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The Tang Dynasty

The Tang Dynasty

The Tang dynasty was one of China’s cultural and political apexes. China expanded politically during this time all the way to Korea, Vietnam, and inner Asia. In the Tang era, Buddhist monasteries were especially susceptible to growth in power and wealth. Foreign religions like Islam, Judaism, and Christianity were able to take their first steps in China during the reign of the second emperor Tang Gao Zong.

The first Tang emperor ascended the throne in 618 C.E. He had been the aristocrat Li Yuan, leader of a rebellion in northern China against the last emperor of the Sui dynasty. After this ruler, Yang Di, was assassinated and Chang’an was occupied, Li Yuan declared himself Emperor Tang Gao Zu, driven by his ambitious second son, Li Shi Min, who in 626 became the second emperor of the Tang dynasty, taking the name Tai Zong—but not before causing his brother to be hanged. One of his first official acts was the elimination of all his nephews, as he feared they would take revenge for their father’s death. In spite of his unscrupulousness, Li Shi Min is considered one of the most significant rulers of China.

Gao Zong expanded the empire war to the northwest and secured trade along the Silk Road for many years. Trading experienced a bloom under the Tang. Trading partners included India, Sri Lanka, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Samarkand. Contact with Nestorian Christianity was established; Judaism and Islam too came into the land and were tolerated, although the emperor himself was a follower of Daoism. Under the second Tang emperor, Korea came under Chinese influence, when a people associated with China took over all of Korea. Chinese influence reached via Korea to Japan.

Reforms in the Tang dynasty The emperor undertook important administrative reforms. During the Tang dynasty, civil servant testing, taxation, and agricultural law were reformed and the administration rearranged into the following divisions:

  • Department of State (shang shu sheng), subdivided into six ministries (the Boards of Civil Appointment, Finance, Rites, War, Punishments, and Works)
  • Imperial Chancellery (men xia sheng)
  • Imperial Secretariat
  • Censorate

This latter played an important role in monitoring administrative affairs in order to uncover corruption and graft. Tai Zong succeeded in curtailing the nobles’ power and in introducing agricultural reform that brought the peasants noticeable advantages (e.g., land grants, substitution of compulsory labor with a levy on produce). The famous Tang Codex, a collection of regulations and the oldest extant Chinese codex, dates from this time.

Empress Wu Ze Tian (Wu Zhao)

Wu Ze Tian was the only woman in Chinese history to official take the title of Empress, and even founded her own dynasty. She was damned by the Confucian historiography, depicted out-and-out negatively although she did nothing different from her male predecessors: she killed possible claimants to the throne, sometimes member of her own family, and did everything possible to secure herself power.

Wu Zhao was a concubine of Emperor Tai Zong. After his death, she entered a Buddhist monastery but then became the first wife of his son, Emperor Gao Zong (649 – 683 B.C.E.). Long before Gao Zong’s death, she was the actual, if unofficial, sovereign, although her son acceded first. In 690 she unseated her son, officially took the title of Empress and the name Wu Ze Tian, and founded her own dynasty. She ruled for 15 years and abdicated in 705.

After her death, her son became emperor, but his wife Wei similarly tried to take the throne. She killed him in 710, but her schemes did not come to fruition. The emperor’s brother Rui Zong took over, but abdicated two years later in favor of his son Li Long-ji.

The following fifty years are considered the golden age of the Tang dynasty. Li Long-jii undertook financial reforms, led censuses, and reorganized the army. Under his rule, the empire not only expanded but also experienced a cultural blossoming.

Near the end of Lo Long-ji’s reign, however, revolts erupted, led by military potentates who were able to increase their power via mercenary armies (the army was converted from a militia to a mercenary one in 722 C.E.), to whom they felt more responsible than to the emperor. The peasantry was also disquieted because more and more of them were losing their land to large landholders. From 755 to 763, many uprisings took place in the empire, notably the rebellion of Governor An Lu Shan, weakening the empire. The capital was conquered, first by An Lu Shan and later plundered by Uigurian relatives of the imperial house. Tibetans too were a threat to the empire and were able to expand deep into Chinese territory. In 805 a peace accord with the Tibetans was agreed to.

Slow Decline of the Imperial House All the later Tang emperors were weak and controlled more and more by the court eunuchs. The Tang dynasty achieved a sort of renaissance, but the central government remained weak and had to allow regional commanders greater autonomy. Famines and peasant revolts accelerated the dissolution of the dynasty starting in 874 C.E. Zhu Wen (a former rebel) who at first defected to the government, then plundered the capital in 903 and killed the emperor a year later, founded his own dynasty in 907. Although a child emperor ruled from 904 to 907, he was kept under house arrest, was forced to abdicate, and later was murdered.

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