Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Flourishing Golden Age

21 Emperors — 289  Years

Restoration Picture of the Royal Daming Palace of the Tang Dynasty

Facts about the Tang Dynasty

 

1 The first emperor of the Tang Dynasty 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 themselves. 

 

  His sons and excellent generals defeated and unified the whole nation by themselves. 

 

2  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 the Tang Dynasty. 

Golden Dragons (Zou Long) that used as Ritual Implements of Taoism Religion Ceremony in the Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

3  The Imperial Examination was completed and widely applied by the only Empress in Chinese history Wu Zetian. She chose and gave power to 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.

4  Many foreigners had 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. 

Unearthed Inlaying Gold Ruler of the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

5   The capital city of the Tang Dynasty Chang An (now named Xi’an) was the biggest in the world during that period.

 

Chang An was about 87 square kilometers, 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 the Constantinople, and 6.2 times bigger than the Baghdad.  

 

​This fabulous city had been occupied six times during the entire Tang Dynasty and was destroyed by Zhu Wen​ before the Tang Empire ended.

6 Leader of the most destructive rebellion army that heavily jeopardized the Tang Dynasty, had participated in the Imperial Examination but all 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 the Tang Dynasty

7  Tang Dynasty has the best poems and poets in Chinese history. 

8 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. 

 

9 The turning point of the Tang Dynasty was an eight-year-long rebel war that happened during Emperor Li Longji’s reign, 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. 

10 In the late Tang Dynasty, the eunuch groups, for the first and only time in Chinese history, got the military power, which gave them the ability to abrogate and enthrone emperors.  

Unearthed Silver Tea Set (Cha Long) of the Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

11 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 competitions with commoners. 

12  Polo and Tug-of-War were popular sports in the Tang Dynasty. Empress Wu Zetian was very good at Polo. 

 

13  Incense was widely used by everyone. 

14  Women dressed up as men, and low cut blouses were quite popular in this era. 

 

   Men in Tang Dynasty liked to put fresh flowers on their hair, both royal and commoner. 

Figurines Made in the Tang Dynasty (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

15  Nestorianism was disseminated and got many believers.  

 

16 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 Dynasty. 

17  Night Market appeared and became popular.

 

18  The earliest record about the takeout service was in the Tang Dynasty. 

Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils from the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China (Photo by Kanjianji)

Brief History of the Tang Dynasty

 

 

Chaotic Era and Warfares 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 Golden Decoration of A Deer Running — Qinghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Starting from One City to the Prosperous 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 the Emperor Yang Guang had been assassinated, Li Yuan took the throne over and named his new dynasty as 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. 

Gilding Silver Cup of the Tang Dynasty — Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Li Shimin’s Snatching of the Throne and Remarkable Achievements 

 

In the next 5 years, Tang’s army defeated other aggressive 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 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. 

In the year 626, Li Shimin ambushed his big brother, also the crown prince. Then, his father nominated him as the crown prince, and soon abdicated the throne. 

Emperor Li Shimin, also honored as Tang Tai Zong, then, started his 23 years long reign.

 

He defeated his biggest enemy, the Empire Turkic Khaganate, largely extended the territory and brought wealthy lives to his people. 

After he departed, he left his prosperous empire to his ninth son named Li Zhi, another excellent sovereign who further flourished the Tang Dynasty.

Brocade Embroidery of the Tang Dynasty — Datang Xishi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Only Female Emperor Wu Zetian 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 been 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. 

Jade Flying Deity of the Tang Dynasty — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Peak Era of the Tang Dynasty and the Destructive Rebellion War

This was Emperor Li Longji, also respected as Xuan Zong of Tang or Tang Ming Huang. The Tang Dynasty reached its peak under his governance. 

Now, people still could see civilians' wealthy and comfortable lives during that period, from masterpieces of great poets, such as Li Bai and Du Fu. 

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. 

Soon, the unjust An-Shi Rebellion War (755 — 763) happened in the north, which 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.

Unearthed Tri-coloured Glazed Pottery Horse (Tang San Cai) of the Tang Dynasty — Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Arising Warlords and Struggling Emperors

 

Emperor Li Longji’s great-grandson, the 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 had made great contributions.  

After the war, therefore, those warlords were still loyal to the royal family of the Tang Empire, but they also tried their best to maintain their army and power. 

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

Regaining of Prosperity of the Tang Dynasty

 

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 misbehave or rebellion warlords and took back the centralized power. 

However, the next few emperors paid more attention to having fun and enjoying lives, which gave the eunuch group paramount of military power, who had enthroned, abolished, even grounded some emperors. 

After the Emperor Li Yan having 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 the Tang Dynasty. 

Stone Carving Ostrich, Unearthed from mausoleum of Emperor Li Yan of the Tang Dynasty — Forest of Stone Steles Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Conspiracy, Destruction, and Disintegration of the Tang Dynasty

 

Two emperors after Li Chen was quite incapable, who lost the power to the eunuch group again.

 

In the central government, the eunuchs and the 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 Tang Empire was falling apart. He was ambitious, brave, and had tried his best to fight against the eunuch group and the disrespect warlords. 

However, he still 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 Dynasty 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 the Tang Dynasty — Shanxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Systems of the Tang Dynasty

 

Population:

 

12 million —  80 million — 60 million (beginning — peak — ending)

 

Political System:

 

Three Departments & Six Ministries 

 

Three Departments that were independent of each other and report to 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 — 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 into the Imperial Examination. Many excellent soldiers and generals were selected and promoted, such as the remarkable general Guo Ziyi.

Imperial Examination of the Tang Dynasty

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 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 and Gold Currency of the Tang Dynasty

Military Service:

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

 

They didn't need to pay for 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’s war.

 

During peace periods, they still needed to perform a month 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 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 — 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 — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Scientific Development of 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 the Woodblock Printing. ​

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

Details of Part of the Dunhuang Star Map of the Tang Dynasty — 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, 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 — 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

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