Lecture Twelve

The Early Tang Dynasty

Scope: Tang rule was established by the father-and-son team of Li Yuan and Li Shimin. The early Tang also saw the only period in Chinese history when the imperial throne was occupied by a woman ruling in her own name. Wu Zetian deposed her nephew in 690 and ruled as empress until 705. She has remained a controversial figure in later Chinese historical writing, largely because it has almost all been written by men. In the first half of the 8th century, Emperor Xuanzong presided over a long period of economic growth and cultural flourishing. But at mid-century, the dynasty was nearly brought to an end by a great rebellion, led by a general named An Lushan and sparked, in part, by rumors of An’s illicit relationship with the emperor’s favorite concubine, Yang Guifei.


I. The Tang dynasty consolidated its rule and expanded its territory through the 7th century.

A. After taking over from his father in 626, Li Shimin held the throne until 649.

1. Li Shimin proved to be an energetic and competent ruler.

2. He regularized the administrative system of six ministries that the Sui had initiated and set up a separate bureaucracy to administer the imperial household.

3. He pursued a series of successful military campaigns that added or regained territory in Korea and Vietnam and extended Tang power far into Central Asia along the Silk Road.

4. His capital, called Chang’an and located at the modern site of Xian, had a population of two million people and was the largest city in the world.

B. As the Tang stabilized, economic and demographic growth was quick.

1. International trade brought many exotic goods to the capital markets.

2. Peace and security in the empire led to increasing agricultural production.

3. The population expanded both through new territorial acquisitions and through natural growth.

4. The social order, which had evolved in an aristocratic direction during the Northern and Southern Dynasties, was codified and regulated by the imperial government, using official registers to maintain the genealogical records of the great families.

5. These great families dominated court politics and provided the men who filled government offices.

II. In 690, the dowager empress Wu Zetian took the throne.

A. No woman had ever ruled in her own right.

1. Some empresses and their families had been quite powerful behind the scenes.

2. Wu Zetian proclaimed her own dynasty, called the Zhou, but this has not been recognized in later official histories.

B. Although Confucian scholars have seen her as evil, Wu Zetian seems to have been a reasonably good ruler.

1. Her 15 years on the throne were peaceful and prosperous for the country.

2. She consciously worked to undermine the dominance of the great families from the northwest and, in the process, opened the government to fresh talent by recruiting men from other parts of the country.

3. She was a patron of Buddhism and seems to have allowed certain monks to strongly influence her decisions.

4. After she abdicated in 705, male Confucian historians have almost unanimously denounced her, not so much on the basis of what she actually did as on the grounds that it was simply not proper for a woman to rule.

II. The restored Tang dynasty entered its greatest age in the first half of the 8th century.

A. The emperor Xuanzong, who reigned from 713-756, presided over an age of prosperity and cultural dynamism.

1. The economy continued to flourish, and international trade grew even more extensive.

2. Chang’an became an entrepot for merchants and travelers from the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and the Inner Asian steppes.

3. Buddhist monasteries became centers of art and philosophy and grew in wealth and influence.

B. These years were also a great age for Chinese poetry.

1. Some of the greatest poets in Chinese history lived and wrote at this time.

2. Li Bo, Du Fu, and Meng Haoran were only three of the many poets who served at court or in the Tang government.

С. As the years passed, however, Xuanzong withdrew from daily oversight of the government and became more involved with mystical religion and with his favorite concubine, Yang Guifei.

1. In addition to his patronage of Buddhism, Xuanzong was fascinated with mystical Daoism and the quest for immortality.

2. As he withdrew into the Inner Palace, he delegated more and more daily power to various officials, who competed among themselves for imperial favor.

3. The emperor had many women in his household, but he became especially devoted to Yang Guifei, literally, “Yang the Precious Concubine.”

4. Yang shared the emperor’s daily life in the palace and seems to have influenced him in state affairs, as well.

III. At the century’s midpoint, a great rebellion threatened to bring the dynasty down.

A. The man who led the rebellion was An Lushan.

1. An Lushan was a Uighur, from Central Asia.

2. The Tang had adopted a policy of employing non-Chinese military leaders for border defense.

3. An Lushan led the garrison at what is now Beijing.

4. He was a favorite of the emperor, but his enemies at court whispered that he was having illicit relations with Yang Guifei.

5. When the emperor ordered him to come to the capital, An Lushan brought his army with him, and this move was seen as rebellion.

B. The An Lushan rebellion lasted from 755 to 763.

1. The rebels drove the emperor from the capital; he fled to Sichuan.

2. In 756, Xuanzong abdicated in favor of his son.

3. An Lushan died during the rebellion, and his son took over leadership.

4. Eventually, the Tang dynasty was able to overcome the rebels but at the cost of giving away much of its power to military strongmen in the south and southeast.

5. The dynasty never fully recovered, but it did survive for another century and a half, which we will turn to in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Arthur F. Wright and Denis Twitchett, eds., Perspectives on the T’ang.

Supplemental Reading:

Sally Hovey Wriggins, Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Rood.

Questions to Consider:

1. Why were traditional historians so hostile to the reign of Wu Zetian? Is there anything inherent in Confucian ideas that would bias them against her?

2. The Tang dynasty has been seen by later Chinese as one of the most glorious periods in their history. It was also, perhaps, the most cosmopolitan period in China before the modern age. How might this perception of the past be a factor in China’s self-image today?

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