The faint glimmer of unity under the Sui Dynasty (581-618) was extinguished after the death of its first Emperor Wendi (581-604). When his son, the Emperor Yangdi (604-618), acceded the throne, he continued his father’s ill-advised and long war with the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo. It ended in a significant loss of troops on the Chinese side until finally, his discontented subjects drove him out of the capital Chang’an. Emperor Yangdi died in 618 AD amidst a bloody civil war, but he left behind a strong administrative system from which the Tang Dynasty later benefited. China’s Golden Age then began during 750 AD according to the Bible Timeline Poster with World History.
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Tang China (617-907): The Golden Age
Before the end of the Sui Dynasty, Yangdi’s cousin (also a military commander of the Sui) named Li Yuan led a rebellion against him and wrested the capital Chang’an from the Sui in 617 AD. After declaring himself the new emperor, he announced the establishment of a new dynasty called the Tang and continued the fight to Luoyang, China’s second most important city. By 621, Li Yuan had conquered Luoyang, and he successfully suppressed the rebellion led by other generals in other cities by 624.
Li Yuan became Emperor Gaozu of Tang (Tang Gaozong), and he ruled China for eight years until he was deposed by his own son, Li Shimin. This ambitious son launched a rebellion against his father in 626 and later had him imprisoned along with his own brothers, as well as other possible claimants to the Tang throne. He adopted the name Emperor Taizong in the same year and immediately worked to secure his throne by quelling all rebellions in other Tang cities. Just like his father, Emperor Taizong was a brilliant military commander who was successful on the battlefield. He was known for his strategic alliances to pacify the Turks and other nomads who lived near China’s northern frontier. These new allies later helped the Tang soldiers secure the Silk Road against bandits. China reached the zenith of its influence throughout most of Asia during Tang Taizong’s rule (626-649).
Empress Wu Zetian
Emperor Taizong died after a glorious 23-year reign, and he was succeeded by his son, Tang Gaozong. His accomplishments as an emperor were impressive (he expanded the Tang dominion into Korea), but his reign was marked by the rise of China’s first female ruler, the brilliant Empress Wu Zetian. She first started as a minor concubine to Emperor Taizong when she entered the royal palace at the age of thirteen but was temporarily sidelined at a Buddhist monastery when the emperor died. She escaped the Buddhist monastery and found her way back to the palace to become the concubine of Emperor Gaozong. Concubine Wu was promoted in the harem after she gave birth to Gaozong’s son. In 656, she was elevated to the position of empress when the king deposed her rival, Empress Wang after she was accused of strangling Concubine Wu’s daughter. The emperor was hesitant to depose Empress Wang at first, but the accusation that she attempted to poison the emperor sealed her fate and she was removed from her position in 656.
Emperor Gaozong suffered a series of strokes afterward. His weakened state ensured the domination of Empress Wu Zetian in the imperial court. Armed with a combination of cunning and ruthlessness, the Empress proved to be an effective ruler who successfully navigated the intrigues in the imperial court. She ruled as Gaozong’s regent from 660 until he died in 683. She ruled as one also when her son, Zhongzong, acceded the throne. He proved to be too independent, so his mother had him banished when he insisted on ruling alone. She replaced him with another son, Ruizong, who became nothing more than her figurehead. Wu Zetian was a brilliant ruler in her own right. She eventually got tired of ruling as a regent, so she declared herself the new emperor and established a dynasty called the new Zhou. Her solo rule lasted for eight years, but she reinstated the deposed Zhongzong as her successor upon her death in 705.
Return and Collapse of the Tang Dynasty
The imperial court that Wu Zetian left after her death was divided, and stability only returned when her grandson, Xuanzong, acceded the throne in 712 AD. Xuanzong’s reign was considered Tang China’s golden age, but the latter years of his reign marked the empire’s slow decline. Xuanzong was considered a fair and capable ruler, but his path to destruction started when he, at 70 years old, fell in love with his son’s wife, Yang Guifei. The emperor’s obsession with the beautiful Yang Guifei ended the couple’s marriage, and he took her as his concubine after they divorced.
Yang Guifei gradually became powerful as the emperor’s concubine, and the infatuated emperor Xuanzong lavished gifts and granted important administrative positions to her relatives. Her cousin, Yang Guozhong, as well as the Gokturk-Sogdian general An Lushan, benefited from Yang Guifei’s power over the emperor after both men were promoted to prominence in the government. An Lushan, however, launched a rebellion against Emperor Xuanzong in 755 and the situation worsened when her cousin, Yang Guozhong, offered bad advice to the emperor in quelling the rebellion. His advice cost the Tang army many lives, and the emperor, along with Yang Guifei and their companions, were forced to flee from Chang’an to Chengdu for their safety.
The troops who accompanied the besotted emperor rebelled along the way and refused to continue to Chengdu unless the emperor gave them Yang Guifei to be executed. The emperor initially refused, but he had no choice but to hand over Concubine Yang Guifei to a eunuch who then strangled her to death in a Buddhist shrine on the way to Chengdu. They emperor’s entourage continued south to Chengdu, and the end of their romance was later immortalized in later poems.
An Lushan’s rebellion continued after Yang Guifei’s death, but the general suffered from ulcers later in life which made him testy and cruel to his own men. His reputation suffered further when he favored Qing’en, his son by his second wife, as his successor over an older son, Qing’xu, who then conspired with other men to have his father assassinated. An Lushan was killed by his own servant in 757, while Emperor Xuanzong was succeeded by his son Suzong. Suzong then led the recovery of Chang’an with the help of Arab and Uyghur mercenaries. He successfully suppressed the rebellion in 763 AD. What he managed to salvage was a broken empire saddled with hefty losses in lives and in revenues during the years of rebellion.
The glory days of the Tang Dynasty were no more after a century of strife. Various generals started to govern their own provinces as independent warlords. In 879, a salt trader and soldier named Huang Chao started a bloody rebellion in Guangzhou. The Tang had been too weak to resist when his troops captured Chang’an in 881. He crowned himself the emperor of the brand-new Qi Dynasty. This rebellion was only suppressed in 883 AD, but the Tang Dynasty never recovered from the internal strife and had collapsed completely by 907 AD.
The Tang emperors continued to use the administrative system previously laid out by the Sui emperors when they started to rule in 617. During the Tang rule, the power of aristocratic families was severely limited after the emperor commanded them to leave their home provinces and live closer to Chang’an, so he could keep an eye on them. Professional soldiers served year round, but the Tang government kept farmer-warriors on standby who served only whenever it was necessary. Tang emperors, however, were flexible enough to listen to their critics and implemented reforms when necessary. They inherited a strong tax system from the Sui. In 653, the Tang had implemented a comprehensive legal code based on Confucian values which were copied later by Korea and Japan. At its height, Tang China was at peace with the neighboring kingdoms of Korea, Japan, Tibet, Central Asia, Manchuria, and Vietnam.
The Tang Dynasty’s openness to foreign influence made its capital Chang’an a cosmopolitan city where people from China’s frontiers met to trade and exchange ideas. At that time, Chang’an was the largest city in the world with over two million inhabitants, and pilgrims, diplomats, and merchants flocked this Asian crossroad. No other empire in Europe or anywhere else in the world matched its prosperity, size, and cultural sophistication at that time.
Buddhism was widely practiced by the Sui Dynasty, but it reached its zenith during the domination of the Tang. The policies of granting tax exemptions and land to Buddhist monasteries started during the Sui Dynasty. These policies were continued by the Tang upon their accession. Tang emperors commissioned massive statues of Buddha, and during the eighth century, Buddhism permeated the imperial court, as well as the life of the common Chinese. Buddhism was entwined with literature when Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk, traveled to India and Central Asia to search for Buddhist texts. His journey and adventures later inspired the Ming Dynasty novelist Wu Cheng’en to write the novel, The Journey to the West.
Buddhism flourished under the Tang Dynasty for many years. Its influence declined during the reign of Emperor Wuzong (840-846) when he started the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution. The long years of rebellion depleted China’s treasury, and Wuzong could not afford to let the monasteries’ tax-exempt status go on any longer. To this end, he started the confiscation of Buddhist properties in 842, commanded the nuns and monks to return to secular life, and left only one monastery per prefecture. Wuzong died in 846, but Buddhism never recovered its former glory in China.
Picture By Ian Kiu – Tang Dynasty 700 AD from “The T’ang Dynasty, 618-906 A.D.-Boundaries of 700 A.D.” Albert Herrmann (1935). History and Commercial Atlas of China. Harvard University Press., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Adshead, Samuel Adrian M. T’ang China: The Rise of the East in World History. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Fairbank, John King, and Merle Goldman. China: A New History. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.
Latourette, Kenneth Scott. The Chinese, Their History and Culture. New York: Macmillan Company, 1964.
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