Tang (618 – 907)

The Tang Dynasty ruled over China from the capital city of Chang’an.

Who were the Tang Dynasty?

The Tang Dynasty ruled over China from the capital city of Chang’an. At the time, it might have been the largest city in the entire world, with a population of 1 million people. 

The Tang Dynasty is remembered as a golden age for Chinese art and literature. Even when the dynasty ended, it continued to influence Chinese culture for hundreds of years, as well as the neighboring countries of Korea and Japan.

The dynasty was also known for fiery court politics; there were several revolts by powerful people vying for power, including Empress Wu, who became the first female ruler in Chinese history, and temporarily put the Tang Dynasty on hold.

The Origins of the Tang

At the start of the 7th century, China was ruled by the Sui Dynasty. They were unpopular leaders, with a reputation for pushing workers too hard on public projects, including efforts to fortify the Great Wall of China.

In 617 CE, a rebellion started, led by a nobleman named Li Yuan. He was actually a cousin to the Sui emperor, but that did not stop him from taking action. With the help of his talented son and daughter, Taizong and Princess Pingyang, he ousted the Sui, and established the Tang Dynasty in its place.

The Li family claimed to be descended from Lao Tzu, the prophet-like figure who established Taoism a thousand years earlier. Modern historians have questioned this lineage – it was probably invented to legitimize Tang rule.

The era of good government

In 626 CE, at sixty years of age, Li Yuan decided to pass the throne to someone younger. His son, Taizong, took over as emperor, after killing his two brothers in a brutal struggle for the throne. He went on to become one of China’s greatest rulers, and was given the title ‘Great Khan’.

A lot of his success was based on the choice to fill his court with wise Confucian advisors. They helped him to make important decisions based on ethics and philosophy, instead of pure, rational logistics.

None of his decisions were groundbreaking, but he refined his territory into a stable, well-run kingdom. In China, this period is sometimes referred to as the ‘era of good government’. His achievements were even more impressive considering the size of his empire. He ruled over approximately 50 million people, which was twice as large as the Byzantine Empire at the same time.

Empress Wu

Taizong’s son – Gaozong – was not as capable a ruler as his father. He was heavily manipulated by one of his concubines, who eventually managed to oust him from power, and declare herself Empress Wu.

Supposedly, Wu started by murdering her own baby, then blaming the death on Gaozong’s current wife. The wife was demoted, and Wu took her place, ruling at Gaozong’s side. When he died, she stepped in to replace him, poisoning her son to make sure she was not challenged for the throne.

She established a new dynasty – the Wu Zhou dynasty – and was actually an effective ruler. Ruthless and decisive, she restored stability to China, where her former husband had failed. But she was despised by many of her peers, and after fifteen years, the Tang Dynasty regained power in a violent palace coup.

Emperor Xuanzong

The brief interregnum of Empress Wu ended in 705. Seven years later, Emperor Xuanzong ascended to the throne, and held it for more than forty years. He ushered in a golden age for the Tang Dynasty, especially in terms of culture. 

Xuanzong was passionate about the arts. He owned a troupe of dancing horses, which delighted the emperor whenever he watched them perform. He invited painters to court, such as the esteemed Han Gan, who was asked to paint the dancing horses, capturing not just their bodies, but their spirits.

Han Gan was not the only artist who Xuanzong invited to court. He patronized all kinds of artists and musicians, and established an Imperial Music Academy. He also sponsored poets, and helped to preserve almost 50,000 poems written in the Tang era.

Poetry and literature

Under the patronage of Emperor Xuanzong, and in the decades following his generous reign, China became a vibrant hub for poetry and literature. No other medieval civilization came close to the literary heights of Tang China. 

The most famous poet from this period was Li Bai, who wrote poems that focused on nature, friendship and heartache. One of his most famous poems, Quiet Night Thought, ends with the line “Bowing my head I am thinking of home.”  

The spread of literature was helped by the invention of woodblock printing. Commercial books were printed for the first time in history, with poems and stories spreading throughout the kingdom. Woodblock printing was also used to share Buddhist teachings, Confucian principles, and other important philosophies.

Song of Everlasting Sorrow

In 809 CE, a Tang poet named Bai Juyi wrote Song of Everlasting Sorrow. This narrative poem was written about the Emperor Xuanzong, who had passed away fifty years earlier.

The poem tells a romanticized account of a love affair that the emperor had with a beautiful concubine: Yang Guifei. In the poem, the emperor was so enamored, that he stopped paying attention to anything else: “The emperor neglected the world from that moment.”

War broke out in the country, but Emperor Xuanzong did not notice. In desperation, his men asked him to kill Yang Guifei, regain his senses, and protect China. He agreed to kill his lover, and saved China, before sinking into heartbreak: “Earth fades, Heaven fades […] but Everlasting Sorrow endures always.”

The decline of the Tang

The Tang Dynasty began to decline in the 800s, with a series of palace plots and murders. In 835 CE, a clash between the emperor, and some powerful eunuchs, led to the slaughter of a thousand government officials. 

As the palace descended into violent chaos, so did the rest of the country. Rebellions broke out, with one leader, Huang Chao, briefly taking control of the kingdom. He had 3000 poets executed, after one of them wrote an insulting rhyme about his leadership.

The Tang regained control after that, but not for long. In 907, Zhu Wen – a former salt smuggler – used a rebel army to defeat the Tang, and bring the dynasty to an official end. China collapsed into a state of disarray, breaking up into a mess of kingdoms run by violent warlords and bandits.

The legacy of the Tang

After the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, China endured more than fifty years of violence and division, before the Song Dynasty came to power in China, and restored some sense of order. 

The Song also valued culture, and encouraged artists and poets to continue what the Tang had started. Later dynasties also valued the Tang, and poets like Li Bai have been studied ever since. Other countries also learned from them – Japan and Korea adopted Tang-style poetry and painting techniques, which influenced their cultures for centuries to come. 

The Tang also had another important legacy: the invention of gunpowder. It seems to have been invented by Buddhist monks, completely by accident, at some point during Tang rule. This invention changed warfare forever – without it, some major world events, like the famous fall of Constantinople, may never have taken place.

You will forget 90% of this article in 7 days.

Download Kinnu to have fun learning, broaden your horizons, and remember what you read. Forever.

You might also like

Mongol (1206 – 1368);

The Mongols started life as a nomadic people in Central Asia, before rising to power in the 13th century, and creating the largest land empire in human history.

Angevin (1154 – 1214);

The Angevin Empire was a European civilization which stretched across Britain and France.

Khmer (802 – 1431);

The Khmer Empire was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom located in Southeast Asia.

Carolingian (725 – 888);

During the 8th and 9th centuries, the Carolingians ruled a large, Christian empire in western Europe.

Umayyad Caliphate (661 – 750);

The Umayyad Caliphate was a Muslim empire that first appeared on the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century – the same time that the Byzantines were thriving in Turkey, the Ghanaians were rising in West Africa, and the Tang Dynasty took shape in China.

Ghana (300 – 1200);

The Ghana Empire was a powerful kingdom, flourishing in West Africa between approximately 300 and 1200 CE.