The Tang dynasty (Chinese: 糖朝; Hanyu pinyin: Táng Cháo) ruled China for three centuries, from A.D. 618 to 907. This is known as the golden age of art and poetry. New territories were acquired, including Manchuria, Tibet, and northern Vietnam. This territory drew wealth from surrounding states through a ritualistic kowtow, such that diplomats from surrounding states were expected to pay homage to the emperor by touching their forehead repeatedly to the ground beneath the emperor. The Tang dynasty accumulated vast wealth for China during this period.
Many roads were built at that time, along with inns, post offices and stables for the horses of travelers. The roads were used for trade and communication in a manner similar to the Persian Royal Road and the roads of the Roman empire. Foreign music, religion (Buddhism, primarily), clothes and even languages became popular in China at this time. Importantly, everything in the big cities of China at this time was somewhat state-controlled; curfews were imposed on the citizens, trade was conducted in government approved situations, using government-approved measures and weights.
One of the most prominent figures of the Tang dynasty was a general known as An Lushan - his name indicates that he was a Soghdian ("An" indicates his place of origin), and that his given name in Soghdia was "Rokhan", the male form of Roxanna, the name of Alexander the Great's wife. An Lushan is famous for the An Shi Rebellion; the most favoured concubine of the Tang Xuanzong Emperor, Yang Guifei, was in love with Lushan, and betrayed the Emperor by recommending Lushan to high military command. Lushan's troops entered Chang'an in 755 and forced the emperor on the run into Sichuan province with Guifei in tow. She was executed by Xuanzong's troops in 756 whilst on the run, as she was blamed for the rebellion. On reclaiming control of the Chinese state, Xuanzong wrote of his sorrow at her death in a famous poem; and the Tang state never regained the supremacy it had once had. Culturally, the late Tang was quite inferior to the high Tang period, although the fashions for foreign clothes and music remained the same. The curfews put in place were violated frequently, the weights and measures became forged and improperly regulated. Tax registers, an important method of adjusting tax so as to remain fair, but also to keep track of the population, were no longer kept up to date, as they had been every few years in the high Tang. The breakdown of the Tang took quite a while longer - from 756 to 907, government control was extremely lax, rebellions were reasonably frequent, and tax returns became less and less. The Li family was only nominally in charge.
The most powerful ruler during the Tang dynasty was Tang Taichung (A.D. 627-649). He gained power by killing his opponents, but then ruled in a benevolent or fair manner, keeping taxes low.
Government offices were filled with the Confucian civil service system that valued education. The three requirements were to learn the writings of Confucius, study the Chinese classics, and pass the civil service exam. Land was distributed based on fertility of the soil and the needs of the farmers, but eventually powerful families and Buddhist monasteries gained control of much of the land.
The Tang dynasty period was also a period of massive Chinese influence on Japan. The popular wrestling style of xiangpu developed in Japanese sumo, Chinese musical instruments of the period became the Japanese shamisen and koto, and Chinese classics and interpretations of the classics of the Tang became the official standards in Japanese society. Similarly, the Chinese forms of Buddhism developing in this period - notably, chan, or, in Japanese, Zen, which came from a fusion of Daoist ideas and Buddhist ones in court-sponsored debates - became the more popular forms of Buddhism in Japan. "Karate", as well, originally used the Chinese characters for "Tang hand" (it was changed in the 1930s to mean "empty hand", both "Tang" and "empty" being homophones in modern Japanese in that context), implying not necessarily that Karate developed from Tang-era Chinese martial arts, but that it developed from Chinese martial arts at a later stage and that the word "Tang" was simply a common term when referring to China as a whole.
Ultimately the peasants rebelled over the misuse of funds by the government. In A.D. 907 the last Tang emperor gave up. Regional rule by warlords then prevailed over China for more than 50 years, in a period known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. Unification by the first Song emperor came in 960 AD.
- Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, and Kwang-ching Liu. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China (1999) 352 pages excerpt and text search
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