During the long three and a half centuries of disunion after the fall of the Han dynasty, the weak southern regimes were dominated by powerful aristocratic families who saw themselves as the true guardians and protectors of Chinese civilization. They looked down on the more powerful northern governments of the Wei and its successors as only half-civilized barbarians, unlearned in the ways of Confucianism and ignorant of proper etiquette, rituals, and social hierarchies. It particularly disturbed the southerners that women were far more outspoken and independent in the nomadic cultures of the north than in the aristocratic Confucian families of the south. The northern rulers, in turn, looked upon the southern political regimes as effete, snobbish, and pretentious. These differences and prejudices meant that any serious effort to reunify China into one integrated empire faced a cultural challenge as great as the military challenge.
The man who succeeded in reunifying the north and south was Yang Jian, born in 541 to a mixed nomadic-Chinese family with a Chinese surname. A powerful military official under the Northern Zhou, Yang inherited his father’s title as the Duke of Sui in 568. He was a courageous and competent military leader who saw no contradiction between his devout faith in Buddhism and his military way of life. Yang Jian’s wife was from a very prominent, partly Chinese and partly Xiongnu family. She was eventually to function nearly as a co-emperor with her husband. Upon their marriage, when he was sixteen and she was thirteen, Yang Jian promised never to take a concubine, and his wife soon became his constant companion and closest advisor.
In his rise to power, Yang Jian was both capable and lucky. He was capable enough to recruit the most able military generals and civilian officials to his cause, and lucky enough to have as his first enemies the incompetent relatives and retainers of the corrupt court of the Northern Zhou. By 589, forces loyal to Yang Jian had eliminated all remnants of the Northern Zhou ruling elite, including fifty-nine princes and their families. That same year they overwhelmed Jiankang, the capital of the southern kingdom of Chen, and conquered the Yangzi River valley, bringing north and south under one central government, the Sui dynasty, for the first time since the fall of the Han in 220.
To set up a successful dynasty over both north and south was anything but simple. In three decades that were as dramatic as the Qin conquest of the Warring States, the Sui armies and civil government brought to China a much higher degree of military unity and political integration than the country had ever known before. Yang Jian took the reign title Wendi, “the cultured emperor,” suggesting that he well understood that cultural factors were as important as military ones in unifying north and south. In addition to his efficient armies, he had capable ministers who justified his every move in terms of the Confucian classics and the beliefs and practices of Daoism and Buddhism. They described in detail the sins of both the Northern Zhou regime and the southern rulers of Jiankang and promised to bring peace, stability, and prosperity to the land with the assistance of Heaven’s Mandate.
Sui Wendi implemented the equal-field system of the Northern Wei dynasty throughout the empire. Every able-bodied male owed the state one month of labor per year, and the Sui now mobilized millions of laborers to reunite and reconstruct the Great Wall on the northern and western borders. Even more important for the future of the empire, they drafted hundreds of thousands more to construct the Grand Canal, first linking the city of Yangzhou south of the Yangzi River with Luoyang and eventually extending farther southward to Hangzhou and northeast to a point near today’s Beijing. The finished canal, extending twelve hundred miles, was forty paces wide and deep enough to accommodate boats carrying five hundred to eight hundred tons. The Grand Canal ensured the steady flow of taxes paid in grain from the prosperous south to the seat of government in the more arid north.
Sui Wendi also ordered the building of a grand new capital at Chang’an on the site of the Western Han capital. The city was laid out in a rectangular grid, with the imperial palace at the center of the northern side. The remainder of the U-shaped city was divided into 108 wards, 106 for residences and two for markets to be conducted under strict government supervision. The entire city was surrounded by a five-meter-high wall of pounded earth that extended almost six miles from east to west and more than five miles from north to south. Although Chang’an remained a relatively empty walled expanse during Wendi’s lifetime, it was to become within a century the largest and greatest city in the world.
Yang Jian’s wife died in 602, after which he felt increasingly vulnerable and alone, and he himself fell ill and died in 604. His successor was their second son, Yang Guang, whom his mother had favored over his brothers in part because he appeared to her as more devoutly Buddhist and less sexually promiscuous. It is thus ironic that Yang Guang, who was given the reign title Sui Yangdi, was eventually portrayed by Confucian historians as the polar opposite of his father, a “bad last emperor” who quickly and wastefully lost the Mandate of Heaven. The reality is more complicated than this, to be sure, but it is undeniable that the Sui dynasty collapsed within a decade after Yangdi took power.
When a massive land and sea military expedition against the kingdom of Koguryo (in the northern part of today’s Korea) failed in 612, Yangdi could not accept defeat and cut his losses. Instead, he mounted two more massive attacks on Koguryo in 613 and 614, and both were equally disastrous. These futile battles required excessive tax increases, lost much popular support for the dynasty, and revealed the growing weakness of the Sui court. A northern nomadic tribe that had been a Sui ally before the Korean invasions now turned against Sui forces and nearly captured the emperor himself in 615. Civil war soon erupted as many Sui commanders saw no more advantage in following orders from a monarch so prone to hopeless wars as Sui Yangdi.
In 617, Li Yuan, one of the major military commanders in north China (and a first cousin of Sui Yangdi), led his troops in revolt against the Sui, quickly capturing the capital city of Chang’an. Within six months of his initial act of rebellion, Li Yuan proclaimed a new dynasty, the Tang, and moved quickly against several rival armies in the north. His forces captured the secondary Sui capital of Luoyang in 621 and took the major cities of the Yangzi River valley by 624. In 626, Li Yuan’s ambitious son Li Shimin imprisoned his father, killed two of his brothers, including the heir apparent, and seized the throne himself, taking the title Tang Taizong. By 628, all remnants of internal resistance to the Tang forces were eliminated, but Tang Taizong still had to contend with powerful nomads, the Khitans, and Eastern Turks on the northern and northwestern borders of the empire. Through a combination of military successes and strategic alliances with the Turks, Tang Taizong won for himself the title Great Khan, thus facilitating the joint Chinese-Turkish pacification of the Central Asian cities and oasis towns of the Silk Roads, extending Tang hegemony as far west as Kabul, Kashgar, and Samarkand by the mid-seventh century.
Tang Taizong ruled from 626 to 649. He succeeded where Sui Yangdi failed, in establishing his dynastic rule over a greater area than the Han had enjoyed and in putting the new dynasty on a firm foundation. Much like the Han before it, the Tang maintained the institutions put in place by their predecessors and used them more flexibly and effectively. To curb the power of the aristocratic families of the south, the Sui rulers had forced leading southern families to move to the capital city of Chang’an in the north. The Sui had instituted a new “rule of avoidance” (continued by the Tang), which stipulated that no official could serve the government in his own home district. This effectively ensured that local elites could not use their government positions to the advantage of their own families. The equal-field system, first implemented by the Wei in the north and by the Sui in the south, was also maintained by the Tang. And the Tang court mobilized and maintained the same two kinds of armies used by the Sui—both self-supporting soldier-farmers who served as militiamen in times of need and full-time professional soldiers.
Tang Taizong was ruthless in his seizure of the throne, but he was also a shrewd judge of character in appointing competent and loyal officials. Equally important, he was able to encourage, accept, and learn from their criticisms. He pacified the border regions of the empire from Korea and Manchuria in the northeast and across the long northern borders from the Tarim Basin to the edge of Persia in Central Asia. He also pacified the southern borders from Annam (precursor of today’s Vietnam) in the southeast to Tibet in the southwest. These military victories were solidified by strategic alliances that helped neutralize potential hostile forces. The Tang rulers managed to create the world’s largest empire at that time. This was possible because the strong central government in the early Tang enjoyed a solid tax base and the increasingly prosperous Yangzi River valley was now tied closely through the Grand Canal to the capital in the north.
Determined to impose his strong will on the entire empire, Tang Taizong issued a comprehensive legal code in 653, which was revised and reissued every fifteen years. The Tang Code is the oldest surviving complete legal code from China. Following Qin and Han precedents, the Code specifies a series of general principles and, in five hundred articles, a remarkably detailed list of crimes with stipulated punishments. The Code was to be applied universally, but in deference to Confucian ideas about social hierarchies, punishments differed according to the social status and rank of the offender. Penalties ranged from ten strokes with a light stick or whip to one hundred blows from a heavy stick (which could be fatal), from a few years to a lifetime of penal servitude, and from exile to the borderlands to execution. In keeping with Confucian values, a father would not be punished for beating his son, but a son who struck his father would be in serious trouble. The Tang Code became the legal model for all subsequent dynasties from Tang times into the twentieth century.
In the early twentieth century, a dramatic archeological find gave scholars an intimate glimpse of the ways that Tang power extended to the remote corners of the empire. At Dunhuang (where the Silk Roads began), a sealed-up cave was discovered containing hundreds of documents surviving from their creation in Tang times. Many of the documents were Buddhist scriptures, but because paper was scarce, the scriptures were often copied on the backs of any paper the scribes could find, including contracts, loan agreements, bills of sale for slaves or land, notices of divorce, adoption or family division, and so on. In addition, the many government documents found at Dunhuang demonstrate how, even in that remote town, the Tang government regulated prices in local markets and kept meticulous track of land deeds, sales, and transfers in carrying out the equal-field system of land allotments to all commoners.
The Tang was the most cosmopolitan of all Chinese dynasties. The Li family founders (like the Yang family founders of the Sui) had long intermarried with the Xianbei and other nomadic tribes of the north and west. The peace and prosperity of the Tang, the foreign roots of its court, and the security its forces provided through Central Asia made the Tang a period of unprecedented international trade. The Silk Roads flourished in the Tang as never before or since, and so did a flourishing trade on the east coast with Arab merchant seamen from south and Southeast Asia. The Tang capital, Chang’an, was one of the world’s great global crossroads. All types of religious groups were to be found there, including Indian, Japanese, Korean, and Tibetan Buddhists, Persian priests, Nestorian Christians, Zoroastrians, and merchants from many parts of the globe, especially Turks, Uighurs, and Sogdians, as well as Jews, Arabs, and Indians. There were dance troupes from Tashkent and musicians from Korea and Southeast Asia, and the most popular music in Chang’an was Central Asian.
Inspired by an intense enthusiasm for all things Buddhist, Sino-Indian trade thrived in the early Tang as never before. In the seventh and eighth centuries, forty Indian tribute missions visited the Tang court, carrying gifts to the emperor and thereby securing the right to trade such items as pearls, turmeric, precious Buddhist relics (bones of Buddhist saints believed to have special curative powers), incense, incense burners, and other Buddhist paraphernalia, all in exchange for Chinese silks, porcelains, and other products, including hides, peaches, and camphor. Chinese pilgrims and merchants in turn went to India to propagate Daoist doctrines among the Indians or to seek Buddhist scriptures, Ayurvedic medical information, or Indian longevity drugs.
The Tang is known as the greatest age of Buddhism in Chinese history. The Sui and Tang ruling houses both claimed their leaders were bodhisattvas devoted to the spread of the religion, and both dynasties patronized Buddhism with lavish gifts of land and tax exemptions for temples and monasteries. Both ruling houses continued the monumental Buddhist sculptures on the limestone cliffs and in the caves of Longmen outside of Luoyang. Because it had become popular, albeit in different forms, among both the highly educated elite and the illiterate masses, Buddhism was very useful to the Sui and Tang rulers in appealing to all social classes.
During Tang Taizong’s reign, one of the great Chinese Buddhist pilgrims of all time, the monk Xuanzang, made a seventeen-year trip across the Central Asian deserts and Himalayan mountain range to India and back, securing precious Buddhist scriptures and giving the Chinese their clearest understanding yet of a number of important Buddhist schools. Xuanzang’s pilgrimage was later immortalized in one of the master-works of Chinese fiction, Journey to the West (also known as Monkey, the title of Arthur Waley’s abridged but very effective translation). This sixteenth-century novel combines folklore, poetry, and imaginative tales in a gentle, comic satire of Chinese government, society, and religion. Journey to the West is one of China’s most famous novels, and the comic adventures of Xuanzang have been popularized for centuries in innumerable operas and plays and, today, in animated cartoons and television serials.
By the eighth century, Buddhism was well integrated into almost every aspect of Chinese life; it had become a thoroughly Chinese religion with its own major schools, doctrines, and emphases. At Dunhuang, where the Silk Roads began, some thirteen monasteries housed nearly one-tenth of the entire area’s population. Starting in the Northern Wei and continuing through Tang times, Buddhist artisans created the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas at Dunhuang, leaving five hundred cave temples with plastered walls filled with sculptures and paintings.
Among the unlettered masses, Pure Land Buddhism promised the faithful that one sincere appeal to Amitabha Buddha (the Buddha of Infinite Light) would guarantee one’s eventual rebirth in the Pure Land of the Western Paradise where Amitabha presided. The upper classes were more drawn to the school of Tiantai Buddhism, named after the Tiantai Mountains where its sixth-century founder, Zhiyi, lived and wrote. With typical Chinese concern for universality and order, Zhiyi developed a systematic theory incorporating every known school of Buddhist doctrine and practice into one complex whole, on the grounds that every school had a valid, if different, meaning and purpose.
The most popular Buddhist movement among the educated elite came to be the Chan School (known in the West as Zen, after the Japanese pronunciation of Chan which means meditation). Chan Buddhism was introduced into China in the sixth century by the eccentric Indian monk Bodhidharma (which means the teaching of enlightenment). All people, he asserted, have the Buddha-nature within themselves, and the only effective way to fully realize their Buddha-nature is through meditation. The Chan school grew rapidly in China, and in many ways it combined elements of philosophical Daoism with Buddhism. Chan temples were usually built in beautiful mountain settings, with magnificent gardens where the peacefulness of nature was an aid to meditation. Chan masters following Bodhidharma emphasized that “the Dao lies in chopping wood and carrying water,” meaning that the truth of religious life lay not in ritual, expensive icons, or works of art but in the common tasks of daily life. With its emphasis on spontaneity and the love of nature, Chan Buddhism helped to inspire much great poetry and painting in China from Tang times onward.
The economic consequences of Buddhism were at least as great as the religious and artistic consequences. Buddhist monasteries engaged in many economic activities, including sophisticated fund-raising, money lending, and the running of pawnshops, flour mills, oil presses, and some of the world’s first hotels, where travelers could find a hot meal and warm bed for a modest fee. Buddhism also stimulated a thriving market for religious icons and other paraphernalia, and Buddhist pilgrimages and festivals stimulated what became a vibrant tourist industry. Auctions, savings accounts with compound interest, and the sale of equities and bonds all originated with the entrepreneurship of Buddhist temples and monasteries.
If the prevalence of Buddhism was one major indication of foreign influence in Tang times, another was the relatively powerful position of women. In the nomadic societies of the north, women rode on horseback as much as men, and when men were away tending livestock on far-flung pasturelands, women naturally supervised the running of their households. In Tang paintings, one can see robust, even chubby, women with rosy cheeks and full figures that evoke western European Renaissance depictions of female beauty, except that the Chinese women are fully clothed. We also see paintings of elite women riding horseback and even playing polo.
Given the relatively high status of women in Tang high society, it is not mere coincidence that the most powerful woman in all of Chinese history was Empress Wu of the Tang (her given name was Zhao, and she is most popularly known as Wu Zetian). She entered the imperial palace in about 640 to become one of Tang Taizong’s concubines when she was only thirteen. When he died in 649, all of his concubines were to shave their heads and enter a Buddhist nunnery, but Wu Zhao managed to escape that fate and was soon back in the palace as a low-ranking concubine of the young Emperor Gaozong.
By the end of 652, Wu Zhao had borne the emperor a son and was promoted to a higher rank in the imperial harem. Within a few years, Emperor Gaozong deposed Empress Wang and replaced her with Empress Wu. Wu Zhao’s critics claim that she first framed Empress Wang for the murder of her own (Wu Zhao’s) daughter and then framed her again for the attempted murder of her husband, the emperor. In any case, Wu Zhao became empress in 656, and after Gaozong suffered the first of many strokes in 660, she began to dominate all the decisions of his court.
Empress Wu recruited a group of scholars to act as her personal advisors, and in 666 she and her palace ladies helped preside over special imperial sacrifices to Heaven, an unprecedented degree of female involvement in court sacrifices. In 674, the emperor and empress adopted new titles—Heavenly Sovereign and Heavenly Empress—implying their coequal positions in ruling the empire. When opposition to these moves surfaced in the court, she dealt with opponents ruthlessly, sending many to death, including two of her own sons. When Emperor Gaozong died in 683, Wu Zhao’s seventeen-year-old son became Emperor Zhong-zong, and as the empress dowager, she was in virtual control of the government. When the young emperor challenged his mother’s authority within six weeks of assuming the throne, she had him replaced by his younger brother, Emperor Ruizong, whom she locked in a separate palace away from the decision-makers of the state.
In this modern copy of an eighth-century painting, a Tang court lady with painted “moth eyebrows" and flowered headdress plays with her pet dog. Court paintings from the middle to late Tang portray women as full-bodied and physically active, in contrast to thinner, more frail and sedentary models of feminine beauty from the Song and later periods. Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz / Art Resource, NY
After quickly suppressing an open rebellion by a number of imperial princes, Wu Zhao assumed power directly in 690, declaring that the Mandate of Heaven had passed to her own new Zhou dynasty.
Her Zhou dynasty lasted for fifteen years, until she was over eighty, in ill health, and very weak. She was finally forced to abdicate power back to her son Zhongzong in 705, and she died a few months later. Despite the terrible stories of her sexual escapades and the many cruel punishments she dealt out to her political foes, even her critics have had to admit that she was a more competent ruler than many of the men who have occupied the dragon throne. She brought new and much needed talent into the government by promoting the use of examinations to recruit officials, and she strengthened the power of the Tang monarchy by removing from power some of the more entrenched families in the Tang aristocracy. The main lesson male Confucian historians have drawn from Empress Wu’s momentous career is that male rulers should never forget the terrible powers of a beautiful woman to manipulate weak men and destroy the “natural” social order in which women are supposed to serve men and not vice versa. Despite her being regarded as such a negative example, her tomb was placed beside that of the emperor Gaozong, where it can still be visited today.
The Tang was officially restored in 705, but the court was torn with factional power struggles until 712, when Empress Wu’s grandson, Xuanzong, assumed the throne and brought much needed stability to the government. Xuanzong’s long reign, from 712 until 756, marked both the high point of Tang power and Tang culture as well as the dramatic beginning of a long and torturous period of decline. In the early years of his reign, Xuanzong seemed to embody all the virtues of a great Chinese emperor, a philosopher-king who was both a conscientious administrator and a brilliant intellectual. Xuanzong’s court became the center of high culture in the mid-Tang. He established schools and libraries, presided over elaborate and beautiful state ceremonies, and patronized poets and artists, all without forgetting his duties in setting fair taxes, keeping government expenses under control, and maintaining social order and peace on the borders.
Unfortunately, amid all the court ceremonies, intellectual discussions and lavish entertainments in Xuanzong’s court, it became easy not to notice several danger signs on the horizon. A further added distraction for Xuanzong was that in his later years he fell deeply in love with a beautiful concubine, Yang Guifei (“Precious Consort Yang”), so much so that he began to grant her relatives all sorts of privileges and powers while ignoring the growing problems facing his government. The emperor would do anything to please his young concubine, who shared his love of poetry, painting, music, and dance. She became infatuated with An Lushan, a non-Chinese (Turkish-Sogdian) general who commanded a large army in the vicinity of today’s Beijing. She helped An Lushan gain control of 160,000 troops, the largest armed force under one commander in the empire. The growing weakness of the dynasty was dramatically revealed in 751, when Tang armies suffered simultaneous crushing defeats in the southwest (today’s Yunnan), in the far western outposts of Central Asia, and along the northeast borders with Korea.
To make matters worse, Xuanzong’s longtime prime minister, who had effectively controlled the government for at least a decade, died in 752, inspiring new tensions among various factions in the capital. The many relatives of Yang Guifei had risen to great power and influence at the court because of her ties with the emperor, and they now began to fear An Lushan’s power and to plot against him. When the emperor summoned him to attend a wedding at the capital in 755, An Lushan suspected a trap and refused to comply.
Four months later, the general led his troops in an open rebellion, and they quickly occupied the “eastern capital” of Luoyang where he proclaimed himself emperor. By July of 756, the rebel forces approached the capital of Chang’an, and Emperor Xuanzong and his “precious consort” Yang Guifei were forced to flee the city for their lives. With a few troops they headed south, but forty miles outside the city on the second day of the journey, the troops mutinied and refused to go any further unless the emperor agreed to have Yang Guifei killed. With some justification, they blamed her and her family for An Lushan’s rebellion and this perilous retreat now forced upon them. The emperor tearfully ordered his chief eunuch to strangle his beautiful concubine, and the sad imperial procession continued its journey southward and out of danger.
An Lushan was assassinated by one of his own men in 757, and his troops split into two factions and began fighting among themselves. The Tang court, now under the leadership of Xuanzong’s son, Emperor Suzong, mobilized an army bolstered with mercenary soldiers, mostly Arabs and Uighurs from Central Asia. By the middle of 757, these Tang forces were able to recapture Chang’an. Even so, remnant rebel forces were not entirely eliminated until 763, when the last rebel general committed suicide. The price of peace was to grant a general amnesty for those who had joined the rebellion and to hand over some districts to the very generals who had rebelled there.
The An Lushan Rebellion signified the end of the Tang’s domination of their neighbors. Many peasants fled from the areas of fighting, and the tax rolls were reduced by two-thirds, leaving the state treasuries depleted and the equal-field system in tatters. Local military commanders became increasingly independent and reluctant to send their tax revenues to the central government or to follow orders from the capital. Tibet was a powerful empire of its own in the eighth century, and Tibetan forces invaded and looted Chang’an in the fall of 763 and continued to do so periodically for years thereafter. This became a typical pattern of the late Tang. Nomadic troops along the northern and western frontiers began to charge the Chinese extortionate prices for the horses China needed for its own defense. They sometimes took ransom payments in exchange for not invading, and when that failed, they felt increasingly free to raid Chinese cities with little fear of reprisal.
Despite the long, slow decline of Tang political and military power, Tang society and the economy continued to flourish. As the tax system was eroded by the wars of the mid-eighth century, the government turned to a tax on salt to bolster its revenues. Other trade was left largely untaxed, and consequently, trade grew rapidly, especially internal trade and the sea trade with South and Southeast Asia. In the late Tang, Central Asian nomadic groups were increasingly free to raid the Silk Roads caravans laden with Chinese silks or porcelains headed west or those headed toward China with jewels, spices, horses, or textiles. Yet Sino-Indian trade continued to thrive with the growth of sea-based commerce from China’s southeast coast around the Southeast Asian archipelago, past Burma and on to India. The southern port of Guangzhou was filled with Indian, Persian, Javanese, Malay, Cham, Khmer, and Arab merchants who brought fragrant tropical woods, medicines, spices, and incense to China in exchange for silk, porcelain, and even slaves. As a result of this thriving trade, black pepper from India became a common part of the Chinese diet in Tang times, and many Chinese came to use the spices of South and Southeast Asia—including cloves, aloeswood, benzoin, saffron, and sandalwood—either as food condiments or in medical prescriptions.
The flourishing sea-based trade with India and Southeast Asia brought increasing prosperity to central and south China in the eighth and ninth centuries. By 742 the government census showed that half of the population (of perhaps sixty million) now lived in the southern half of the country. The Grand Canal helped to integrate the commercial economy within China proper and gave the Tang government in Chang’an and Luoyang access to the growing wealth of the south, primarily in the form of grain and silk. Tea also became a major item of internal trade. Produced first in the far southwest, its use spread throughout China, and by the mid-Tang it had become the national drink of choice. Because it required boiled water, the use of tea had major public health benefits as well and contributed to the rapid population growth of the Tang and subsequent periods.
Over the course of the Tang, Buddhist monasteries had become significant centers of wealth, with large holdings of tax-exempt land and many magnificent treasures of religious art. An estimated 260,000 monks and nuns and 100,000 slaves lived on these tax-free lands. In 845, Emperor Wuzong ordered the confiscation of most Buddhist temples and shrines, leaving one temple in each prefecture, and four in each of the two main capitals (Chang’an and Luoyang). Each surviving temple could have thirty monks or nuns, and everyone else was forced to return to lay life without any support from the religious establishment. The emperor ordered the bronze bells and images from the closed temples melted down into coins, the iron statues melted and converted into agricultural implements, and all precious gold, silver, and jade objects turned over to the Bureau of Public Revenue. Emperor Wuzong died in 846, and his successor ended the suppression, but in one short year much Buddhist wealth had been confiscated by the state, and Buddhism would never again be quite as powerful as it had been in the early and middle Tang.
By 860 the Tang dynasty was clearly in decline, as regional military commanders became increasingly independent of the central government and bandits roamed freely across the countryside. The largest rebellion was led by Huang Chao, an examination failure and unemployed scholar, whose forces captured and looted the southern port of Guangzhou in 879 before moving directly on the capital of Chang’an in 881. His forces were brutal and poorly disciplined, and he was defeated and driven out of the capital in 883. Huang Chao had revealed the great weakness of the government, inviting by example many others to follow his lead. The dynasty officially collapsed in 907, but it had lost all semblance of control at least three decades before that.
Despite its inglorious end, the Tang period as a whole has long been regarded as one of the truly great ages in Chinese history. By 700, Chang’an was the largest city in the world, with nearly two million people. It served as a magnet for merchants, diplomats, and religious pilgrims from all over Asia. In its political organization, economic prosperity and cultural sophistication, the Tang dynasty in the early eighth century was the world’s greatest empire. In contrast to Europe, where Justinian in the sixth century and Charlemagne in 800 had tried but failed to match the size and scope of the Roman Empire, Tang China easily surpassed the great Han dynasty in its size, degree of central control, prosperity, and cultural sophistication. In varying degrees, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam all drew direct inspiration from the Tang Empire, including its capital city, its Confucian political philosophy, its schools of Buddhism, its art and architecture, its medical traditions, and its classical Chinese language. In 640, eight thousand Koreans were in Chang’an trying to absorb as much of China’s culture as they could. Japan in the eighth century reformed its government and built its permanent capital in Kyoto, directly modeled on the example of Chang’an.
The one art form most identified with the Tang dynasty is poetry, which is seen in Chinese culture as the most honest and revealing way to express one’s true feelings. At dinners and banquets the hosts and guests exchanged clever poems on the occasion. Men traded flirtatious poems with educated prostitutes or courtesans as part of the “courting” process, which might or might not result in a “sale.” People recorded their daily activities in poems, wrote letters in poems, described great historic events or scenes of natural beauty in poems, and commemorated their departures from friends with tearful poems.
The Complete Poems of the Tang Dynasty, a compilation made in the early eighteenth century, contains 48,900 poems from 2,200 Tang poets. Ever since Tang times, all educated Chinese have been expected to be able to write, read, and appreciate poetry. Every young man who studied for the civil service examinations first learned poetry by memorizing Three Hundred Tang Poems, a book that includes samples from all the great Tang poets.
Most critics have agreed that the two greatest poets in Chinese history were the Tang poets Li Bo and Du Fu, who are sometimes seen as the yin and yang of Chinese poetry, or the Daoist and Confucian sides of the Chinese psyche. Such labels are oversimplified, but they capture something of the contrast between these two great men. Li Bo deliberately cultivated the self-image of a carefree genius who dashed off brilliant poems without any effort at all. He casually broke all the rules of poetry, considering them too constraining for his unbridled inspiration. He liked to give the impression that he cared nothing about fame and official rank and that he would just as soon throw his brilliant poems into a rushing stream as copy them into a notebook for posterity. Li Bo could use poems in the Confucian way, to criticize social ills and injustices, but he was more likely to celebrate the beauties of nature and the fun of drinking with his friends. More than with any other Chinese poet of any time, Li Bo’s poetry celebrated his own unique self.
In contrast to Li Bo, Du Fu served in several positions as a conscientious Confucian official, and he was a careful craftsman in poetry, never violating the proper poetic form. He was the most versatile Chinese poet ever. He could be profoundly erudite, highly political, or critical of corruption and inequality, as well as light, playful, deeply compassionate, or intensely personal. Du Fu demonstrated the full range of his humanity in his poems, writing fondly of his wife and his children, his friends, and his daily routine.
Other Tang poets have also been immortalized in Chinese culture. Bo Juyi, for example, was one of the most popular poets during his own time, the late eighth and early ninth century, and on into the present. He wrote in a simple and direct style that made his poems popular with everyone, not just the highly educated. His “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” described the tragedy of Emperor Xuanzong and his Precious Consort Yang Guifei, helping to make her the best-known imperial concubine in Chinese history. People in all walks of life bought his poems in urban markets, and courtesans set his verses to music. He was one of China’s first international celebrities. The great Japanese novel from the tenth century, The Tale of Genji, quotes dozens of poems by Bo Juyi and his friends.
The Tang court, like all subsequent courts in imperial China, patronized many artists, and Chang’an became a magnet drawing the best painters in the land. Members of the elite continued in the Tang to be buried in tombs with elaborate paintings on the walls, but Tang artists also painted on vertical hanging scrolls or horizontal hand scrolls designed not for tombs but for private ownership by the living. Although few Tang paintings have survived the ravages of war and time, scholars now regard the Tang as the first great period of Chinese landscape painting. In the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Chang’an Chinese artisans quickly learned Persian metalworking techniques for making delicate objects in gold and silver. Merchant caravans from the West were so common that people began placing in tombs cheap painted and glazed porcelain representations of Western merchants and entertainers and their camels. Music from Central Asia also became popular in China and transformed Chinese popular musical tastes and styles. The pipa, a four-stringed lute originally from Persia, became a popular instrument in China during the Tang and has remained so ever since.
For several reasons, the Tang period was marked by an openness to foreign influences that has seldom been seen in China before or since. The imperial family of the Tang had long intermingled and intermarried with nomadic peoples of the northwest. Many foreign influences came to China with the unprecedented popularity of Buddhism during the Tang. And by extending Chinese power and influence into Central Asia, the Tang Empire greatly facilitated the flourishing trade of the Silk Roads. As the most powerful, prosperous, and creative civilization in the world in its own time, the Tang dynasty has ever since been a source of great cultural pride for the Chinese people. The meaning of the Cantonese name for Chinatown still today is “the streets of men of Tang.” Perhaps the clearest measure of the Tang’s success in building an empire is that in stark contrast to the Han, after the Tang collapse in 907, it only took half a century for a new dynasty to reunify the country again into one integrated whole.
This glazed terracotta funerary statue of a Central Asian caravaneer with his loaded camel was found in a Tang tomb. So popular was the Silk Road trade in Tang times that these ceramic camels with their “barbarian" caravaneers were frequently buried in the tombs of officials and royal families, in order to continue the supply of exotic goods from the far west to the ancestral souls of Tang aristocrats in the next world. Bridegman-Giraudon / Art Resource, NY