The Tang Dynasty: The Arts Flourished, Family Ties Broke, and a Concubine Became Empress
While Europe was masked in the Dark Ages, China was flourishing in the Tang Dynasty. Woodblock printing gave them books, testing made government jobs available to common citizens, paper spread throughout Asia, poetry, music and other artistic and creative notions were encouraged… and the Tang Dynasty may have even seen the creation of the first fireworks!
The Tang Dynasty was an imperial Chinese dynasty that existed between the 7th and 10th centuries AD, with a short interruption between the end of the 7th and beginning of the 8th centuries AD. This dynasty is often regarded as the golden age of Chinese history, especially in the arts and culture. It was also during the Tang Dynasty that Buddhism rose to prominence in Chinese society.
This golden age did not last forever, however, as rebellions during the second half of the 9th century AD brought an end to the dynasty and ushered in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, during which China was once again fragmented.
A full view of the Giant Buddha Statue of Leshan, Sichuan, China. (Ariel Steiner/ CC BY SA 2.5 )
Early Tang Dynasty Emperors
The Tang Dynasty was founded by Li Yuan (known also as Emperor Gaozu of Tang), a government official in the preceding Sui Dynasty. The second emperor of the Sui Dynasty, Emperor Yang of Sui, is traditionally regarded to have been a tyrant, and various rebellions broke out towards the end of his reign.
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The leader of one of these was Li Yuan, who proclaimed himself the emperor of a new dynasty, the Tang Dynasty in 618 AD, following the news of Emperor Yang’s death during a coup led by General Yuwen Huaji. Still, the Tang Dynasty did not control the whole of China at this point of time - that was achieved gradually in the decade that followed.
Portrait painting of Emperor Yang of Sui, commissioned in 643 by Taizong, painted by Yan Liben (600–673). ( Public Domain )
The reign of Emperor Gaozu of Tang is remembered as a prosperous one. Certain systems implemented by the Sui Dynasty were adopted and reforms were also enacted to improve the life of Chinese people.
For instance, the Sui system of taxation and land-distribution were adopted. Additionally, laws were re-codified, with stated penalties for specific offences, and were reviewed every 20 years. The legal code created by Emperor Gaozu was used by subsequent dynasties and even by other countries.
Three Deaths to the Throne
Emperor Gaozu was succeeded by one of his sons, Li Shimin (known also as Emperor Taizong of Tang). The second emperor deposed his father and killed two of his brothers in order to gain the Chinese throne.
A Chinese limestone statue of a mourning attendant, from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), dated to the 7th century. (PericlesofAthens/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Whilst such actions may be regarded to be in contradiction with the Confucian ideal of filial piety, Emperor Taizong proved himself to be a highly capable ruler and is often considered to be one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history. During Emperor Taizong’s reign, the Tang Dyansty extended from northern Vietnam in the south to northern Korea in the north and as far west as Central Asia.
Emperor Taizong gives an audience to Ludongzan the ambassador of Tibet. ( Public Domain )
Numerous technological and cultural advances were also made during his reign. For instance, woodblock printing was developed during this time. And Emperor Taizong is remembered for his policy of religious tolerance, which allowed foreign religions such as Christianity and Buddhism to establish themselves in China.
The Concubine Who Ended the Tang Dynasty…and (Temporarily) Created a New One
The next notable Tang ruler is Wu Zetian, a concubine of Emperor Taizong, who later became the first concubine of his successor, Emperor Gaozong. Eventually, Wu Zetian would abolish the Tang Dynasty, and proclaim herself as the Empress Regnant of the newly-established Zhou Dynasty in 690 AD.
This dynasty lasted only 15 years, however, as Wu Zetian was deposed in a coup which restored the Tang Dynasty. Like the first two Tang emperors, Wu Zetian is also remembered as a formidable ruler. Wu Zetian made many important contributions to Chinese history, including the elevation of the status of Buddhism, the improvement of the education system, and her contributions to the arts.
Empress Wu Zetian. ( Public Domain )
Golden Ages Must End
It was during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong that the Tang Dynasty reached its golden age. During this period, the economy was flourishing thanks to trade that traveled along the Silk Route. This prosperity allowed the government to carry out various construction projects. Roads and administrative buildings and temples were built. Two of China’s greatest poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, lived during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong, making unrivalled contributions to the arts.
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A poem by Li Bai (701–762 AD), the only surviving example of Li Bai's calligraphy, housed in the Palace Museum in Beijing. ( Public Domain )
The beginning of the Tang Dynasty’s decline also occurred during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong, who ruled for a total of 43 years. Towards the end of Emperor Xuanzong’s reign, the An Lushan Rebellion broke out, which lasted from 755 AD to 763 AD. Although the rebellion was eventually put down, the Tang Dynasty was no longer as strong as it once was. Nevertheless, the Tang Dynasty continued to rule China for about another century and a half.
The Tang Dynasty came to an end in 908 AD, when its last emperor, Emperor Ai of Tang, was deposed by Zhu Wen, a former rebel who surrendered to the Tang forces and rose to lead a military government. The end of the Tang Dynasty plunged China into yet another era of chaos and strife, which is known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.
Zhu Wen. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: A ceramic female polo player, from northern China, Tang Dynasty, first half of the 8th century, made with white slip and polychrome. From the Musée Guimet (Guimet Museum), Paris. ( Public Domain ) Background: ‘Xuanzong's Journey to Shu’, in the manner of the mid-8th century Tang artist Li Zhaodao, an 11th-century Song dynasty remake. ( Public Domain )
By: Wu Mingren
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