The Tang dynasty (618–907) is considered a golden age in Chinese history. It followed the short-lived Sui dynasty (581–618), which had managed to largely reunify China after centuries of fragmentation. The Tang dynasty was built on the solid political and government foundations laid by the Sui dynasty.
The Tang dynasty is known for its adequate military power and territorial expansion ranging from the Korean peninsula in the east to the Mongolian steppes to the north, present-day Afghanistan in the west, and Vietnam to the south.
Successful diplomatic relationships with other nations and the establishment of the key safe trade route – the Silk Road – allowed traders to generate economic growth, and foreign diplomats, and religious pilgrims to bring new ideas and cultural practices to China. As a result, a thriving cosmopolitan culture developed in China, and Chinese cultural influence stretched well beyond its borders. This era of Chinese history is known for its unprecedented level of tolerance and acceptance of other cultures and ideas.
- Dynasty dates: 618 – 907.
- Preceding dynasty: Sui, 581 – 618.
- Subsequent dynasty: Hou Liang – the first of the infamous and chaotic ‘Five Dynasties’.
- First Tang emperor: Gaozu, reigning from 618 to 626.
- Total number of Tang emperors: 23, interrupted by an interregnum during the period 690-705.
- Longest Tang emperor reign: Xuanzong, the ninth Tang emperor, forty-four years, reigning from 712 to 756.
- Final Emperor: Ai, reigning from 904 to 907.
The Founding of the Tang Dynasty
The Tang dynasty (唐朝) was founded in 618 by Li Yuan (later Emperor Gaozu). Li Yuan was the cousin of the first Sui emperor and gained power during a rebellious period. He emerged as the victor in a battle to overthrow the Sui dynasty which had lasted for less than forty years, with only two emperors, from 581-618.
Gaozu’s reign did not last long; he ruled only until 626. His son, Li Shimin forced his father to abdicate after killing family members who were potential contenders for the throne. Known as Emperor Taizong, Li Shimin, was very successful in expanding the territory across Central Asia under Tang rule.
The Tang Dynasty Founder and First Emperor – Gaozu
Emperor Gaozu (born in 566, and died in 635) was born Li Yuan and was the founding emperor of the Tang dynasty. He reigned from 618 to 626. Under the preceding Sui dynasty, Li Yuan was the governor of the area now known as Shanxi. Li Yuan, supported by his second son Li Shimin (and later Emperor Taizong) began a rebellion against the Sui dynasty. In 617 Li Yuan took the Sui capital city of Chang’an and declared a young Crown Prince known as Yang You (born in 605 and died in 619) as the ‘puppet’ Sui child Emperor Gong. In the summer of 618, only six months after Emperor Gong was given the imperial title, Li Yuan forced him to pass the throne to himself, and in doing so established the beginning of the Tang dynasty as Emperor Gaozu.
Emperor Gaozu, with the help of his son, and now crown prince, Li Shimin, was focused on uniting the imperial empire. By 628, the Tang dynasty had reunited all of China.
Emperor Gaozu was responsible for significant land and judicial reform, and he also lowered taxes paving the way for the rise of the Tang dynasty. In 626 Emperor Gaozu retired having passed the throne in an abdication to his son Li Shimin. Emperor Gaozu died in 635, aged 69.
Wu Zetian and the Interregnum Zhou Dynasty
Wu Zetian (born in 624 and died in 705) was effectively the ruler of China for 50 years from 665 to 705. She initially ruled through others and then, from 690 to 705 in her own right.
In her early life, Wu Zetian was a concubine of Emperor Taizong. After Taizong’s death in 649, she battled with Empress Wang and powerful consorts and succeeded in marrying Taizong’s ninth son and successor, Emperor Gaozong, making her the empress consort. Her high ranking allowed her to control the court, and after Emperor Gaozong suffered a serious stroke in 660, she was appointed as administrator of the court, a position almost equal to that of an emperor.
Wu’s rise to power was rapid, aided by her strength of character, charisma, and ambition. She was unprecedented in Chinese history, later ruling completely and solely as empress dowager following the death of Emperor Gaozong in 683, ruling through her two sons – Emperors Zhongzong and Ruizong, the Tang dynasty’s fourth and fifth emperors.
In 690 she took the throne for herself and announced the beginning of a new dynasty – Zhou, and reigned as empress regnant until 705 which signalled the end of the very brief Zhou dynasty interlude. Her reign as the Zhou dynasty empress regnant made her the only legitimate female Chinese sovereign.
Under Wu’s effective 40-year reign, China’s territory grew and became a great world power, she overhauled the government and expanded China’s territory far beyond its previous borders into Central Asia, and she brought the Korean peninsula under Tang control.
Wu Zetian reformed the imperial examination system and encouraged talented officials to work for the government to maintain a stable and well-governed empire. These structural reforms improved the internal workings of the empire by placing ability, rather than nepotism at the heart of the Chinese civil service.
Wu Zetian also brought in popular agricultural and military reforms and increased state support for Taoism, Buddhism, education, and literature.
Wu Zetian was notorious for creating a network of spies, both within the court and throughout the empire. This intelligence army delivered regular reports to her on the current state the empire, her enemies, rebel leaders, and other troublemakers.
During 704 and 705, Wu Zetian suffered bouts of illness, and during the spring of 705, amongst swirling family and political intrigue, a coup removed her from the throne and installed her son, the former Tang dynasty Emperor Zhongzong. By December 705 Wu Zetian was dead. She left behind a legacy of massive territorial expansion, political reform, and social, and economic progress.
Read more: Wu Zetian: The First and Only Female Emperor of China
The Tang Dynasty at its Height – The Reign of Emperor Xuanzong (713 – 756)
Emperor Zhongzong overthrew his mother, Wu Zetian, in 705 to regain the throne and reinstate the Tang dynasty. Zhongzong’s second period as emperor lasted only another eight years until 713, when his son and grandson of Wu Zetian, Emperor Xuanzong ascended the Tang throne.
Xuanzong ruled over a prosperous period in the Tang dynasty’s history. Like his grandmother, he instigated many political, military, and legal reforms. He abolished the death penalty and built up a skilled army consisting of trained and experienced soldiers, rather than relying on untrained conscripts. He promoted trade with foreign countries and increased security along the Silk Road making this a more secure trade route.
Improvements in the production of reading materials via woodblock printing brought about a significant improvement in literacy during Emperor Xuanzong’s reign. Woodblock printing was originally developed in the early part of the Tang dynasty with examples of its development dating to around 650, but it became more common during the 8th and 9th centuries with production spreading to the publication of children’s story books, commercial books, dictionaries, and almanacs. Woodblock printing is credited for helping make Buddhism an integral part of Chinese life by giving Buddhist monks the opportunity to mass-produce texts for distribution to the general public.
Emperor Xuanzong is renowned for the cultural developments that took place during his 44-year reign. He welcomed Buddhist and Taoist clerics into his court, including teachers of Tantric Buddhism. He also created the Imperial Music Academy, recognizing the growing influence of international music on the development of the musical arts in China.
Emperor Xuanzong’s downfall is effectively a tragic love story. He fell deeply in love with one of his concubines – Yang Guifei. Distracted by love, he began to ignore his dynastic role and placed members of Yang Guifei’s family in powerful court positions. This weakness and dereliction of duty did not go unnoticed. A northern warlord by the name of An Lushan mounted a rebellion and occupied the capital from 755 until 763, forcing Xuanzong to flee. Xuanzong’s army only agreed to support Xuanzong on the execution of Yang Guifei’s family members, and Yang Guifei herself. Xuanzong tragically complied.
The An Lushan rebellion was eventually crushed but its eight years were one of China’s deadliest wars, killing tens of millions of people. The rebellion severely weakened the Tang dynasty, resulting in economic devastation and a massive loss of its western imperial territory.
Art and Culture During the Tang Dynasty
Extensive trade links with other parts of the world influenced Tang art. Foreign dances, songs, fashions, and musical instruments became very popular in China during this time.
Highly elaborate three-colored glaze (sancai) pottery wares were extensively produced. These ceramic wares often showed scenes such as foreign merchants with their camels, musicians, and horses being used in military conquests.
Tang painting became popular at the royal court. Figure painting and landscape painting were two of the most popular subjects. Blue-green landscapes developed by court painters were particularly popular, as was monochrome ink painting developed by poet-painter Wang Wei. In addition to painting, many of the highly-cultured scholar-officials were also skilled in poetry and calligraphy.
Three of the Tang Dynasty’s most impressive cultural achievements are the Longmen Grottos in Luoyang, Henan, and the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu. The grottos and caves contain some of the best examples of Chinese Buddhist art ever found.
The Longmen Grottos are a system of over 2,000 artificial caves containing around 100,000 statues. Wu Zetian funded some of the grotto’s most impressive artworks, including its largest statue of Buddha.
The Mogao Caves are carved into a cliff near the Silk Road town of Dunhuang. The site is very important thanks to the near-perfect preservation of the colorful murals on the cave walls which provide great detail and insight into Tang dynasty life.
The work of the famous Tang dynasty poet Li Bai, born in 701, also provides a look inside Tang dynasty life. His image-laden poetry often contained themes centered on friendship, nature, drunkenness, and travel. Around 1,000 of Li Bai’s poems still survive, and thirty-four of them are included in the ubiquitous Chinese literary text ‘Three Hundred Tang Poems’.
Religion During Tang Dynasty
The Tang dynasty was characterized by great religious diversity and tolerance. Buddhism had already arrived in India but rose to significance during the early Tang dynasty. Various different schools of Buddhism grew popular. One of which was Chan, a Taoist-Buddhist hybrid that eventually developed into Zen Buddhism.
The Buddhist monk Xuanzang made his epic 17-year (629 – 645) journey from China to India and back during the Tang period. Xuanzang brought back from India, an extensive collection of Sanskrit Buddhist texts which he spent years translating into Chinese. His travels inspired the great Chinese classic novel written by Wu Cheng’en during the Ming dynasty, around nine hundred years after Xuanzang’s death.
In addition to Buddhism, Tang China also became home to a number of other outside religions, including Christianity, and Islam.
But it was Buddhism that really prospered in China at this time, and Buddhist monasteries started to gain power and influence during the time that Wu Zetian was ruling. The monasteries became involved in many aspects of Chinese day-to-day life, including schools. They also became large landowners and began to operate commercially as moneylenders and pawnbrokers.
Emperor Xuanzong tried to reduce the growing power of Buddhism. From 841 to 845, there was a crackdown, not just on Buddhism but on other religions too. As a result, around 50,000 monasteries and chapels were destroyed and around a quarter of a million monks and nuns were forced back into civilian life.
The Fall of the Tang Dynasty
The downfall of the Tang dynasty is deeply-rooted in the Huang Chao Rebellion from 874 to 884 which took place against a backdrop of chaos and dissent across the imperial territory.
Huang Chao devastated the north and marched into southern China, which the previous An Lushan Rebellion had failed to do. Huang Chao’s army in southern China committed the Guangzhou massacre against foreign merchants in 878–879 and captured both important Tang cities, Luoyang and Chang’an. The Tang dynasty never fully recovered from this rebellion, it became weak and vulnerable.
Bandits and rebel armies were causing havoc throughout the country, whilst at the royal court conflicts between officials and aristocratic families made it now longer effective or functional.
Whilst Tang forces had defeated the Huang Chao Rebellion, this was only possible with the help of the prominent military figures, but strong rivals, Li Keyong and Zhu Wen.
In 901 Zhu Wen seized control of Chang’an. By 903 Zhu Wen forced Emperor Zhaozong to move the capital to Luoyang, whom he then assassinated in 904, and replaced him with the emperor’s young son known as Emperor Ai. In 905 Zhu executed many of Ai’s family members to clear the way for him to take the throne. The Tang dynasty ended in 907 when Zhu deposed Ai and took the throne for himself, later becoming known as Emperor Taizu. This began the tumultuous ‘Five Dynasties’ period of Chinese history before the establishment of the Song dynasty.
The Tang dynasty lasted almost 300 years and is considered to be a ‘golden age’ in Chinese history. At this time, China had a strong international reputation helped by its cosmopolitan, open, and tolerant society that had developed through extensive trade with other nations along the Silk Road.
Tang China also saw great development in the arts and culture, especially literature, painting, poetry, and ceramics. It is also the time that Buddhism became central to Chinese life.