An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Tang Dynasty 唐 (618-907)

The Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) was the second great dynasty of Chinese history that was able to unify a vast territory, to spread its culture to the surrounding countries and to absorb and adapt the cultures of states and tribes in the neighbourhood. A great part of the Tang aristocracy even was of non-Chinese, especially Türkic origin, and merchants from Inner Asia, like Sogdhians and Persians, lived in the quarters of the capital Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi). Official and private trade was run with many countries in the South East Asian archipelago. The religion of Buddhism spread, in its Chinese form, to Korea and Japan. But at the same time, Confucianism again rose as a semi-religious instrument of state doctrine, and was able to vanquish Buddhism in the last century of the Tang period.

The founder of the Tang, Li Yuan 李淵 (known as Emperor Gaozu 唐高祖, r. 618-626), was a military leader and regent of the Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618). He largely took over the administrative organization of the Sui. His son and successor, Emperor Taizong 唐太宗 (r. 626-649), with the support of many competent ministers, perfected the political, jurisdictional and military administration of the empire. Taizong also conducted a series of military campaigns against the Türks (Chinese rendering Tujue 突厥) and Korea, and conquered the Western Territories (Xiyu 西域, modern Xinjiang) which opened the access to Inner Asia. The "younger" Silk Road allowed free trade and travel, and numerous Buddhist monks, like Xuanzang 玄奘, went to India in search for original writings and monastic rules. International relations of the Tang empire included the Tibetan kingdom of Tubo 吐藩 and that of Nanzhao 南詔 (in today's Yunnan), but also Southeast Asian merchandize reached the court in the "chequerboard" city of Chang'an.

The late 7th century saw a rule of women, in the first place the usurpation of the throne by Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 (r. 690-704), who proclaimed herself emperor of China and renamed the dynasty Zhou 周. The long reign of Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) is often seen as a turning point in the history of the Tang dynasty. The tripartite tax system (zuyongdiao 租庸調) was perfected, the granary system refined, and the Hanlin Academy (hanlinyuan 翰林院) made the most important institution for managing the bureaucracy.

On the other hand, the local administration was laid into the hands of military commissioners (jiedushi 節度使), some of which gained highest powers and independence from the court. Commissioner An Lushan 安祿山 finally rose in rebellion and endangered the capital. Emperor Xuanzong had to flee to Sichuan, and his dynasty was only saved with the support of loyal troops. Yet the power of the commissioners could not be diminished, and the dynasty gradually lost its grip on many regions of the empire. The reduction of revenues therefore made a reform of the tax system necessary. The result was the twice-taxation system (liangshuifa 兩稅法), nominally in force until the Ming period 明 (1368-1644).

The second half of the Tang period saw not only the increasing dominance of the military commissioners, but also the rose of court factions and eunuch cliques, who fought against each other. In 845 a great persecution of Buddhism and other "foreign" religions reduced their political influence for centuries. Instead, Daoism won prominence, and its various schools became regular "churches".

The Tang period is particularly famous for its literary achievements, like the field of poetry (see shi poetry 詩) or the reintroduction of the "old-style" prose (guwen 古文), with the prominent representative Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修. Literary refinement became one of the preconditions for official career, a tendency that eventually found its completion in the creation of the examination system under the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279). The dominance of educated scholars over the field of thought and literature led to a revival of Confucianism and a renewed study of and a wave of commentaries on the Confucian Classics.

In the late 9th century social unrest increased, and the rebellion of Huang Chao 黃巢 initiated the end of the Tang dynasty. The rebels were put down by military commissioners, whose merits in the victory allowed them to engage in widespread warlordism. In 907 China was again divided into many small and short-lived empires, ruled by the so-called Five Dynasties 五代 (907-960) and Ten States 十國 (902-979).

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political history of the Tang period, the geography of the empire and its surroundings, provides a list of its rulers, describes the administration and political structure of the empire, and gives insight into the religion and beliefs of the time, as well as the fine arts, the economy, literature and philosophy, and the history of technology and inventions.