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Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – 907)

Read the end of the previous section to learn about the conditions that facilitated the fall of the Sui dynasty.

Map showing the period of transition from the Sui to the TangMap showing the period of transition from the Sui to the Tang with the major regional rulers and contenders for the throne and the main military activities of the Tang (in red) and their various rivals

Emperor Gong, the last emperor of the Sui dynastyEmperor Gong, the last emperor of the Sui dynastyEven though Li Yuan was reluctant to take action at first, he nevertheless marched south with his army in AD 617 in order to seize power for himself. His military siege of Chang'an plunged the capital into chaos and rebellion. After Li Yuan seized the capital, he had Emperor Yang's grandson Yang You declared emperor (reign title: Emperor Gong) with himself holding the actual power as regent. Emperor Yang (who didn't reside in Chang'an at that time) was forced into retirement and killed a short time later.

Emperor Gaozu, the founding emperor of the Tang dynastyEmperor Gaozu, the founding emperor of the Tang dynastyHis grandson Yang You yielded the throne to Li Yuan in early AD 618. Li Yuan then established the then still unstable Tang dynasty (AD 618 - 906), named after the original homeland of the Li family, which he ruled as Emperor Gaozu. Emperor Gaozu's reign was challenged during the first few years by several military strongmen, who struggled for power in the ensuing civil war. Years later by AD 623, Emperor Gaozu's forces had managed to squash major opposition to Tang rule, resulting in nearly complete reunification of China again.

crowds inside the Shaolin Monasterycrowds inside the Shaolin MonasteryThe Shaolin Monastery (cradle of the Chinese martial art "Kung Fu" and located near the city of Dengfeng in central Henan province) played an important role in this civil war by supplying a group of fighting monks, who served heroically as personal bodyguards of Emperor Gaozu's son Li Shimin.

Emperor Gaozu and his son Li Shimin had already been patrons and donors of this powerful monastery before the civil war started. The monastery's assistance proved to be important in cementing the strong ties between Buddhism and the first generations of Tang rulers.

Li Yuan reigned as the first Tang emperor Gaozu until his abdication in AD 626. At that time, his son Li Shimin took over the reigns of the empire (reigning as Emperor Taizong) while Li Yuan lived out the remainder of his life in pleasant retirement.

Shaolin Monastery

Established during the Six Dynasties, the Shaolin Temple (a.k.a. Shaolin Monastery) is a world-famous Buddhist temple that is located at the foot of Songshan Mountain near Dengfeng (Henan province). This world heritage site is known throughout the world as the birthplace of the Chinese martial art of Kung Fu. The Shaolin monks used their fighting skills to great effect in a civil war during the early Tang dynasty as bodyguards of the later emperor.

Click here to learn more!

Opening Hours

8am - 5.30pm

Entrance Ticket Prices

80 yuan

Entrance to the main complex of the Shaolin Temple near Dengfeng

During this period, the Tang empire consolidated and stabilized. Many of its governmental and administrative institutions and practices followed the earlier model of the Sui dynasty. Emperor Taizong firmly anchored the division of the central government into six different ministries (which were the ministries of Personnel, Revenue, Rites, Defence, Justice and Works), which remained the established practice in China until the year 1911. He furthermore separated the financial management and bureaucracy of the imperial household from that of the entire country, thereby limiting the potential for overindulgent spending at the expense of the country.

Map of the Tang dynasty territory in AD 742Map of the Tang dynasty territory in AD 742

Emperor Taizong, the 2nd emperor of the Tang dynastyEmperor Taizong, the 2nd emperor of the Tang dynastyEmperor Taizong's military campaigns were far more successful than previous efforts to enlarge the empire. Though even he couldn't manage to annex Korea, the Tang empire nevertheless brought vast areas under its control, most notably in the far West. The local rulers of these Western areas (the largest part of what is now Xinjiang province and parts of what is now Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and even Afghanistan) accepted the supremacy of the Tang emperor and consented to the establishment of protectorates for Chinese travellers and traders, that greatly facilitated the economic exchange between the Tang empire and Central Asia. Even a large part of the area that is now Vietnam came under direct Chinese control at that time.

Tomb painting of the city walls of Chang'an in AD 706Tomb painting of the city walls of Chang'an in AD 706The city of Chang'an remained the capital of the vastly enlarged Tang empire. However, Luoyang remained a secondary capital and received the emperor for occasional visits. Chang'an probably was the greatest city in the world at that time (with a population of around 2 million people) and trade routes from all four directions converged there (with the Silk Road that led to the far West probably the most famous) and those foreign traders and visitors made the city truly cosmopolitan. This first period of the Tang dynasty is now considered as a kind of Golden Age with unprecedented economic, territorial and demographic expansion.

The country was internally peaceful (unlike during later parts of the Tang dynasty) and its rapid economic development (through trade, a growing agricultural surplus etc.) greatly enhanced people's living standard. People grew older and had more children than ever before. It is now estimated that the population of the country grew to about 80 million people during the Tang dynasty.

Colored pottery depicting a Tang Dynasty lady, displayed at the Shanghai MuseumColored pottery depicting a Tang Dynasty lady, displayed at the Shanghai MuseumThe imperial Tang government predominantly recruited its officials from the aristocratic landowning class. A genealogical registry of the great aristocratic families was established in the capital of Chang'an and young men from this class were considered suitable to serve in the imperial government, by virtue of their superior education. Few families from the Chinese peasantry had the willingness and resources to give their sons the required level of education. Even though girls had equal access to education during the Tang dynasty, unlike during previous dynasties, the prevailing stereotypes in the minds of the people (combined with limited financial resources to pay for this education) ensured that the academic environment was still male-dominated.

Tang Emperor GaozongTang Emperor GaozongAfter Emperor Taizong died in AD 649, his son Li Zhi continued the reign of the Li family as Emperor Gaozong. As was the common practice when an emperor died, all his former court ladies, concubines and consorts who hadn't born children were sent away to live out the remainder of their lives at a Buddhist nunnery. When Emperor Gaozong visited the Ganye Temple to mark the one year anniversary of his father's death, he fell in love with a young woman (and former concubine of his father) named Wu Zetian (AD 625 - 705).

Against all conventions of propriety, he brought her back to court where she became his favourite concubine. Eventually, he even replaced his wife to make her the new empress. During the last years of Emperor Gaozong's reign, Wu Zetian already aided the ailing emperor in the affairs of state. After Emperor Gaozong died in AD 683, Wu Zetian effectively reigned the empire, even though two of Emperor Gaozong's sons were the nominal emperors. In AD 690, Wu Zetian set aside the second of these young rulers (who was quite incompetent) and began her own reign.

Empress Wu ZetianEmpress Wu ZetianWu Zetian was the only female emperor in Chinese history and the period of her rule was named the Zhou dynasty (AD 690 - 705). Instead of relying on the established Confucian court officials, whom she knew mistrusted her as a woman, she began to surround herself with her own trustworthy entourage. She recruited Buddhist monks as her spiritual advisors and talented individuals from minor aristocratic families (who were not entwined in the intrigues of the imperial court yet) in less important areas as her trusted court officials.

Wu Zetian reigned during a period of relative stability and economic prosperity and didn't distinguish herself neither positively nor negatively regarding her actual policies. After Wu Zetian's abdication in AD 705, the Li family returned to power and the Tang dynasty resumed. Wu Zetian's reputation was tarnished posthumously though by the Confucian scribes, who kept the official written records and who presumably didn't like the idea (conflicting with Confucian ideology) of a woman holding power.

Tang Emperor XuanzongTang Emperor XuanzongThe next ruler of major historical significance ascended the throne in AD 712. Emperor Xuanzong's (AD 685 - 762) reign until AD 756 is now regarded as the peak period of the Tang dynasty (and the history of China until then), both culturally and economically. Especially the development of Buddhism peaked during that time with many new Buddhist monasteries being built and major translation projects of Buddhist scriptures into the Chinese language underway. Literature and especially poetry underwent a Golden Age as well. Poets, whose works are still recited today, such as Li Bai (a.k.a. Li Bo or Li Po), Du Fu, Meng Haoran and many others were all alive and active during emperor Xuanzong's reign.

Left: Tang dynasty poet Meng Haoran Right: Tang dynasty poet Du FuLeft: Tang dynasty poet Meng Haoran Right: Tang dynasty poet Du FuEmperor Xuanzong himself was very active at first in managing the affairs of state. As he got older though, he became more and more obsessed with achieving immortality through the consummation of certain substances. A popular form of religious Daoism at that time advocated the consumption of several hallucinogenic and otherwise mind-altering substances, which was meant to enable oneself to communicate with the eight Daoist immortals.

Furthermore, Emperor Xuanzong began to rely more and more on the advice of his favourite concubine Yang Guifei (her surname Guifei meant "precious concubine" or "precious consort") regarding the affairs of state, which of course greatly angered the male Confucian court officials and advisors.

Tang dynasty poet Li BaiTang dynasty poet Li BaiHis relationship with one of his military generals would turn out to be significant as well. The Uyghur Turk An Lushan was the leader of a military garrison near Beijing. It had become customary during the Tang dynasty to deploy soldiers from one part of the empire to guard the frontier of another far-away part of the empire. In this way, the Chinese soldiers generally wouldn't have to fight against intruders from the same ethnic group as themselves. Just like many other military leaders at that time, An Lushan had so been deployed far from his central Asian homeland.

Japanese scroll painting by Takaku Aigai (1796 - 1843) of Yang GuifeiJapanese scroll painting by Takaku Aigai (1796 - 1843) of Yang GuifeiThrough bribes and cunning, An Lushan rose quickly within the ranks of the army. He even became a favourite of the emperor himself and the two men are reported to have enjoyed the court's entertainment together. Possibly during one of these events, An Lushan met Yang Guifei. Even though their relationship seems to have been a proper one, with An Lushan referring to her as "mother" in written correspondence that has survived the ages, jealous Confucian court officials nevertheless tried to accuse Yang Guifei of having an improper sexual relationship with An Lushan.

Emperor Xuanzong at first didn't believe these accusatory rumours but later became doubtful (maybe due to his declining mental faculties that were the result of his continuing consumption of all kinds of chemical substances in his quest for immortality). An Lushan's rivals at court also accused him of plotting a rebellion. Emperor Xuanzong then summoned him to appear at court and An Lushan agreed and came promptly. That removed any doubt about An Lushan's loyalty in the emperor's mind.

the rebel leader An Lushanthe rebel leader An LushanAfter An Lushan left Chang'an to return to his military duties though, his rivals at the capital began to eliminate his associates there. When summoned again by the emperor, An Lushan refused to comply. He instead launched a rebellion, that he claimed was directed against his rivals at the capital, under secret orders by the emperor himself.

An Lushan's army defeated the imperial troops that were sent out to stop him and successfully besieged a number of cities, including the secondary capital of Luoyang. There, he had himself crowned as the Emperor of the new state of Yan in early AD 756. His constantly growing army approached Chang'an a while later but found the capital abandoned by the emperor and his imperial court officials, who had decided to flee the capital through rugged mountainous terrain towards the southwestern Sichuan.

Ming dynasty scroll painting on silk showing Emperor Xuanzong fleeing Chang'anMing dynasty scroll painting on silk showing Emperor Xuanzong fleeing Chang'an

An Qingxu, the son of An LushanAn Qingxu, the son of An LushanAn Lushan's arrival at Chang'an with his army was seen as proof of his and Yang Guifei's guilt. Emperor Xuanzong acquiesced to the advice of his officials to have Yang Guifei killed and her body left by the side of the road during the torturous trip. The Tang army declared Emperor Xuanzong's son Li Heng the new emperor (his reign title was Emperor Suzong). An Lushan's death the next year (AD 757) didn't stop the rebellion, which continued under the leadership of An Lushan's son An Qingxu (who had plotted the killing of his father).

Tang Emperor SuzongTang Emperor SuzongThe new emperor Suzong tried to recruit new troops in order to quell the rebellion and found allies in the Uyghur Khaganate as well as some regional military leaders. The Uyghur leaders negotiated a number of advantageous concessions for themselves as well as tribute payments. Most importantly, the Tang emperor agreed to surrender his claim for the collection of taxes from Uyghurs living as guests within the Tang realm.

The regional military commanders, even though nominally already honour-bound to support the emperor, used the emperor's weak negotiating position to obtain such advantageous tax concessions for themselves as well. They were henceforth able to raise taxes within their controlled territories according to their own will.

The newly recruited Uyghur troops were instrumental in quelling the An Lushan Rebellion by AD 763 and the Tang dynasty was preserved. However, even though stability then returned to the Tang empire, it never again reached its former power. The An Lushan Rebellion (AD 755 - 763) is now regarded as a watershed moment in Chinese history that marked the beginning of the slow but continuous decline of the Tang dynasty.

clay figures of a warrior (Sui dynasty) and horse (Tang dynasty)clay figures of a warrior (Sui dynasty) and horse (Tang dynasty)In the succeeding years, larger and larger areas (that were governed by military leaders) away from the Tang capitals of Chang'an and Luoyang became more and more autonomous and kept large portions of their revenues for themselves. Lip service was still paid to the supremacy of the emperor and some tributes were still paid in ever dwindling amounts but the strength of the empire weakened.

the Dayan Pagoda (Big Wild Goose Pagoda) in Xi'an, originally built during the Tang dynastythe Dayan Pagoda (Big Wild Goose Pagoda) in Xi'an, originally built during the Tang dynastyIt was indirectly further weakened by the growth of institutional Buddhism. More and more Buddhist monasteries sprang up all over the country and their affiliated landholdings were exempt from taxation. Greedy aristocratic landowners began to use this policy to their advantage by making clever deals with monasteries in which they contractually granted parts of their land to them (which was from then on exempt from taxation) in return for a retainer of parts of the land's revenue/harvest. This legal loophole drained the country's revenues from taxation even further.

The expenditures of the imperial court were rising though, also due to the fact that substantial rebuilding efforts were necessary after all the destruction that the An Lushan Rebellion had caused. The imperial government therefore increased the tax rate for all the remaining mostly smaller landowners (mostly belonging to the peasant class) that were unable to exploit this legal loophole. That understandably caused a lot of dissatisfaction and unrest among the peasantry.

the scholar/court official Han Yuthe scholar/court official Han YuEven though economic situations didn't greatly improve during the remainder of the Tang dynasty, the empire enjoyed a kind of moral revival - now known as the Confucian Revival - during the late 8th and the beginning of the 9th century. The literary Guwen Movement (Guwen = old style prose) was the driving force of this revival with the literary scholar and court official Han Yu (AD 768 - 824) as its protagonist.

Han Yu entered into government service after passing one of the occasional imperial examinations (that extensively tested scholarly and literary knowledge and the writing skills of prose and poetry) even though he descended from a minor aristocratic family.

Song of Pipa, famous Tang dynasty poem by Bai Juyi"Song of Pipa", famous Tang dynasty poem by Bai Juyi, English translation hereAccording to Han Yu and the Guwen Movement, prose should explain the author's ideas in as clear and simple and straightforward a manner as possible. The Guwen Movement therefore deemed the content of prose much more important than its style.

This idea stood in direct opposition to the predominantly flowery and elaborate style of prose writing that had developed during the Southern Dynasties and that was still favoured by most scholars. The Guwen Movement saw this emphasis on style over substance as one of the many problems that had led to a weakening of China.

poster showing the finger bone of the Buddha at Famen Temple near Xi'anposter showing the finger bone of the Buddha at Famen Temple near Xi'anFurthermore, it criticised the increasing popularity of Buddhism with its emphasis on spiritual liberation from earthly suffering and religious Daoism with its quest for immortality. The core answer to the many problems that plagued society at that time was seen by the advocates of the Guwen Movement in the restoration of Confucianism as the central governing ideology that regulated human relationships and so contributed to a well-ordered society. The relationships within the family were considered as the most important in society. Buddhist monks and nuns who left their families behind and didn't have children were therefore easy targets of criticism for the Guwen advocates.

The traditional practice of ancestor worship was seen as under threat of extinction as well. Han Yu and the supporters of his ideology advocated a return to the proper way ("dao" = proper way) and the values of humanity, righteousness, moral order and good human relations that were central to the teachings of Confucius and Mencius. Practically, that included a return to the simple and straightforward writing style that these masters had practiced. In his two famous essays "The Origins of the Way" and "A Memorial on the Bone of the Buddha" Han Yu criticised how Chinese culture and society had become corrupted by the foreign anti-Confucian influences of Buddhism.

The second of these essays, that was directly addressed to the emperor, scathingly criticised the emperor's plans to pay respects to the newly arrived and enshrined finger bone relic of the Buddha (that can be viewed at Famen Temple west of Xi'an) and urged him to return Chinese society to its proper Confucian family-oriented order. His blunt language ("How can the son of heaven pay respects to the rotten corpse of a foreigner?") understandably displeased the emperor and resulted in Han Yu being demoted and exiled to the far tropical South (city of Chaozhou in Guangdong province).

Many disgraced officials never returned from their tropical exile (with its potentially fatal diseases like malaria) but Han Yu eventually returned to work in administration at the capital of Chang'an before his death in AD 824.

View outside the main gate of the historic temple grounds of Famen Temple near Xi'anView outside the main gate of the historic temple grounds of Famen Temple near Xi'an

Famen Temple

Famen Temple (a.k.a. Famen Monastery) is a world-famous Buddhist temple that was founded during the Han dynasty. As an integral part of the Famen Temple Cultural Scenic Area, it is located 120km west of Xi'an (Shaanxi province). After a finger bone relic of the Buddha was enshrined there in AD 874 during the Tang dynasty, the temple achieved its peak influence but also generated considerable controversy.

Click here to learn more!

Opening Hours

March - November: 8.30am - 7pm
December - February: 9am - 6pm

Entrance Ticket Prices

March - November: 100 yuan
December - February: 90 yuan

View of the modern Namaste Dagoba at the Famen Temple Cultural Scenic Area near Xi'an

The punishment of Han Yu didn't change the increasing popularity of his values and ideas. The Guwen followers occupied from then on a part of the ideological and political discourse even though their ideas never achieved a dominating position. These ideas were developed further in the 11th century by later thinkers and writers.

Tang Emperor WuzongTang Emperor WuzongIn AD 842, the Tang Emperor Wuzong commenced a great purge of Buddhism and its institutions for which the empire's fiscal problems probably were the main driving force along with Han Yu's and the Guwen Movement's criticism as a minor influence. In fact, Han Yu himself had never criticized the tax exemption of Buddhist monasteries in his essays, but only its moral and ideological shortcomings that he had perceived.

Tax revenues (due to the tax exemption of Buddhist monastic landholdings) had undergone a dangerous decline and the resulting tax rate increases had threatened the stability of the empire.

By imperial edict, Buddhist monasteries were shut down (and in some cases violently destroyed and/or physically disassembled brick by brick) and the resident monks and nuns forced to return to their families and former occupations. More importantly, the often vast landholdings of these Buddhist monasteries were then confiscated and redistributed to ordinary peasants, making them taxable once again.

That popular measure alleviated the immediate economic and fiscal problems of the empire and substantially lowered the potential for violent conflict between the peasant class and the landholding aristocracy. The ban on Buddhism only lasted until AD 845 though. After it was lifted, Buddhist monasteries were quite quickly reestablished. However, their formerly vast landholdings were not restored to them. Therefore, monasteries were unable to feed and otherwise take care of the same large number of monks and nuns that they had housed in earlier times. The economic resources and accompanying political influence of these institutions had been substantially curtailed.

10th century mural painting at the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang depicting Tang Dynasty monastic architecture from Mount Wutai, Shanxi province10th century mural painting at the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang depicting Tang Dynasty monastic architecture from Mount Wutai, Shanxi province

painting depicting action during the Huang Chao Rebellionpainting depicting action during the Huang Chao RebellionEven though the purge of Buddhism patched up the worst problems (fiscal shortfall and peasant unrest) of the Tang empire for a while, the decline of the Tang dynasty couldn't be halted. It eventually fell apart during the 10th century due to a multitude of reasons.

For one, the local military strongmen that had gained concessions from the emperor in the aftermath of the An Lushan rebellion became ever more assertive politically and militarily. Outside the capital and other cities, many of those local warlords and aristocratic landholding families started to abuse their power in the absence of a strong central ruler to cruelly exploit the peasantry. That degree of exploitation and iron control of resources got hard and harder to maintain as peasant rebellions began to break out all over the country. The most notable of those was the Huang Chao Rebellion that lasted from AD 874 - 884.

Emperor Ai, the last emperor of the Tang dynastyEmperor Ai, the last emperor of the Tang dynastySome military strongmen were swept away by these peasant revolts and many estates of the aristocratic families were burnt down and their wealthy residents killed. That would turn out to be important later during the early Song dynasty. Even though the Huang Chao Rebellion was put down, the Tang empire was substantially weakened thereafter. The power of the central authorities was insufficient to reestablish the stability and safety of the empire. Groups of bandits roamed the countryside and military leaders pursued their own interests first and foremost instead of serving the emperor.

Tang Emperor ZhaozongTang Emperor ZhaozongThe last emperors of the Tang dynasty lost a substantial part of their power at Chang'an's imperial court to eunuchs, who controlled access to the inner palace. These powerful eunuchs at court managed to influence and manipulate political affairs more and more, even briefly deposing the reigning emperor. The reign of the palace eunuchs only ended in AD 903, when military forces entered the imperial capital and massacred all eunuchs. In AD 904, the Tang Emperor Zhaozong was killed by the forces of the military leader/warlord Zhu Quanzhong, who then installed emperor Zhaozong's teenage son as puppet emperor under his control.

The child Emperor Ai ruled the empire briefly under control of and according to the interests of Zhu Quanzhong until the latter forced the former to abdicate the throne to him in AD 907, ending the Tang dynasty.

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

Emperor Taizu, the founder of the Later Liang dynastyEmperor Taizu, the founder of the Later Liang dynastyZhu Quanzhong then founded the Later Liang dynasty with himself as its Emperor Taizu. Other regional warlords in the northern areas submitted to him as the new emperor but a number of warlords along the fringes of Chinese territory refused to recognize his authority and founded their own states. These events mark the beginning of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, a period of 53 years of division and fragmentation, when China broke apart into many small states yet again.

The Five Dynasties were named thus because the imperial line of succession from the former Tang emperors was only maintained in five of the many states that existed during those 53 years of constant warfare. The Later Liang dynasty was the first of the Five Dynasties that succeeded one another within this brief period in China's north.

Map showing the most important states during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period in AD 923Map showing the most important states during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period in AD 923The many other small states/kingdoms that existed during this time were run by military leaders/warlords who refused to submit to the Later Liang dynasty and its four succeeding dynasties. These warlords had seized and maintained their power through their military strength and never had any legitimate imperial power (political legitimacy by virtue of its succession from the imperial bloodline) to begin with.

Map of the Khitan Empire, ca. AD 1000Map of the Khitan Empire, ca. AD 1000One of the many small states that the empire fragmented into after the collapse of the Tang dynasty was the Liao dynasty state (AD 907 - 1125). The Liao dynasty is not regarded as one of the five dynasties during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, since it was founded and controlled by the non-Chinese Khitan people in the Northeast of China.

Liao Emperor TaizuLiao Emperor TaizuThe Khitan leader Abaoji (reigned the Liao dynasty from AD 907 - 926 as Emperor Taizu) used his military power to seize lands in the Northeast during the 20 years of his reign. Most of the land that the Khitan brought under their control was sparsely populated and had only limited agricultural use.

female musicians in a raised-relief from the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period displayed at the Capital Museum in Beijingfemale musicians in a raised-relief from the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period displayed at the Capital Museum in BeijingHowever, one small part of their empire, known as the Sixteen Prefectures, consisted mostly of good farmland and was populated by a large Chinese population. In fact, the Sixteen prefectures were so densely populated, that its ethnic Chinese population made up about 70 percent of the entire population of the Khitan Liao state. The exploitation of the agricultural resources of the Sixteen prefectures brought a considerable amount of wealth to the Khitan people. The Khitan used a system of dual administration to manage their territories. Whereas they continued to use the pre-existing Chinese bureaucratic system to administer the Sixteen prefectures, they managed the much larger rest of their territory in the traditional Khitan manner.

The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period was short-lived, but the Liao dynasty persisted for a longer time. Chinese History Digest's summary of China's history continues with the story of the country's reunification under the Song dynasty.