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Tang Dynasty



Duration: 618~907 CE, with a short interregnum between 690 and 705 when Empress Dowager Wu Zetian took the throne under her own dynasty- Zhou Dynasty.

Founding of Tang Dynasty

The reigning family of the Tang Dynasty was the Li family, an aristocratic family during the preceding Sui Dynasty. Li Yuan, the founding emperor of Tang was a cousin to Emperor Yang of Sui (r. 604~617), as the two shared the same maternal grandparents. Li Yuan was created Duke of Tang and governor of Taiyuan. The Sui Empire was bogged down in the mire of peasant uprisings and rebellions caused by Emperor Yang’s abuse of power. Li Yuan raised his own troops and rebelled against Emperor Yang, who was later murdered during his stay in Jiangdu (modern-day Yangzhou), proclaimed the founding of Tang in 618, and reunified China through a series of military campaigns.

Two Major Phases of Tang Dynasty: divided by An Lushan Rebellion

The history of Tang Dynasty largely falls into two major phases, divided by the catastrophic An Lushan Rebellion (755~763). The first half, roughly spanning one and a half century, saw the empire generally on the rise. Decisive military victories were won against the Turks (the steppe nomads in the north) in the early decades, and Tang territory expanded in the northwest across today’s Xinjiang to reach Afghanistan. Emperor Taizong was addressed by the Turks as their Khagan. Economy prospered. Capital city Chang’an became the then largest city of the world with over a million urban residents. National population grew and was estimated at around 50 million in two censuses. The Tang poetry of this period, represented by those of Li Bai, Wang Wei, Wang Changling, etc., well captured the optimism that prevailed all over the nation.

Tang Dynasty, Ancient History of China, China Dynasties

Territory of Tang Empire at its zenith

Tang Dynasty, Ancient History of China, China Dynasties

A poem by Wang Changling themed on military life in the Tang Empire's frontier regions. The poems captures the confidence and optimism of the age, reading "As long as the Tang general, who is as capable as General Li Guang of Han Dynasty, remains there, the enemy calvary stand no chance of crossing the Yinshan Mountain Range."

However, An Lushan Rebellion inflicted heavy destruction to the empire. Though it was quashed finally, the political landscape of the empire changed in such a way that the central government was weakened while a number of regional governors began to assert their own strength and claimed autonomy against the authority of the central government. Tang emperors in the 9th century proved generally less capable than their forefathers, and would indulge themselves in leisure, allowing eunuchs to amass more power while the civil officials were entangled in constant factional strives.

Economic affluence continued, however, especially in cities of the Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze River) region which were kept free from wars: Yangzhou, Suzhou, Hangzhou, and so on. Censuses by the end of the 9th century put the national population at over 8 million.

Collapse of Tang Dynasty

As is the case with many other dynasties, peasant uprisings led by Huang Chao in addition to natural calamities pushed the Tang one step further towards final collapse. It took ten years to put down Huang Chao’s Rebellion completely. And in 907, Zhu Wen, a military governor who rose to fame and power in suppressing the Rebellion, forced the last Tang Emperor (Aizong) to abdicate while proclaiming himself Emperor of Later Liang Dynasty. This marked the formal beginning of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, a period of disunity and civil war until China’s reunification under the Song Dynasty.

Notable Emperors of Tang Dynasty

At least three emperors in the Tang Dynasty deserve particular note: Taizong and Xuanzong (both known by temple names) and Empress Regnant Wu Zetian.

Tang Dynasty, Ancient History of China, China Dynasties

Emperor Taizong (r. 626~649)

Model emperor of ancient China; his “Reign of Zhenguan”, a golden age of Chinese history, during which Tang China flourished in both economic and military terms, was to be held as the exemplary model throughout the rest of Chinese history. Peace and prosperity followed in the ensuing century and more. Emperor Taizong achieved greatness by enduring criticism which others would find difficult to accept whilst trying hard not to abuse his absolute power. He also employed such capabale chancellors as Fang Xuanling, Du Ruhui and Wei Zheng. Even his wife, Empress Zhangsun proved  a well-liked role model empress, too.

Tang Dynasty, Ancient History of China, China Dynasties

Emperor Xuanzong(r. 712~756)

In the early half of his reign a diligent and astute ruler, ably assisted by capable chancellors like Yao Chong and Song Jing, and was credited with bringing Tang China to a pinnacle of culture and power. Blamed for over-trusting Li Linfu, Yang Guozhong and An Lushan during his late reign, with Tang's golden age ending in the An Lushan Rebellion. Hence his posthumous temple name “玄 xuan”, meaning "hard to understand".

Tang Dynasty, Ancient History of China, China Dynasties

Empress Wu Zetian (r. 690~705)

The only de jure ruling Empress Regnant of Chinese history. Traditional Chinese order of succession banned women from succeeding to the throne. Wu managed to quash the opposition and broke the precedents. 


What’s Impressive about Tang Dynasty?

Like the Han Dynasty, the Tang Dynasty left an indelible print on the memory of the Chinese nation. Later Chinese were to remember it for its greatness regarding both economic prosperity, international prestige and cultural influence.

It boasts a role model for emperors of later dynasties - Emperor Taizong, who was not only a capable ruler but ready to endure criticisms. It was the era of China’s best poetry, which is the most extraordinary representative and treasure of classic Chinese literature. It was the age of confidence and liberal-mindedness. The Tang people open their arms to cultural exchanges with foreign nations via the Silk Road, and the Tang capital Chang’an hosted large numbers of foreign merchants and migrants. Women’s role and position were higher than other periods of China’s ancient history. Unlike most other periods where Confucian ethics advocated chastity and (after the husband’s death) celibacy, divorce and remarriage were lawful rights for women. Even trial marriage based on a contract between young males and females was possible.

Tang Dynasty, Ancient History of China, China DynastiesTang Dynasty, Ancient History of China, China Dynasties

Li Bai, the top poet of Tang Dynasty, or rather of the entire Chinese ancient history

The Tang Dynasty is almost synonymous to the age of poetry in China.

Tang capital Chang'an had developed into a world-class metropolice with a population exceeding a million and ethnic pluralism.

Tang Dynasty, Ancient History of China, China DynastiesTang Dynasty, Ancient History of China, China Dynasties
A Tang-San-Cai (glazed terra cotta) figurine featuring a foreign man riding on a camel.
Tang Empire was so confident as to embrace exotic culture open-mindedly. Trade and cultural exchanges with foreign nations via the Silk Road flourished.
A script discovered in Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes, which was a Tang Dynasty divorce agreement.
Women's role and position in Tang Dynasty was higher than other periods of Chinese history (where Confucianism preached chastity and celibacy for women). Divorce and remarriage were possible.

Tang Dynasty, Ancient History of China, China Dynasties

Tang Dynasty, Ancient History of China, China Dynasties

The aesthetics on women's physical beauty differed from other dynasties. It was more fashionable for women to be full-figured or plump. Assertive and active women were prefered. These marked a shift away from other dynasties where men prefered slim-figured, fragile women.

Horse-riding polo, a sport imported from Persia, became a wildly popular aristocractic game in Tang Dynasty.



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