Tang Dynasty

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Tang Dynasty territory around the year 663

The Tang Dynasty ( Chinese  唐朝 , Pinyin Tángcháo ) was a Chinese imperial dynasty that was in power from 617/18 to 907. It succeeded the Sui Dynasty and preceded the Five Dynasties . The Tang dynasty was interrupted by Wu Zetian's Zhou dynasty ( 武 周 , Wǔ Zhōu , 690-705). The time of the Tang emperors is considered to be a high point in Chinese history in historical research .


Camel riders (ceramics from the Tang Dynasty)
Tang Taizong , emperor from 626 to 649

The period 617 to 660: State building

The dynasty was founded by the Chinese general Li Yuan , who conquered Chang'an in 617 amid numerous rebellions . In 618 he had the last Sui emperor Yangdi murdered. General Li Yuan now assumed the name Gaozu as emperor . He was considered an indecisive ruler who was always in the shadow of his son Li Shimin and finally had to abdicate in 626.

As Emperor Taizong, Li Shimin recorded a decisive victory over the Eastern Turks in 626/30 , which enabled the Tang dynasty to expand along the Silk Road and also opened up China to other countries (cf. e.g. Xuanzang ). Many foreign merchants and warriors subsequently poured into the country and shaped the urban culture of that time. With them came new things , for example the Chinese aristocracy at that time played polo , a game from Iran, which was only possible due to the widespread horse ownership through the control of the breeding areas in Gansu . Iranian, Indian and Turkish decorations could be found on every household item, foreigners were preferentially caricatured in drawings, women appeared in public on horseback in public and undisguised. Prince Li Chengqian († 645) even behaved like a Khan of the Turks.

China's capital during the Tang period was Chang'an (now Xi'an , about 1 million inhabitants); but Luoyang was also an important secondary capital of the dynasty.

The administration of Tang China was structured as follows:

  • Imperial Chancellery ( 門下 省 , ménxià shěng ): It supported the emperor in audiences and ceremonies, and collected the reports / memoranda for him.
  • Imperial Secretariat ( 中書省 , zhōngshū shěng ): It processed the emperor's edicts and, together with the Imperial Chancellery, controlled politics.
  • State Chancellery ( 尚書 省 , shàngshū shěng ): It was divided into the classic six ministries ( civil servants , finance , rites , army , justice and public works ), was the largest government department and was headed by two presidents.
  • State Council: It generally included the heads of the State Chancellery.
  • Additional offices with limited functions: Among them, the censorate ( 御史台 , yùshǐtái ) was of outstanding importance, as it monitored the officials politically / morally and checked compliance with basic guidelines.

The civil service was divided into nine rank classes, regardless of the function actually performed. Taizong also renewed the state civil servant exams (history, Confucian classics, poetry, and administrative aspects; a maximum of 10 percent of candidates passed) to attract better administrative officers. In practice, however, money and origin determined who became a civil servant, so that the highest posts remained reserved for the nobility.

The penal laws were simplified and softened, the school system promoted. The law of the Tang period, the Tanglü-shuyi, has been handed down in full. It was very extensive (over 500 paragraphs in 12 sections) and impresses with its seamless logic. Both the gravity or the nature of the crime and the social status of the victim were assessed. In addition to criminal law, the first outlines of a civil service law also emerged. Practical jurisdiction was subject to the prefectural authorities.

Towards the end of his life, Emperor Taizong († 649) plunged into an onerous war against Korea , which ultimately even isolated him within his own government. The first Arab embassy at the Tang court is noted for the year 651, sent by Caliph Uthman , in 643 even one from Byzantium reached the court. China's other wars against the Turks were successful - in 657/59 the Western Turks were also subjugated, a Persian prince named Peroz requested Chinese support against the Arabs in 661 - but the successes were not permanent.

The period 690 to 705: Era of Empress Wu

Emperor Gaozong (ruled 650–683) suffered from dizziness and headaches from 660 onwards. It was believed that he was slowly poisoned by his wife, who later became the "terrible empress" Wu Zhao (a former concubine), until his death in 683. Wu Zhao murdered her firstborn son and imprisoned two more of her sons. Then she assumed the imperial title in 690 and ruled (despite her numerous murders) with the support of Buddhists, the secret police and apparently large parts of the people (Second Zhou dynasty). In order not to have to fall back on the revolting military aristocracy of the north (from which the emperor family Li came), they promoted new people through their official examinations, especially from southern China.

The descriptions of the empress, taken from chronicles, must be viewed from a critical distance, traditionally women on the ruler's throne were always and at all times vilified by Chinese chroniclers, not a single ruler of China was portrayed in a positive light.

The period 705 to 907: climax and decline in power

Tang Xuanzong , emperor from 712 to 756

After Wu Zhao's fall in 705, rule fell to Emperor Xuanzong (ruled 713–756) after two murders and one abdication .

Under Xuanzong, Tang China first experienced a golden age of peace, culture and scholarship and then a sudden crash. Imperial policy was initially headed by Chancellor Zhang Jiuling († 740), a poet and man of the South. However, the emperor soon became indolent and became the willless tool of two favorites - Li Linfu and Yang Guozhong - and a concubine named Yang Guifei . Li Linfu († 752) directed imperial politics from 736 and was even able to obtain the execution of three sons of Xuanzong.

In the meantime, the increased military spending of constant wars along the Silk Road (751 Battle of the Talas against the Arabs) made itself felt in the form of increased taxes. Analogously, the balance of the state institutions dwindled: In the government there was a dispute between the noble and the officials recruited through state exams, while the old emperor withdrew completely into private life. In the army from 722 professional soldiers ( changcong suwei, i.e. standing guard corps) had established themselves, and the generals had been given too extensive powers because the first minister Li Linfu mistrusted civil administration in the provinces and wanted to create a counterbalance with the military. Despite his ousting the literary officials and promoting the military (often of foreign origin and only partially loyal), it would be inadequate to blame him for all of the guilt. The expansion of the Tang had long led to the fact that the powers of the military were increased, first in the military districts on the borders and from 711 also increasingly in the interior. The Jiedushi military governors eventually controlled the civil administrations in their jurisdiction in the middle of China, which was the real cause of the dynasty's decline in the second half of the 8th century.

The equilibrium tipped around 750, when the troops on the northern border outnumbered the imperial troops in the capital, and Li Linfu († 752) had placed them under two cousins, among whom the Turkic An Lushan developed a particular ambition. When An Lushan lost the power struggle against the new first minister Yang Guozhong at court, he instigated an uprising, the so-called An Lushan Rebellion . An Lushan captured Luoyang and Chang'an in 755/56, but was murdered the following year. Emperor Xuanzong († 762) fled to Chengdu and abdicated in favor of his son Suzong (r. 756–762). Although this won back the capitals in 757 with the help of the Uyghurs , the situation remained changeable until 763, as General Shi Siming continued the uprising. 36 million people are said to have died during the uprising, almost three quarters of the population at the time. In fact, this drastic slump primarily documents the collapse of the bureaucracy as a result of the war and thus the inability to carry out a comprehensive and accurate census. How great the population losses actually were cannot be determined. What is certain is that the An Lushan Rebellion devastated large parts of the country and permanently weakened the Tang Dynasty.

The Uyghurs , Tibetans and others now interfered repeatedly in China. Ambitious military governors inherited their offices and continually opposed the central authority, which was only a shadow of itself. Weak emperors, eunuchs or influential generals often ruled the court . The Emperor Dezong (r. 780–805), for example, had to flee the capital in 783/84 when he tried to suppress the power of some Jiedushi military governors through military action. Although he succeeded in eliminating some opponents by 786, he could no longer change the situation and therefore had to be content with compromises in order to restore peace.

The final downfall of the Tang came with the uprising of Huang Chao in 876–884 . This uprising cost even more lives than the An Lushan uprising, according to what was said at the time. The gang leader Huang Chao first devastated the southern provinces (including Canton 879) and then turned north. The Emperor Xizong (r. 874-88) fled to Chengdu in 881 and had to cede both capitals to Huang Chao, who killed various Tang princes and was only defeated in 884 by a Turkish cavalry corps. In 885 the emperor returned to Chang'an and died soon after.

The eunuchs took over the person of the emperor in 900 but were eliminated by a general named Zhu Wen (a defector Huang Chaos). After the necessary preparations, all Tang princes were killed by Zhu Wen in 907, which ended the dynasty.

Tang era economy and culture

Li Bai , ink painting by Liang Kai
Tang Beauty, Shanghai Museum

In the Tang era, China experienced an economic and cultural boom. The big cities grew and with them urban culture, but also crime. Poetry ( Li Bai , Du Fu ), painting, music ( Pipa ) and ceramic production reached a high level, in the technical field the letterpress developed and the production of gunpowder succeeded. Some Chinese inventions and discoveries of that time were letterpress printing with stamps around 600, the ticking water clock 725, diabetes mellitus around 640, direct observation of a comet's tail 635, hard-paste porcelain 700, matches 577 and, last but not least, the newspaper.

The basis of this social bloom were measures in the economic, social and tax areas. The canals of the Sui with their hubs and saving 587-608 favored the transportation of goods and the domestic trade , fed the capital and formed the basis of the economic recovery in the 8th and 9th centuries. Their control also allowed the Tang to maintain power in the difficult conditions following the 756 An Lushan Uprising. Mainly grain and silk were shipped. But the transport of rice also increased five to ten times within a century due to the increase in production thanks to improved cultivation (moving the saplings). In addition to inland shipping, mining (over 150 mines) and weaving (first private manufacturers ) were of particular economic importance.

The survival of small farmers and thus social peace ensured tax laws (619) and the associated agricultural ordinances (624). In it, the farmers were given evenly distributed plots for life. The serfdom disappeared. The principle was called "uniform field distribution" ( juntian ) and had already been practiced in a similar way by the Northern Qi and Zhou . The award was based on precise population censuses taking age into account, as well as a cadastral system for land evaluation and distribution. Depending on their rank, officials were also entitled to their service land ( zhitian ), which they had tenants (mostly wandering farmers) cultivate. The nobility also received land.

The system was undermined by manipulation (for example in the form of outdated figures), emigration, changed cultivation methods and the expansion of private and ecclesiastical property as early as the late 7th century. Already in a legal way it was possible for higher-ranking people to accumulate large estates that were managed by wandering or vagabond farmers. The smallholder class therefore fell into disrepair in the 8th century, and tax revenues fell in line with the accumulation of large estates and mass emigration to the south. Shortly before the An Lushan rebellion , only about 60 percent of households (i.e. 20% of the population) paid their taxes. Since direct taxation no longer worked, a tax reform took place between 769 and 780, which replaced the traditional taxes based on the number of people with taxation on property and the harvest. The new two (-Raten) -tax ( liang-shui fa ) of 780 was a flat tax without the (up to then usual) duties and compulsory labor , they also differed by rich and poor.

At the same time, like in the Han era , the state resorted to monopolies on salt (758), alcohol (782) and tea (793) to compensate for the loss of income. In this way the state made its income (here: profits) independent of the political situation. For the purpose of money transfers, the change was introduced around 806-820 . The monetary system subsequently developed in line with that of the Arab caliphate , in which tax money had to be transferred under similarly difficult political circumstances. A side effect of the state monopolies was the black market and the resulting gang activity, which favored the uprising of the Huang Chao (around 875).

Towards the end of the Tang epoch there was an increasing importance of property and trade, which established the early capitalist development in the subsequent Song epoch . Despite this development (including the disappearance of serfdom ) feudalism continued to exist, as purely political rights were exercised over the producers.

The Tang Dynasty was characterized by a cultural and religious opening to the outside world. The Buddhism , particularly the Chan -School, stood by his support from Wu Chao still in full bloom, you saw many pilgrimages to India. A copy of the Diamond Sutra is considered to be the first printed book product in human history, made in 868 after the end of the great Buddhist persecution in wood printing . Educated Chinese based their social behavior on the teachings of Confucius , their position in nature was explained to them by Daoism and the spiritual cultivation of the mind was incumbent on Buddha . These three philosophies and religions were subsidized by the state. In the meantime, however, the East Syrian Bishop Alopen from Persia was officially received by Emperor Taizong in the capital Chang'an and commissioned with the translation of Christian scriptures and the establishment of monasteries in numerous cities of the empire. Through foreign merchants and warriors, Islam and Manichaeism also found their way into China. Foreign merchants took care of the transit trade over land and sea, and maintained their own trading offices in fast-growing cities such as Canton . The main trade products were tea, china and silk.

On the other hand, after the An Lushan uprising, foreigners were held responsible for the situation in the country. Around 800 there was a kind of intellectual turn in the country, a return to traditional ideas, which was expressed in the simplification of simple nationalism. The allegation was that the pure and simple Chinese culture had been corrupted and weakened by Buddhism and foreign influences. In the year 836, dealing with "colored people" (Sogdians, Iranians, Arabs, Indians) was forbidden, in 843 their religions were banned, and it was also ordered that foreigners dress like Chinese. Many foreigners were slain in the unrest in the cities, several thousand 760 in Yangzhou and 120,000 in Canton 879.

The loss of control on the Silk Road also cut Buddhism off from its regions of origin in the southwest, thus initiating its decline in the country. The power and wealth of the Buddhist monasteries aroused the envy of many. The state in particular found itself in a financial crisis - in 845 the Emperor Wuzong had most of the 4,600 monasteries and 40,000 shrines destroyed or converted into public buildings and the monastic property confiscated, whereby the state gained additional capital from trading companies that was subordinate to the temples .

See also


  • Charles Benn: China's Golden Age. Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty. Oxford University Press, New York / NY 2004, ISBN 0-19-517665-0 .
  • Peter K. Bol: "This Culture of Ours." Intellectual Transitions in T'ang and Sung China. Stanford University Press, Stanford / CA 1992, ISBN 0-8047-1920-9 .
  • Otto Franke : History of the Chinese Empire. Volume 2. De Gruyter, Berlin / Leipzig 1936.
  • Charles Hartmann: Han Yü and the T'ang Search for Unity. Princeton University Press, Princeton / NJ 1986.
  • Dieter Kuhn (Ed.): China's Golden Age. The Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) and the cultural heritage of the Silk Road. Edition Braus, Heidelberg 1993, ISBN 3-89466-069-4 .
  • Mark Edward Lewis: China's Cosmopolitan Empire. The Tang Dynasty. Belknap, London / Cambridge (Massachusetts) 2009.
  • Colin Mackerras : The Uighur Empire according to the T'ang dynastic Histories. A Study in Sino-Uighur Relations 744-840. Canberra 1972
  • David McMullen: State and Scholars in T'ang China. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1988, ISBN 0-521-32991-4 .
  • Stephen Owen: The Great Age of Chinese Poetry. The High T'ang. Yale University Press, New Haven 1981, ISBN 0-300-02367-7 .
  • Denis C. Twitchett : Financial Administration under the T'ang Dynasty. 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1970, ISBN 0-521-07823-7 .
  • Denis C. Twitchett: The Writing of Official History under the T'ang. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1992, ISBN 0-521-41348-6 .
  • Denis C. Twitchett, John K. Fairbank (Eds.): The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 3: Sui and T'ang China, 589-906. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1979, ISBN 0-521-21446-7 .
  • Arthur F. Wright, Denis C. Twitchett (Eds.): Perspectives on the T'ang. Yale University Press, New Haven 1973, ISBN 0-300-02674-9 .
  • Howard Wechsler: Offerings of Jade and Silk. Ritual and Symbol in the Legitimation of the T'ang Dynasty. Yale University Press, New Haven 1985, ISBN 0-300-03191-2 .
  • Stanley Weinstein: Buddhism under the T'ang. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1987, ISBN 0-521-25585-6 .

Web links

Commons : Tang Dynasty  - album containing pictures, videos and audio files