The Tang Dynasty is considered a golden age of Chinese arts and culture. In power from 618 to 906 A.D., Tang China attracted an international reputation that spilled out of its cities and, through the practice of Buddhism, spread its culture across much of Asia.
Beginning of the Tang Dynasty
At the beginning of the sixth century A.D., north and south China were divided, but would be united through conquest by the Sui Dynasty, which ruled from 581 to 617 A.D.
The Sui were led by General Yang Jian of the unified north. The Sui, however, lasted for only two emperors before falling to Li Yuan, founder of the Tang Dynasty.
Li Yuan was the cousin of the first Sui emperor and gained power during a period of mass rebellion after emerging from the northwest to beat other contenders for the throne. He ruled as Gaozu until 626 A.D. His son Taizong ascended the throne after killing his two brothers and several nephews.
In 630 A.D., Taizong seized a portion of Mongolia from the Turks and earned the title “Great Khan.” The Tangs made use of Turkish soldiers in an invasion of Khitan (far eastern Asia) and joint expeditions along the Silk Road.
Taizong also set up more aggressive systems to identify Confucian scholars and put them in civil service placements. He created Confucian state schools along with a sanctioned state version of The Five Classics, which also allowed talented scholars with no family connections to work their way up in the government.
Taizong’s son, Gaozong, became emperor in 650 A.D., but spent most of his rule under the control of Empress Wu. Wu was one of Taizong’s concubines, sent away to a convent after his death, but Gaozong—long in love with her—initiated her return to the court.
Wu won his favor over his wife, who was dismissed against the wishes of Gaozong’s advisors. In 660 A.D. Gaozong became incapacitated because of a stroke and Wu took on most of his duties.
Gaozong died in 683 A.D. Wu maintained control through her two sons. Wu proclaimed herself Empress in 690 A.D. and announced a new dynasty, the Zhou.
At the same time, she released the Great Cloud Sutra, which claimed the Buddha Maitreya was reincarnated as a female ruler, giving herself divine Buddhist legitimacy. Wu ruled until 705 A.D., which also marked the end of the brief Zhou Dynasty.
Empress Wu’s grandson, Emperor Xuanzong, is renowned for the cultural heights reached during his rule from 712 to 756 A.D. He welcomed Buddhist and Taoist clerics to his court, including teachers of Tantric Buddhism, a recent form of the religion.
Xuanzong had a passion for music and horses. To this end he owned a troupe of dancing horses and invited renowned horse painter Han Gan into his court. He also created the Imperial Music Academy, taking advantage of the new international influence on Chinese music.
The fall of Xuanzong became an enduring love story in China. Xuanzong fell so much in love with concubine Yang Guifei that he began to ignore his royal duties and also promote her family members to high government positions.
Sensing the emperor’s weakness, northern province warlord An Lushan mounted a rebellion and occupied the capital in 755 A.D., forcing Xuanzong to flee.
The royal army refused to defend Xuanzong unless Yang Guifei’s family was executed. Xuanzong complied, but the soldiers demanded Yang Guifei’s death as well. Xuanzong eventually complied, and ordered her strangled.
Lushan himself was later killed, and Xuanzong abdicated the throne to his son. The An Lushan Rebellion severely weakened the Tang Dynasty and eventually cost it much of its western territory.
Tang Dynasty Poets
The Tang Dynasty is well remembered for the era’s contributions to poetry, partly the result of Xuanzong’s creation of an academy for poets, which helped preserve over 48,900 poems written by well over 2,000 poets of the era.
One of the best remembered is Li Bai, born in 701 A.D. A Daoist recluse who left home at an early age, Li Bai spent most of his life wandering around, and his poems focus on nature, friendship and the importance of alcohol.
Bai Juyi, born in 772 A.D., ushered in a new style of poetry that was written to be understood by peasants and addressed political issues and social justice. Bai Juyi was a lifelong government worker and died in 846 A.D.
Wang Wei, born in 699 A.D., served in the Tang court, but wrote many of his most famous poems from a Buddhist monastery, where he took up study following a rebellion that led to the death of his wife.
Late period poet Li Shangyin, born in 813 A.D., is known for his eclectic, visual style that evoked eroticism alongside political satire. His popularity came primarily after his death.
Tang Dynasty Printing
Woodblock printing was developed in the early Tang era with examples of its development dating to around 650 A.D.
More common use is found during the ninth century, with calendars, children’s books, test guides, charm manuals, dictionaries and almanacs. Commercial books began to be printed around 762 A.D.
In 835 A.D., there was a ban on private printing brought on because of the distribution of unsanctioned calendars. The oldest surviving printed document from the Tang era is the Diamond Sutra from 868 A.D., a 16-foot scroll featuring calligraphy and illustrations.
Woodblock printing is credited for helping make Buddhism a regular part of ordinary Chinese life by giving Buddhist monks the opportunity to mass-produce texts.
Monasteries had gained power under Empress Wu, though Xuanzong tried to temper that.
Monasteries insinuated themselves in many aspects of life, including schools for children, lodging for travelers and spaces for gatherings and parties. Monasteries were large landowners, which provided them with the funds to act as moneylenders and pawnbrokers as well as own businesses like mills.
Buddhist monks were proactive in spreading Buddhist stories into the Chinese popular culture, which led to Buddhist festivals that were embraced by the people.
There was some backlash, however, to the growing influence of Buddhism. In 841 A.D. the royal court ordered a crack down on Buddhism, as well as other religions.
Nearly 50,000 monasteries and chapels were destroyed, 150,000 slaves seized and 250,000 monks and nuns forced back into civilian life. The orders were abolished in 845 A.D.
The Fall of the Tang Dynasty
The Tang Dynasty after 820 A.D. was full of palace intrigue marked by plotting eunuchs assassinating one emperor after another.
In 835 A.D., Emperor Wenzong hatched a plot with his chancellor and general to put an end to eunuch plotting. Their plan, later known as “The Sweet Dew incident,” led to the murder of 1,000 government officials, as well as the public executions of three top ministers and their families.
By 860 A.D. the countryside was in chaos, with gangs and small armies robbing merchants, attacking cities and slaughtering scores of people. Huang Chao, who had failed his civil service exams, led his army on the capital and took control.
In contrast to the golden age of poetry in the Tang Dynasty, Huang Chao ordered the deaths of 3,000 poets after an insulting poem had been written about his regime.
In 907, the Tang Dynasty was obliterated for good when Zhu Wen, a former follower of Huang Chao, proclaimed himself “Emperor Taizu,” the first emperor of the Hou Liang dynasty. His would be the first of the infamous “Five Dynasties,” short-lived kingdoms that rose and fell during the next 50 years of chaotic power struggles in Chinese history.
The Dynasties of China. Bamber Gascoigne.
Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Patricia Buckley Ebrey.
China Condensed: 5000 Years of History and Culture. Ong Siew Chey.