Tang (T’ang) Dynasty

Tang (T’ang) Dynasty
Tang (T’ang) Dynasty

The Tang dynasty (618–907) brought three centuries of greatness to China, called the second imperial age, continuing and consolidating the unification of China that the preceding Sui dynasty (581–618) had begun.

Its formal founder was Li Yuan, the duke of Tang, a provincial governor under the Sui dynasty. The Li clan was descended from a celebrated general of the Han dynasty (202 b.c.e.–220 c.e.) and from Turkic aristocratic clans.

But it was his 17-year-old second son, Li Shimin (Li Shih-min), who actually engineered the revolt and who led the campaigns that wrested power from the collapsing Sui dynasty and numerous other contenders and nomadic invaders after seven years of hard campaigning.


Three great rulers made the dynasty militarily strong, territorially great, economically prosperous, and culturally brilliant. They were Li Shimin (r. 626–649), whose posthumous title is Taizong (T’angtsung); Empress Wu Zhao (Wu Chao), who formally reigned between 690 and 705 but actually held power from 660; and Minghuang, whose posthumous title is Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) (r. 712–756).

Military Exploits

Taizong was both a brilliant strategist and an unmatched warrior and was helped by outstanding generals. Their feats have become legend. Under Taizong the Eastern and Western Turks were soundly defeated. In submission they became vassals and proclaimed Taizong their heavenly khan, the first Chinese ruler to be so recognized.

Under him Chinese power extended throughout Chinese Turkistan, across the Pamir Mountains into Afghanistan, and Central Asia, establishing a chain of client states, and for the first time Tibet came under Chinese suzerainty. In 648 a Tang force crossed into northern India and brought an offending local ruler to the Chinese capital Chang’an (Ch’ang-an) for punishment.

After several invasions of Chinese forces into Korea (they had contributed to the downfall of the Sui) Empress Wu reached a compromise under which the new Korean Silla dynasty acknowledged Chinese overlordship. With Tang power supreme, a new era of peace, the Pax Sinica, made travel and trade safe.

Four embassies from the Byzantine Empire (called Fu Lin by the Chinese) came to Chang’an between 643 and 719, probably to enlist Chinese aid against the attacks of Islamic forces. In 638 the Sassanian king of Persia also sent an embassy to Chang’an, to enlist aid against the advancing Arabs.

China did not intervene in either case but gave refuge to the fleeing Persians, including Firuz, son of the last Persian king, who was made a general in the Tang army.

Persian refugees were allowed to build temples in Chang’an and other cities and practice their faith, Zoroastrianism. In 713 Minghuang received from Samarkand and Bokhara in Central Asia appeals for help against the advancing Arab armies, and an embassy from the caliph.

Minghuang did not intervene in Central Asia. Chinese and Islamic forces fought in 751, in a minor battle with big consequences. The Tang army, without court authorization, clashed with them and was defeated at the Battle of Talas River.

With the outbreak of the An Lushan (An Lu-Shan) Rebellion in 756 Tang garrisons in Central Asia were recalled, making the advance of Islam in this until now Buddhist region unopposed.

Tang power never fully recovered even after the defeat of An Lushan and his supporters. Under warlike leaders the Tibetans would establish their power across northwestern China and dominate international trade.

Political Institutions

Political Institutions
Political Institutions

The Tang government was modeled after that of the Han dynasty, with refinements. It consisted of the general administration, the censorate, and the military; the head of each division met the emperor daily.

The general administration consisted of six ministries, with different responsibilities in supervising the local governments, receiving reports, and transmitting orders. There were 10 provinces whose borders accorded with geographic divisions; each was subdivided into counties that tied in number—there were 1,538 counties in 754.

Civil servants were increasingly selected through an examination system that began with triennial county exams; passing candidates would be eligible for provincial level exams; the successful ones could sit for the highest level exams, equivalent to a modern doctorate, held at the capital city.

Those who passed were then tested on calligraphy, had their background checked for morals, and then took an oral exam to determine their ability to handle problems of administration and were checked for their appearance and speaking abilities.

Successful candidates received the most coveted jobs, working for the government, where they were evaluated every three years for promotion and possible transfer. All officials received a salary.

The widespread use of paper made books more available and opened up educational opportunities for more people. The rigorous educational and examination systems were based on the Confucian Classics.

China was the first civilization to develop a professional bureaucracy determined primarily by merit. The Tang legal code was based on the Han code; regular government officials administered the laws with the assistance of legal aids.

The Tang legal code became the model for later Chinese codes and was copied almost verbatim by Japan in the mid-eighth century. Whereas feudal institutions remained in part under the Han, they had totally disappeared by the Tang.

Noble ranks were awarded to members of the imperial family, the families of the empress and consorts of the emperor, and meritorious officials. But the nobles were not granted land; instead they were supported by state stipends that varied according to rank.

Censors were unique to the Chinese political system. The most promising officials were regularly rotated to become censors and each government unit had censors among the officials.

Censors were responsible for ferreting out abuses of power and misgovernment and could reprimand the emperor and even impeach members of the imperial family. Censors also acted as modern ombudsmen on behalf of ordinary people and could protect low-ranking officials from their superiors.

The military during the early Tang was called the fubing (fu-ping), or militia system, which young men from good families at age 21 vied to join, for glory and promotion.

They became elite professional soldiers, serving in 600 garrisons that rotated between the capitals (Luoyang served as secondary capital) and the northern frontier, and were given land to cultivate to help support themselves, until retirement at 60. The Tang empire remained strong so long as the fubing system remained prestigious.

However by the mid-eighth century martial spirit had declined; the militia could no longer rely on good quality soldiers and thus had to resort to mercenaries, and finally nomadic mercenaries recruited from among frontier tribes, commanded by their own officers. This state of affairs set the stage for the An Lushan (An Lu-Shan) Rebellion.

Economic and Social Systems

The government took censuses at regular intervals. Government land distribution, taxes, and corvee labor assessments were based on census figures. At its height in 754 the census reported 9,069,154 households, equaling almost 53 million persons.

This reflected not the total population, but the total taxpaying population, because nobles and officials were tax exempt, as were clergy, minorities (nomads and aboriginal peoples), and the poor, who were not included in census counts.

Taxes were assessed in kind—grain and cloth (silk or hemp depending on location), and each able-bodied male was liable for 20 days a year of corvee labor (unpaid) on public works projects.

The land tenure system in effect until the An Lushan Rebellion was called the “equal field system,” loosely based on the well-field system, supposedly created by the duke of Zhou (Chou) for the new Zhou dynasty in the 11th century b.c.e. Under the Tang system all land technically belonged to the state.

At age 16 each male received 80 mou of land (about seven mou equal an acre) from the state and could inherit another 20 mou on which he paid taxes and owed the state corvee service. At 60 years old his allotment fell to 40 mou and he was exempted from taxes.

A widow was alotted 30 mou and 50 mou if she headed a family, and she was exempted from taxes. The equal field system was fairly well enforced on a large scale until the mid-eighth century, which brought domestic peace and presumed a very efficient bureaucracy.

This system was also emulated in eighth century Japan. Improvements in agriculture, which included breast strip harnesses and draft horses, oxen-drawn plows, water-powered mills, and crude sowing machines among others, increased yield and raised the economy.

Domestic and international commerce increased. By the late Tang era merchants were using bills of credit and deposit that were the precursor of paper money. Confident and powerful, the Tang was the most cosmopolitan era in Chinese history.

Chang’an was the largest city in the world with over 2 million people within a 36 square-mile walled city and beyond. Luoyang, Daming (Ta-ming), and Chengdu (Chengtu) each had around a million people.

Peoples from many lands mingled in the great metropolises, worshipping in Buddhist, Daoist (Taoist), Nestorian Christian, Zoroastrian, and Manichean temples. Clothing and hairstyles from many lands were emulated by the fashion conscious. The Tang was also the golden age of poetry. In addition painting and sculpture flourished.

The Tang government never fully recovered from the An Lushan Rebellion. Few late Tang emperors were capable, and those who were did not reign long enough to assert their authority over powerful provincial leaders.

The final collapse was brought about by another rebellion, lasting from 875 to 884. From that time until 907 Tang emperors were the puppets of powerful warlords, one of whom forced his captive emperor to abdicate in 907, ending the dynasty.