Home Chinese Culture China History The Tang Dynasty — Golden Age of Literature and Art

The Tang Dynasty — Golden Age of Literature and Art

huaqing hot springsHuaqing Hot Spring, a famous royal garden located near Xi'an, is famed for both its dainty spring scenery and the romantic love story of Emperor Xuanzong and his concubine Yang Guifei in the Tang Dynasty.

The Tang Dynasty (618–907) supplanted the industrious but brutal Sui Dynasty. Itflourished culturally for over a century, before disaster and conflict slowly brought decline. It disintegrated into the bloody Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907–960).

The Tang Dynasty was one of the most prosperous dynasties in Chinese history. It was the golden age for poetry and painting and best known for tri-colored glazed pottery and woodblock printing.

Similarities With the Western Han Empire

The Tang Empire was like the Han Empire in foreign trade, land area, population, capital cities, and the beginning and end of the empires.

The land area of the Western Han Empire and the Tang Empire was about the same. However, the Tang Empire didn't include the southern regions around Yunnan. This area was the territory of the Nanzhou Empire that had a capital near Dali. The Tang empire expanded westward into Central Asia.

Like the Western Han Empire, when the Tang Empire was at its height, Chang'an (today's Xi'an) was its capital city. In both eras, Chang'an was one of the largest cities in the world. Interestingly, the imperial courts of both empires sought refuge in Luoyang when Chang'an was attacked.

At its height, the Tang Empire had about the same size of population as the Western Han Empire did at its height, about 50 or 60 million people.

Like the Western Han Dynasty, the Tang Dynasty benefited from trade along the Silk Road trade routes and was influenced by contact with the West. They benefited from this trade and conquests in Central Asia in the early years, and the Tang Empire grew larger and more prosperous, and a new direction was set for religion and culture.

  • Tour the Silk Road sites with us. We offer a number of packages that bring to life the sights along the historic land route from Xi'an to Turpan and Kashgar.

In both empires, the first emperor emerged by defeating rivals during a general rebellion against a tyrannical emperor of a large but very short-lived empire.

Both first emperors emerged during an era of natural disasters reminiscent of the course of the Mandate of Heaven. Both empires ended by fragmentation into warring kingdoms.

The Pre-Tang Era: 581–618

the tang-style music and danceThe Tang-style Music and Dance, a performance featuring elements of Tang Dynasty.

The Tang Dynasty clan emerged when people of the Sui Empire rebelled against their rulers. The Sui Empire fell in the year 618.

The Sui Empire is often compared with the Qin Empire (221–206 BC) that preceded the Western Han Empire. Both the Sui and Qin rulers were ruthless. The emperors of both empires forced the people to build mammoth construction projects.

It is interesting that both dynasties built a Great Wall along the northern part of their empires involving the labor of millions of slaves.

The Sui Dynasty also constructed much of the Grand Canal by the labor of millions of workers. Perhaps half of the laborers died as a result. It was a major feat of construction and one of the greatest in the world at the time.

The Grand Canal is the longest canal in the world, and the relative ease of travel on it increased the Tang Empire's prosperity.

However, the people hated the dynasty's imposition of high taxes, forced labor for the huge construction projects, and the wars. The Sui Empire ended in rebellions.

The Early Tang Dynasty

The Li family emerged as powerful rulers in the time of chaos of the collapse of the Sui Dynasty. After capturing Chang'an, a noble and general named Li Yuan (566–635) declared himself the emperor of the Tang Empire in the year 618.

He defeated rival commanders, and his position as emperor seemed secure. However, his rule was cut short in the year 626 when one of his own sons named Li Shimin forced him to retire.

The Second Emperor, Li Shimin

Li Shimin (599–649) is famous. Li Shimin killed his two brothers to gain the position of emperor. He was a famous and long-lived emperor and is known as the Emperor Taizong (唐太宗, Tang Great Religion).

He promoted Buddhism in the Tang Empire. He also promoted Nestorian Christianity. During his reign, the empire prospered. Silk Road trade flourished, and the Taizong Emperor received foreign emissaries in Chang'an.

The Gokturks in central Asia were defeated, and the Tang Empire expanded westward. This helped to keep the Silk Road routes secure.

Emperor Taizong also instituted a legal code that served as a model for following eras and for the governments of other countries such as Korea and Japan.

He died in 649, and he was buried in the Zhaoling Mausoleum.

  • See our Xi'an tours to visit the Zhaoling Mausoleum and museum and to learn about the Tang Dynasty.

There was a period of relative peace and prosperity afterwards. The dynastic clan made use of appointed Confucian bureaucrats as did the Western Han Dynasty, and the empire prospered under stable rule for a while.

Confucian Officials

The Tang court used examinations to appoint many Confucian scholars to the ruling bureaucracy. These examinations tested the candidates' literary skills and knowledge of Confucian texts.

The courts used this exam system to staff a portion of the empire's bureaucracy. This was a foreshadowing of the rule of Neo-Confucian literati in the Song Dynasty.

The rule by the literati was useful because the bureaucracy was staffed by intelligent people who often didn't have a regional base of power of their own. They were dependent on the courts for their pay. This kept them loyal to the clan.

They also had the respect of the people from their homelands, and they were held to to be of noble character by the general population. So they helped to order the affairs of the peasants and their homelands. This bureaucratic system broke down in the middle of the 700s however.

Prosperity of the Empire

In these years, the Tang Empire reached its height before the An Lushan Rebellion in 756. A census was taken in 742, and based on this, the population of the empire is thought to have been about 50 or 60 million.

Chang'an become one of the biggest cities in the world. Perhaps only Baghdad in the Middle East was bigger. Along with the increase of wealth and urbanization, arts and literature flourished.

In the middle of the 700s, possibly the best poets in Chinese history named Li Bai and Du Fu were writing. The two poets survived the An Lushan Rebellion, and the hardships colored and tempered their poetry to touch even the hearts of modern Chinese. See below.

Tour Early Tang Era Sites in Xi'an

Xi'an tours: You can learn about this prosperous period of the Tang Empire's history by touring the imperial clan's mausoleums. These include the Qianling tomb complex at Liangshan. This large complex contains the tomb of Emperor Gaozong who was the son of Li Shimin and Gaozong's wife who was named Wu Zetian.

Gaozong was the third emperor in the dynastic line. In the same complex are the tomb areas of his descendants, Prince Yide and Prince Zhuanghuai

The Middle Tang Era: External Attacks and Civil War

But then civil war, famine, and external attacks caused the death of millions. First in the year 750, the Nanzhao in Yunnan rebelled against the Tang Dynasty.

The Rise of the Nanzhao

The Nanzhao Empire was a rich and powerful empire that was centered in what is now Yunnan Province. Its capital city was near modern Dali.

They destroyed a large Tang army that was sent against them in 751. Another large Tang army was defeated in 754.

The Nanzhao Empire expanded into Burma, Thailand, the rest of Yunnan, and Sichuan. In 829, their army took the city of Chengdu in Sichuan.

The Nanzhao Empire controlled of the lucrative Chama Road or Southern Silk Road routes to Tibet and Southeast Asia, and it was wealthy from the trade in tea, silk and other products produced in the southern part of the Tang Empire and the Nanzhao Empire.

Their wealth and culture can be gauged by one of the structures they built. The tallest of the Three Pagodas of Dali was one of the tallest pagodas built during the Tang era, and it still stands after more than 1,000 years.

Arab Attack

At the same time, the Muslim Arabs sought to expand their empire and attacked from the west. In the Battle of Talas in 751, they defeated a Tang army composed of Tang troops and local mercenaries along the western border.

The mercenaries tricked the Tang troops. They secretly changed sides and attacked them during the battle. Perhaps about 8,000 Tang troops were killed.

This loss wasn't considered a big defeat compared to the losses against the Nanzhao. The Tang court prepared to send another army into the region, but these troops were called back to fight the An Lushan army in 756.

In this way, the Tang Empire lost a portion of their western territory, and they lost their control of the Silk Road route to the West as well. 

An Lushan's Rebellion

An Lushan was a general of a large Tang army. He was of Central Asian descent. He rebelled in 755 and captured the major Tang city of Luoyang. Then he captured Chang'an. The emperor fled the city.

The Tang army recaptured it a year later. Shortly after that, An Lushan was killed. Another general of the rebel army was also killed by his own son. The rebellion lasted eight years and ended in 763, but it severely weakened the empire.

The Tibetans Attack

The Tibetan Empire was a large and dangerous one on the southeast border of the Tang Empire. Taking advantage of the war, they attacked the Tang Empire and captured a large part of the northern land area including Chang'an in 763.

The Last Decades of the Tang Dynasty (late 700s–907)

After the wars of the middle 700s, the power of the Tang Dynasty was diminished. Although the dynastic clan retook Chang'an and the Tibetans were driven back, local rulers and army leaders had more of the power, and various regions became more autonomous. The empire ended in natural disasters, defeats, and rebellions.

The Mixed Fortunes of the Dynastic Clan in the Last Decades

Overall, the dynastic clan and their empire prospered less than before. The Silk Road trade was diminished because rival countries had control in Central Asia. Chang'an was attacked several more times. Even the quality of the literature wasn't as fine. At times various regions prospered, but on the whole the empire was weaker and smaller and beset by internal struggles and external attacks.

Regional rulers called Jiedushi raised their own armies, and they taxed the areas under their control. They started to act more like kings, and they appointed their own successors. In the places where the Tang court didn't have direct control, the regional rulers relied less on the Confucian literati. The imperial dynasty attacked several regions, but the emperors could not regain the earlier imperial control.

Several regions in the east such as those around Hangzhou and Suzhou prospered. Foreign merchants settled in large and rich cities such as Hangzhou. Large ships were built that sailed all the way to the Arabia and Africa to trade. Since the imperial government had less direct control of trade and industry, the merchant class prospered and grew in power.

Private trade and industry developed. An imperial land allocation system that was used for taxation in the earlier Tang era was abandoned, and this allowed large agricultural estates to form.

The Course of the Mandate of Heaven

In its last hundred years the Tang Empire suffered major natural disasters of both flooding and drought. The disasters too was reminiscent of the end of the Western Han Empire (during the rule of Wang Mang) when the Yellow River flooded rich areas and caused large scale famine.

First, in 858, the Grand Canal flooded massively and inundated much land in the northern part of China.

Then in the year 873, a horrific drought and famine swept not only the empire but the whole of Eurasia, during a period of cold and dry climate like the Little Ice Age of 1600. Agricultural production fell by more than half. People and livestock starved.

Then there was then a large rebellion called the Huang Chao Rebellion (874–884). People who survived the flooding and famine rose up against the government. Both Chang'an and Luoyang were captured, and the dynasty was greatly weakened.

Afterwards, small armies controlled various areas. In 907, Zhu Wen deposed the last Tang ruler, and he named himself the emperor of a new empire.

Tang Era Literature

The Tang era's main contribution to Chinese literature was in the poetry of Du Fu, Li Bai and many other poets who lived during the beginning and middle periods of the Tang Empire. It is thought that the best poetry was written at this time.

Dufu and Li Bai are often thought of as China's greatest poets. They were contemporaries and lived through the warfare and widespread suffering of the middle years of the Tang Empire. They both traveled widely and wrote about the scenery in various locations.

Both lived in Chang'an at one time and described their experiences of war and suffering. It is thought their poems improved through these experiences. Their poems are appreciated because of their simple style and common subject matter.

Li Bai (701–762) was one of the greatest romantic poets of ancient China. He wrote at least a thousand poems on a variety of subjects from political matters to natural scenery.

Du Fu (712–770 AD) also wrote more than a thousand poems. He is thought of as one of the greatest realist poets of China. His poems reflect the hard realities of war, dying people living next to rich rulers, and primitive rural life.

He was an official in the Tang capital of Chang'an, and he was captured when the capital was attacked. He took refuge in Chengdu that is a city in Sichuan Province.

It is thought that he lived in a simple hut in Chengdu where he wrote many of his best realist poems. Perhaps more than 1,400 of his poems survive.

Tang Era Achievements in Technology

Woodblock printing was a famous invention of the Tang era. Early in the Tang era, the spread of Buddhism was assisted with the invention of woodblock printing techniques. Buddhist texts and charms were printed and disseminated.

It is recorded that woodblock printing was used to print scriptures around the year 640. Woodblock printing raised the level of education and literature in the empire and following empires. It was used to spread Buddhist teachings around Asia.

Another invention was an early form of gunpowder. In the Song era, improved types of gunpowder were very important for making explosives, guns, and missiles. Gunpowder is considered one of the greatest inventions in pre-modern world history.

Religion and Philosophy in the Tang Empire

Due to traveling teachers, both Buddhism and Christianity were professed in the Tang Empire. Travelers had a great impact on the religion.

During the Western Han era, early Mahayana Buddhism developed in Yuezhi controlled territory in northern India and Central Asia. The Yuezhi from the Tarim Basin region and the land bordering the northern Han Empire conquered Hellenized regions of the former Greek Empire.

When the Silk Road trade was redeveloped during the early Tang Dynasty era, Buddhist teachers from Central Asia were welcomed by the Tang court, and several large indigenous Buddhist sects developed. Some monasteries were large and wealthy. Buddhism became a dominant religion.

Nestorian Christianity was also believed by many. The religion was also popular in Central Asia, and in the year 635, a Nestorian named Alopun went to Chang'an. The Emperor Taizong (599–649) approved of the preaching of the religion all over the empire and ordered the construction of a church in Chang'an. Many people also became Nestorian Christians, and churches were built in some cities.

At the end of the Tang Dynasty, the Tang rulers became intolerant of "foreign religions" including Buddhism. In 845, Emperor Wuzong (814–846) decreed that all foreign religions were banned and he closed thousands of monasteries and temples, including Shaolin Temple.

Due to this repression, Confucianism became the dominant political philosophy of the later imperial eras.

Culture and Society

The Confucian model of society held that the emperor was at the top of the hierarchy. It was believed that the emperor was a god. This is why it was thought that imperial behavior would cause natural disasters or prosperity.

Confucianism taught that the people born into various classes and roles in society should conform to the standards set by tradition and also obey their superiors.

The Tang Empire influenced the culture of Asia greatly. During this time, the Japanese and Koreans adopted Mahayana Buddhism, the Tang philosophies, and their architectural styles, fashions of dress, and literary styles.

Tang Dynasty Tours

Tour Xi'an for major cultural sites of the Tang Dynasty including:

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