Mogao Grottoes

Gilding and Painted Clay Sculpture Buddha of the Mogao Grottoes — Harvard Art Museums (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • First record of producing formula of Gunpowder, by Sun Simiao.

 

  • First record of extracting hormone to cure diseases, by Sun Simiao. 

 

  • Wide application of the Bending Plow in agriculture, which then became the traditional Chinese plow that had been used in the next millennium. 

 

 

  • Wide application of the Watertight Compartments in navigation. 

 

Exquisite Artifacts of the Tang Dynasty

Photo by Museum Photographer Dongmaiying