The Tang Dynasty

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Tang Dynasty

The Tang dynasty embodied the culmination of much of the political and intellectual progress made under the Han dynasty. Tai Zong, who succeeded to the Chinese throne in AD 626, perfected the design of the Chinese government: a three-branch organization of the military, the ministers, and the censors, with the last functioning as the emperor’s intelligence service. The emperor was the head of state, but it was the ministers’ job to make and carry out policy. The inner court immediately around the emperor became highly liable to corruption under the Tang dynasty; the emperor’s closest advisors often squabbled among themselves, typically exercising as much domination over him as they could. Since it was fairly common for a small child to become emperor, this influence could be considerable. The Dowager Empress (the widow of one emperor and the mother of his successor) could also wield considerable power during her son’s minority.

The Han had initiated merit examinations for civil service positions; this tradition was expanded and emphasized under the Tang and would reach its final form in the Song era. The exam was designed to test the applicant’s knowledge and understanding of Confucianism, his memory of the classics, his calligraphy, and his writing skills. Since it was extraordinarily difficult, it also tested his ability to perform under pressure. This exam would remain a requirement for government employment until 1905, and it had three major effects on the future of Chinese government. First, it created a strong link between government and scholarship; nothing like this existed in the West, where an administrator’s practical abilities were of much greater concern. Second, it ensured that the state would maintain Chinese orthodoxy—in other words, Confucianism. This demonstrated a basic theme of Chinese history: resistance to innovation. Third, the examination proved a unifying factor for the administration for centuries to come; everyone who had a government post, whether stationed in remote provinces or in the capital, had the same training and the same scholarly back- ground. Dynasties and emperors would rise and fall, but the makeup of the bureaucracy would remain a constant.

Tang society was divided into three ranks: the extended royal family, the nobles, and the commoners. It was unusual for commoners to move up in rank, although it sometimes happened, particularly as the result of military prowess or by acquiring a great fortune in trade. In theory, the civil service was a meritocracy because it required the passage of the exam; however, it would be all but impossible for a commoner to acquire the scholarly knowledge required to pass the exam.

Buddhism spread throughout the region during the Tang era; by the turn of the first millennium, it had taken firm hold in Korea and Japan. The fact that many Chinese also practiced Buddhism made it something of a unifying factor in the region. However, the Tang did not welcome religious diversity in their realm; the state dissolved thousands of Buddhist monasteries during this era. Since there is also persuasive evidence that the Chinese were tolerant of diversity and even welcomed some degree of it, some historians have speculated that the Tang may have been more concerned with seizing valuable property than with stamping out a belief system.

China reached its greatest geographical expansion to date under the Tang, acquiring control over the Silk Road and establishing protectorates as far west as Samarkand. Changan, the Tang capital, was considerably farther west than earlier Chinese capital cities and was undoubtedly the grandest and most impressive city in the world during this period. All the peoples using the Silk Road came to Changan; it absorbed Turks, Persians, Arabians, Koreans, Japanese, Indians, and peoples from the Southeast Asian kingdoms and islands. All of these various peoples brought in elements and ideas from their own cultures, all of which were assimilated into mainstream Chinese culture. This is particularly true of the Persian influence, since Persia was geographically close to China and thus its traders were the most numerous.

The Tang era was one of tremendous economic prosperity. Control over the Silk Road and the expansion of international trade created great wealth for China. Good harvests were another major reason for the economic surge. It was also an era of impressive artistic and cultural achievements; the manufacture of fine ceramics and other luxury goods was both aesthetically desirable and economically profitable, since these objects were highly valued by foreign customers. Chinese culture dominated the East Asian region.

The Tang army remained supreme in the region until the disastrous year of AD 751, when they lost two major battles. At the Battle of Talas River, the armies of the Abbasid caliphate took over Afghanistan, expanding the Muslim Empire as far as the Indus Valley. After the battle, the two sides agreed on a permanent border between the Tang and Abbasid empires. Another battle took place in the south, against the independent kingdom of Nanzhao; perhaps as many as sixty thousand Chinese soldiers fell in this battle.

Another heavy blow against the Tang state came in 755, when the military commander An Lushan led a rebellion against the emperor. Tens of thousands of Chinese supported him. Although the government eventually managed to put down the rebellion, it was severely and permanently weakened. This weakness was demonstrated in 787 when the Tibetans marched into Changan and sacked it; in 791, they struck again, defeating the Chinese near Beshbaliq. After this time, the Tang languished in power; provincial governors usurped much of their authority. The last Tang emperor was deposed in 907.

The Chinese population grew enormously in the Tang era—so much so that it began to impoverish the land, and this process continued gradually over the following centuries. As the country grew more and more crowded, land was divided into to more and more plots—with the plots, of course, becoming smaller and smaller. This meant even greater poverty and struggle for the subsistence farmers who made up the great majority of the Chinese population.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

East Asian and American Civilization Practice Test

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