Emperor Taizong, Li Shimin--李世明
Chinese historians regard the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) as both a revival of the best of the Han dynasty and the high point of power and culture in Chinese history. An open, cosmopolitan era, the Tang was a time when cultural influences and ideas streamed into China on the Silk Road, and China became a model for emerging kingdoms in Korea and Japan. Its capital, Chang’an at times had a million inhabitants and drew peoples of many faiths and ethnicities from all over the accessible world. Art and literature flourished in the Tang period, and it was the peak moment of Chinese lyric poetry.
Li Yuan, a military leader of possible Toba background founded the Tang. Allied for a period with threatening Turkish nomads, he and his son Li Shimin, toppled the weak Sui government and ruthlessly took control. In the process, Li Shimin killed his elder brothers who were conspiring against him), as well as many other rivals. Once assuming control Li Shimin, also known as Tai Zong, went on to become one of the most effective emperors in Chinese history, leading a strong, stable, and influential state.
Chang'an now is called Xi'an in China
The walled capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an) was a bustling city filled with foreign merchants who arrived on the Silk Road, though the sometimes capital of Luoyang was still an important city. Chang’an was divided into over 100 districts, including those for pleasure and living quarters of the foreign merchants—which included Turks, Sogdians, Indians, Jews, Manicheans, Zoroastrians, and Nestorian Christians. Music and dancing from Central Asia were popular in the pleasure quarters—often performed by exotic foreign women. Such areas were frequented by scholars and officials and are described in the poetry and literature of the era. Markets were filled with exotic fruits including grapes, melons, and lichee nuts (brought by “pony express” from southern China). Silks, damasks, satins, jade, agate, coral, pearls, rubies, rare woods, furs, and precious metals were all traded in and out of the city. Southern ports in far-away Guangdong welcomed traders from countries all around the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia, including Arab and Persian traders from the Middle East.
The civil and military bureaucracies were revived and expanded under the Tang. Below the emperor were civil officials and military leaders, largely drawn from powerful gentry (large, hereditary landowners) families. Middle-level positions were filled by men from provincial gentry families and those who did well in the civil service examinations that were reinstituted in the Tang. The greater populace was comprised of farmers, artisans, craftsmen, and traders. Large armies were deployed on the northern borders and local armies and militias were filled with peasant farmers.
Three white pagodas in today's Dali, once the Nanzhao Kingdom's capital
Military campaigns were carried out against Turks in the northwest and eventually against Korean states in the east, Tang forming a special relationship with the kingdom of Shilla. Chinese influence on Japan (in the Nara and Hei’an periods) was also great at this time. On other fronts, in the seventh century the Tibetan state became very powerful to the west, and a large kingdom called Nanzhao arose in what is now southwest China and parts of Southeast Asia.
Land was an issue from the very beginning in the Tang. One of the first acts of the new rulers were attempts at land reform. In an attempt to weaken the holdings of powerful gentry landholders, land was re-divided, giving farmers equal shares of land – a system that had been tried in earlier times, including Wang Meng’s experiments in the Han and for a while in the Toba kingdom. This “equal field” system offered both advantages (land to till) and disadvantages (taxes and corvee labor) to the peasants. Over time, many moved to the less-restricted south, eroding the tax base. Another old system called “baojia” (collective households) was tried. In this system, the farmfolk were divided into five family groups responsible for submitting their taxes and annual labor quotas (for state projects). Even this proved ineffective, and the attempts at land reform gradually diminished as the gentry regained power over more lands.
Empress Wu Zetian
A number of colorful rulers and other palace figures populate Tang history. Among these is Empress Wu Zetian, arguably the most powerful woman in Chinese history. She came to the imperial court as a concubine of Li Shimin, but later had a relationship with his son, Emperor Kao Zong. She eventually became his empress (forcing him to divorce his wife), and succeeded in placing her son on the throne. She later deposed him and placed herself in power as emperor of her own Zhou Dynasty, which lasted form 690-701. According to Wolfram Eberhard, this was in part possible because women in the Tang had more freedom of movement than in earlier and later times due to lingering attitudes from the nomad kingdoms in the period of disunity. Once in control, Wu Zetian, in an attempt to consolidate her power, moved the capital east to Luoyang, away from the powerful gentry families of Chang’an. She instituted reforms in the examination system and government– making it more difficult to succeed solely on family connections and women were allowed to take civil service examinations to become officers in the court. She also promoted the interests of her allies, the Buddhists. Many monasteries became very rich. Huge temples and a massive iron pagoda were built with government support. A good administrator, the country was strong under her rule, though in constant threat from the Turks. Nevertheless, historians have been unkind to Empress Wu, traditionally describing her as evil and debauched. In recent years, her accomplishments have begun to be better appreciated.
Painting by Wang Xuyang: peasant rebellion lead by Huang Chao at the end of the Tang Dynasty
Empress Wu was eventually forced from power and the Tang was restored. Soon after, the Emperor Xuanzong came to power. He was a capable ruler who fortified China’s northern borders by the establishment of nine military command zones staffed by his appointees. He also made reforms in government administration, finances, and attempted to deal with problems of grain transport and taxation of the peasants. In his later years, however he became infatuated with a young concubine Yang Guifei. Their love affair is one of the most popular tragic love stories in China. During this period, one of the border commanders, a man of mixed-nomad stock named An Lushan, ingratiated himself with Yang Guifei and later fomented a rebellion that ended in 763 and marks the decline of Tang power. Although Tang was still in many ways a well-run state, after the An Lushan rebellion, a crisis in leadership ensued. The borders weakened, as did the imperial treasury, and rebellions ensued. Eventually smaller military states began to appear in north China. Eventually Tang fell apart, ending a great period of openness, creativity, and power.
Second Period of Disunion (906-960 AD)
The decades after the fall of the Tang dynasty are known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, referring to a succession of small states. It was a time of division between north and south and of rapidly changing administrations. By 960 AD, China was again reunited in the Song dynasty.