TANG DYNASTY LIFE

TANG DYNASTY LIFE


Tang Beauty playing Go

During the Tang Dynasty, cosmopolitan culture flourished. Tens of thousands of foreigners lived in major Chinese cities. Women held high government offices, played polo with men and wore men's clothes. Chinese intermarried with nomadic peoples. Foreigners such as Turks rose to high positions in the civil service and the military. The economy changed a great deal in the Tang and Song dynasties, going from what was basically a subsistence economy to one in which peasantry was active in local and long-distance trade and non-food crops such as silk were produced on a large scale.

Both the Sui and Tang Dynasties had turned away from the more feudal culture of the preceding Northern Dynasties, in favor of staunch civil Confucianism. The governmental system was supported by a large class of Confucian intellectuals selected through either civil service examinations or recommendations. In the Tang period, Daoism and Buddhism reigned as core ideologies as well, and played a large role in people's daily lives. The Tang Chinese enjoyed feasting, drinking, holidays, sports, and all sorts of entertainment, while Chinese literature blossomed and was more widely accessible with new printing methods. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Earlier, the first recorded use of toilet paper was made in 589 by the scholar-official Yan Zhitui (531–591), and in 851 an Arab Muslim traveler commented on how he believed the Tang era Chinese were not careful about cleanliness because they did not wash with water (as was his people's habit) when going to the bathroom; instead, he said, the Chinese simply used paper to wipe themselves.

Good Websites and Sources on the Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everday Life in the Tang Dynasty by Charles Benn books.google.com/books; Empress Wu womeninworldhistory.com ; Good Websites and Sources on Tang Culture: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Tang Poems etext.lib.virginia.edu enter Tang Poems in the search; Tang Horses persiancarpetguide.com China Vista chinavista.com

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; 4) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 5) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Books: 1) Benn, Charles, “Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty,” Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002; 2) Schafer, Edward H. “The Golden Peaches of Samarkan,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963; 3) Watt, James C. Y., et al. “China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200–750 A.D. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004; 4) Cambridge History of China Vol. 3 (Cambridge University Press); 5) The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.

Vacations, Festivals and Having a Good Time in the Tang Dynasty


Tang court playing polo

Much more than earlier periods, the Tang era was renowned for the time reserved for leisure activity, especially for those in the upper classes. Many outdoor sports and activities were enjoyed during the Tang, including archery, hunting, horse polo, cuju football, cockfighting, and even tug of war. Government officials were granted vacations during their tenure in office. Officials were granted 30 days off every three years to visit their parents if they lived 1,000 mi (1,600 km) away, or 15 days off if the parents lived more than 167 mi (269 km) away (travel time not included). Officials were granted nine days of vacation time for weddings of a son or daughter, and either five, three, or one days/day off for the nuptials of close relatives (travel time not included). Officials also received a total of three days off for their son's capping initiation rite into manhood, and one day off for the ceremony of initiation rite of a close relative's son. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Traditional Chinese holidays such as Chinese New Year, Lantern Festival, Cold Food Festival, and others were universal holidays. In the capital city of Chang'an there was always lively celebration, especially for the Lantern Festival since the city's nighttime curfew was lifted by the government for three days straight. Between the years 628 and 758, the imperial throne bestowed a total of sixty-nine grand carnivals nationwide, granted by the emperor in the case of special circumstances such as important military victories, abundant harvests after a long drought or famine, the granting of amnesties, the installment of a new crown prince, etc. For special celebration in the Tang era, lavish and gargantuan-sized feasts were sometimes prepared, as the imperial court had staffed agencies to prepare the meals. This included a prepared feast for 1,100 elders of Chang'an in 664, a feast for 3,500 officers of the Divine Strategy Army in 768, and a feast for 1,200 women of the palace and members of the imperial family in the year 826. Drinking wine and alcoholic beverages was heavily ingrained into Chinese culture, as people drank for nearly every social event. A court official in the 8th century allegedly had a serpentine-shaped structure called the 'Ale Grotto' built with 50,000 bricks on the groundfloor that each featured a bowl from which his friends could drink. +

Chang'an, the Tang capital and Largest City In the World

The Tang capital of Chang’an (present-day Xian) was the largest city in the world at its time, the population of the city wards and its suburban countryside reaching 2 million inhabitants. The Tang capital was very cosmopolitan, with ethnicities of Persia, Central Asia, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, India, and many other places living within. Naturally, with this plethora of different ethnicities living in Chang'an, there were also many different practiced religions, such as Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Islam being practiced within. With widely open access to China that the Silk Road to the west facilitated, many foreign settlers were able to move east to China, while the city of Chang'an itself had about 25,000 foreigners living within. Exotic green-eyed, blonde-haired Tocharian ladies serving wine in agate and amber cups, singing, and dancing at taverns attracted customers. If a foreigner in China pursued a Chinese woman for marriage, he was required to stay in China and was unable to take his bride back to his homeland, as stated in a law passed in 628 to protect women from temporary marriages with foreign envoys. Several laws enforcing segregation of foreigners from Chinese were passed during the Tang dynasty. In 779 the Tang dynasty issued an edict which forced Uighurs in the capital, Chang'an, to wear their ethnic dress, stopped them from marrying Chinese females, and banned them from passing off as Chinese. [Source: Wikipedia +]


Changan building

Although Chang'an was the capital of the earlier Han and Jin dynasties, after subsequent destruction in warfare, it was the Sui dynasty model that comprised the Tang era capital. The roughly square dimensions of the city had six miles (10 km) of outer walls running east to west, and more than five miles (8 km) of outer walls running north to south. The royal palace, the Taiji Palace, stood north of the city's central axis. From the large Mingde Gates located mid-center of the main southern wall, a wide city avenue stretched from there all the way north to the central administrative city, behind which was the Chentian Gate of the royal palace, or Imperial City. Intersecting this were fourteen main streets running east to west, while eleven main streets ran north to south. These main intersecting roads formed 108 rectangular wards with walls and four gates each, and each ward filled with multiple city blocks. The city was made famous for this checkerboard pattern of main roads with walled and gated districts, its layout even mentioned in one of Du Fu's poems. During the Heian period, the city of Heian kyo (present-day Kyoto) of Japan like many cities was arranged in the checkerboard street grid pattern of the Tang capital and in accordance with traditional geomancy following the model of Chang'an. +

Of these 108 wards in Chang'an, two of them (each the size of two regular city wards) were designated as government-supervised markets, and other space reserved for temples, gardens, ponds, etc. Throughout the entire city, there were 111 Buddhist monasteries, 41 Daoist abbeys, 38 family shrines, 2 official temples, 7 churches of foreign religions, 10 city wards with provincial transmission offices, 12 major inns, and 6 graveyards. Some city wards were literally filled with open public playing fields or the backyards of lavish mansions for playing horse polo and cuju football. In 662, Emperor Gaozong moved the imperial court to the Daming Palace, which became the political center of the empire and served as the royal residence of the Tang emperors for more than 220 years. +

History of Chang'an

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “The central location of Chang'an (today, Xian) in what is now Shaanxi Province near the confluence of the Wei and Feng Rivers helps explain why the area was the location of several important imperial capitals for about a millennium of Chinese history. The first really unified Chinese empire, that of the Qin, had its capital just north of the current city. Although the Qin emperor failed to establish a lasting dynasty (he died in 210 BCE), in some ways he is the Chinese ruler best known outside of China because of his massive tomb complex with its models of more than 8000 soldiers and their horses, spread over some 56 square kilometers. Its discovery in the 1970s was arguably the most important archaeological find of the twentieth century. Recent work on some of the other Chinese imperial tombs in the area provides a tantalizing hint of spectacular finds to come over the next decades. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington based on information from Victor Cunrui Xiong, “Sui-Tang Chang'an: A Study in the Urban History of Medieval China” (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2000). washington.edu +|+ ]

“The Han dynasty succeeded the Qin, initially chose Luoyang to the East as its capital, but then in 202-200 BCE to the south of the Qin capital began construction of Chang-an, "the first great city in Chinese history." It was under Emperor Wu Di (141-87 BCE) that the first Chinese missions were sent to Inner Asia, an event considered to mark the beginning of the Silk Road. He substantially expanded the capital with the erection of many new palaces, but the glory of Chang'an came to an end in 24 CE during the disorders connected with the collapse of the Former Han dynasty. The city was looted and burned and subsequently fell to the status of simply a provincial city when subsequent rulers chose Luoyang as their capital. +|+


Wild Goose Pagoda in Changan

A poem written in the year 292 evokes the desolation of the city:

Street wards are deserted and desolate;
Town dwellings are sparsely scattered.
The buildings and offices, stations and bureaus,
Shops and markets, official storehouses,
Are now concentrated on a single corner of the wall--
Of a hundred, barely one survives...
Great bells have fallen in the ruined temple;
Bell frames have collapsed and suspend no more...[Xiong, pp. 15-16]

“Chang'an revived in the fourth century, once more the capital, and witnessed a cultural florescence in part thanks to the fact that it became a center of Buddhist learning. Several important Buddhist pilgrims and translators resided there around the beginning of the fifth century, among them Faxian, who traveled to India, and the scholar Kumarajiva. The revival came to an end in civil strife, and for over a century after a conquering army took the city in 417, it ceased to be the capital. A brief revival in the second half of the sixth century ended abruptly with the accession of the Sui dynasty in 581, since the first Sui emperor decided to build an entirely new city to the south of Han Chang'an and on the exact location of the modern Xian. The choice of the site and the layout of the city were in part determined by divination with reference to astrological signs.” +|+

Chang'an During the Tang Dynasty

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “The city continued to be the principal capital of the empire and entered the greatest period of its development under the Tang Dynasty (618-907). "At the height of its glory in the mid-eighth century, Chang'an was the most populous, cosmopolitan, and civilized city in the world" (Richard B. Mather, foreword to Xiong, p. ix), occupying some 84 sq. km. with around one million inhabitants. It suffered major damage during the An Lushan rebellion in the mid-8th century, but even toward the end of the Tang period, when the empire was in disarray, the "enormous size" of the city impressed an Arab visitor. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington based on information from Victor Cunrui Xiong, “Sui-Tang Chang'an: A Study in the Urban History of Medieval China” (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2000). washington.edu +|+ ]

“Under the Tang, the city was a major religious center, not only for Buddhism and Taoism but also for several religions which were relatively recent arrivals in China: Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism and Manichaeism. The most famous of all the Buddhist pilgrims, Xuanzang, had to sneak out of Chang'an in 629, but by his return in 645 would be greeted by a huge throng. Apart from the remarkable feat of his journey, his great accomplishment was to bring back copies of the Indian scriptures that he spent his remaining days translating. One of the few major Era-era buildings left in Xian today is the Big Wild Goose (Dayan) Pagoda, first built in 652 in the Daci'en Monastery to house the library Xuanzang collected (the current structure was re-built in 701-704). Even in a period when persecution of Buddhism had begun, a Japanese pilgrim noted in 844 that there were over 300 Buddhist temples in Chang'an. +|+

“The spread of the new religions can be documented fairly specifically. A stele (inscribed stone pillar) erected in 781 relates the introduction of Nestorian Christianity as early as 635 by Syrian priests. Zoroastrianism received some impetus when the last of the Sassanian (Iranian) princes Firuz took refuge in China in the 670s, having fled the Arab invasions. Manichaeism also was connected with the arrival of Persians at the Tang court as early as 694. It really flourished though only after the An Lushan rebellion, when the Tang dynasty was saved by the support of the Manichaean Uighurs. All of these religions (and Buddhism as well) suffered from religious persecutions initiated in 845. +|+

“With the collapse of the Tang at the beginning of the tenth century, Chang'an decayed rapidly. However, it continued to play a role in the western trade and experienced a revival under the Ming beginning in the late fourteenth century. The southern gate (Nan Men) was built in 1370-1373. The bell tower (Zong Lou) located at the intersection of the main north-south streets in the exact center of the walled part of the city was built in 1384 (and then rebuilt several times). The city still preserves something of its former cosmopolitan culture, notably in its large Muslim community. The Great Mosque (Qingzhen Dasi) was first built in 742, but the structures one sees to day date largely are no earlier than the late Ming.” +|+


Mogain Cave painting of Mount Wutai monasteries


Other Important Tang Dynasty Cities

The city of Yangzhou along the Grand Canal and close to the Yangtze River was the greatest economic center during the Tang era. Yangzhou was the headquarters for the Tang's government monopoly on salt, and the greatest industrial center of China; it acted as a midpoint in shipping of foreign goods that would be organized and distributed to the major cities of the north. Much like the seaport of Guangzhou in the south, Yangzhou boasted thousands of foreign traders from all across Asia. [Source: Wikipedia +]

There was also the secondary capital city of Luoyang, which was the favored capital of the two by Empress Wu. In the year 691 she had more than 100,000 families (more than 500,000 people) from around the region of Chang'an move to populate Luoyang instead. With a population of about a million, Luoyang became the second largest capital in the empire, and with its close proximity to the Luo River it benefited from southern agricultural fertility and trade traffic of the Grand Canal. +

However, the Tang court eventually demoted its capital status and did not visit Luoyang after the year 743, when Chang'an's problem of acquiring adequate supplies and stores for the year was solved. As early as 736, granaries were built at critical points along the route from Yangzhou to Chang'an, which eliminated shipment delays, spoilage, and pilfering. An artificial lake used as a transshipment pool was dredged east of Chang'an in 743, where curious northerners could finally see the array of boats found in southern China, delivering tax and tribute items to the imperial court. +

Food and Drink During the Tang Dynasty

In ancient times, the Chinese had outlined the five most basic foodstuffs known as the five grains: sesamum, legumes, wheat, panicled millet, and glutinous millet. The Ming dynasty encyclopedist Song Yingxing (1587–1666) noted that rice was not counted amongst the five grains from the time of the legendary and deified Chinese sage Shennong (the existence of whom Yingxing wrote was "an uncertain matter") into the 2nd millenniums B.C., because the properly wet and humid climate in southern China for growing rice was not yet fully settled or cultivated by the Chinese. [Source: Wikipedia +]

During the Tang, the many common foodstuffs and cooking ingredients in addition to those already listed were barley, garlic, salt, turnips, soybeans, pears, apricots, peaches, apples, pomegranates, jujubes, rhubarb, hazelnuts, pine nuts, chestnuts, walnuts, yams, taro, etc. The various meats that were consumed included pork, chicken, lamb (especially preferred in the north), sea otter, bear (which was hard to catch, but there were recipes for steamed, boiled, and marinated bear), and even Bactrian camels. In the south along the coast meat from seafood was by default the most common, as the Chinese enjoyed eating cooked jellyfish with cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, cardamom, and ginger, as well as oysters with wine, fried squid with ginger and vinegar, horseshoe crabs and red swimming crabs, shrimp and pufferfish, which the Chinese called "river piglet". +

Some foods were also off-limits, as the Tang court encouraged people not to eat beef (since the bull was a valuable working animal), and from 831 to 833 Emperor Wenzong of Tang even banned the slaughter of cattle on the grounds of his religious convictions to Buddhism. +

Methods of food preservation were important, and practiced throughout China. The common people used simple methods of preservation, such as digging deep ditches and trenches, brining, and salting their foods. The emperor had large ice pits located in the parks in and around Chang'an for preserving food, while the wealthy and elite had their own smaller ice pits. Each year the emperor had laborers carve 1000 blocks of ice from frozen creeks in mountain valleys, each block with the dimension of 3 ft (0.91 meters) by 3 ft by 3½ ft (1.06 meters). There were many frozen delicacies enjoyed during the summer, especially chilled melon. +

During the earlier Northern and Southern dynasties (420–589), and perhaps even earlier, the drinking of tea (Camellia sinensis) became popular in southern China. Tea was viewed then as a beverage of tasteful pleasure and with pharmacological purpose as well. During the Tang dynasty, tea became synonymous with everything sophisticated in society. The poet Lu Tong (790–835) devoted most of his poetry to his love of tea. The 8th-century author Lu Yu (known as the Sage of Tea) even wrote a treatise on the art of drinking tea, called The Classic of Tea. Although wrapping paper had been used in China since the 2nd century B.C., during the Tang dynasty the Chinese were using wrapping paper as folded and sewn square bags to hold and preserve the flavor of tea leaves. Indeed, paper found many other uses besides writing and wrapping during the Tang era. +


Tang banquet


Foods Obtained from the Silk Road and Outside China

From the trade overseas and over land, the Chinese acquired peaches from Samarkand, date palms, pistachios, and figs from Greater Iran, pine nuts and ginseng roots from Korea and mangoes from Southeast Asia. In China, there was a great demand for sugar; during the reign of Harsha over North India (r. 606–647), Indian envoys to the Tang brought two makers of sugar who successfully taught the Chinese how to cultivate sugarcane. Cotton also came from India as a finished product from Bengal, although it was during the Tang that the Chinese began to grow and process cotton, and by the Yuan dynasty it became the prime textile fabric in China. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to Silk Road Foundation:"Barbaric food" became widely admired. In everyday things, the Chinese had learned from India ways of making sugar from cane, wince from grapes, and of making optical lenses. Spinach, garlic, mustard and peas introduced from the Silk Road, were now grown in China. Of these the most popular were little "foreign" cakes of various kinds, especially a steamed variety sprinkled with sesame seeds, and cakes fried in oil. The art of making these had been introduced from the West but they were ordinarily prepared and sold by Westerners. Of course some of the foreign recipes required expensive imported ingredients was costly. Especially popular were aromatic and spicy dishes. [Source: “Exoticism in Tang (618-907), Silkroad Foundation”, Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com ]

Exotic Styles and Luxuries Obtained from the Silk Road

According to Silk Road Foundation: “Thriving commerce attracted merchants from everywhere during Tang. They came by caravans from Persian and the Central Asian kingdoms through the Silk Roads, by ships from Korea, Japan, India and Indonesia. The taste for all sorts of foreign luxuries and wonders permeated every social class and every part of daily life. Horses were imported from Karashar and Kucha, glass goblet from Byzantium, jade from Khotan, medicine from Kashimir and India, crystals and agate from Samarkand and cotton from Turfan. In exchange, silk textiles, tea, paper, ceramics and above all, ideas and technology moved into these regions. [Source: “Exoticism in Tang (618-907), Silkroad Foundation”, Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com ^^^]

“In the 8th century, the fashionable circles loved foreign clothing and hairstyles. Fashions in the two capitals, Ch'ang-an and Loyang tended to follow Turkish and East Iranian styles and most men and women liked to wear "barbarian" hats when they went abroad or on horseback. Court ladies wore "Uighur chignons." or dressed like men and men wore leopard skin hats with tight sleeves and fitted bodices in the Iranian styles. The most extreme enthusiasm for foreign customs was reported when the prince Li, Cheng-chien, Tai-tsung's son, preferred to speak Turkish than Chinese, and erected a complete Turkish camp on the palace ground, where he lived and dressed like a Turk. ^^^

Foreign trade kept up a heavy demand on China's production of art goods. Metalwork of bronze, gold and silver flourished with Persian designs. Pottery and porcelain became more and more beautiful. One aspect of the figurines which has attracted much interest is the frequency of foreign faces among them. The artists of Tang loved to show the gods and saints of foreign lands and the sculptors loved horses and alien faces. The exoticism in the arts showed the foreigners were widely active in Chinese life. Foreign activities in fields such as the Palace Guard, entertainment and commerce are frequently reflected in the figurines. The strange features of these foreigners which most struck the Chinese, then as now, were their great noses and hairy faces, features which were a gift to the craftsmen in clay. One of the most eminent of foreign painters was Visa Irasanga or Yu-Chih I-seng in Chinese. He was a Khotanese and came to the Chinese court in the mid 7th century. He brought a new painting style of Iranian origin and had profound influence in Chinese Buddhist art. He was credited with having helped bring the Western technique of using a line of unvarying thickness to outline figures -- the "iron-wire" line -- to the Buddhist temples in many Chinese cities. ***

Tang Dynasty Technology: Wine Servers, Air Conditioning and Bamboo Pipelines


Chinese waterwheel

There were many mechanical inventions during the Tang era. This included a 3 ft (0.91 meters) tall mechanical wine server of the early 8th century that was in the shape of an artificial mountain, carved out of iron and rested on a lacquered-wooden tortoise frame. This intricate device used a hydraulic pump that siphoned wine out of metal dragon-headed faucets, as well as tilting bowls that were timed to dip wine down, by force of gravity when filled, into an artificial lake that had intricate iron leaves popping up as trays for placing party treats. [Source: Wikipedia +]

As the historian Charles Benn describes it: “Midway up the southern side of the mountain was a dragon…the beast opened its mouth and spit brew into a goblet seated on a large [iron] lotus leaf beneath. When the cup was 80 percent full, the dragon ceased spewing ale, and a guest immediately seized the goblet. If he was slow in draining the cup and returning it to the leaf, the door of a pavilion at the top of the mountain opened and a mechanical wine server, dressed in a cap and gown, emerged with a wooden bat in his hand. As soon as the guest returned the goblet, the dragon refilled it, the wine server withdrew, and the doors of the pavilion closed…A pump siphoned the ale that flowed into the ale pool through a hidden hole and returned the brew to the reservoir [holding more than 16 quarts/15 liters of wine] inside the mountain. [Source: Charles Benn, “China's Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty,” 2002]

Although the use of a teasing mechanical puppet in this wine-serving device was certainly ingenious, the use of mechanical puppets in China date back to the Qin dynasty (221–207 B.C.) while Ma Jun in the 3rd century had an entire mechanical puppet theater operated by the rotation of a waterwheel. There was also an automatic wine-server known in the ancient Greco-Roman world, a design of Heron of Alexandria that employed an urn with an inner valve and a lever device similar to the one described above. There are many stories of automatons used in the Tang, including general Yang Wulian's wooden statue of a monk who stretched his hands out to collect contributions; when the amount of coins reached a certain weight, the mechanical figure moved his arms to deposit them in a satchel. This weight-and-lever mechanism was exactly like Heron's penny slot machine. Other devices included one by Wang Ju, whose "wooden otter" could allegedly catch fish; Needham suspects a spring trap of some kind was employed here. +

Ever since the Han dynasty (202 B.C. – A.D. 220), the Chinese had drilled deep boreholes to transport natural gas from bamboo pipelines to stoves where cast iron evaporation pans boiled brine to extract salt. During the Tang dynasty, a gazetteer of Sichuan province stated that at one of these 182 meter (600 feet) 'fire wells', men collected natural gas into portable bamboo tubes which could be carried around for dozens of kilometers (mi) and still produce a flame. ] These were essentially the first gas cylinders; Robert Temple assumes some sort of tap was used for this device. +

The inventor Ding Huan (fl. A.D. 180) of the Han dynasty invented a rotary fan for air conditioning, with seven wheels 3 meters (10 feet) in diameter and manually powered. In 747, Emperor Xuanzong had a "Cool Hall" built in the imperial palace, which the Tang Yulin describes as having water-powered fan wheels for air conditioning as well as rising jet streams of water from fountains. During the subsequent Song dynasty, written sources mentioned the air conditioning rotary fan as even more widely used. +

Clocks from the Tang Dynasty


Song-era dial plate for market clocks

The Chinese invented the world's first mechanical clock in the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907), and then lost the technology over the centuries only to have it reintroduced by Europeans in the 16th century. The Chinese divided the day into temporary hours, which were determined by the amount of sunlight on a given day and varied with time of year. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

Advancements in clockworks and timekeeping included the mechanical gear systems of Zhang Heng (78–139) and Ma Jun (fl. 3rd century) gave the Tang engineer, astronomer, and monk Yi Xing (683–727) inspiration when he invented the world's first clockwork escapement mechanism in 725. This was used alongside a clepsydra clock and waterwheel to power a rotating armillary sphere in representation of astronomical observation. Yi Xing's device also had a mechanically timed bell that was struck automatically every hour, and a drum that was struck automatically every quarter-hour; essentially, a striking clock. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Yi Xing's astronomical clock and water-powered armillary sphere became well known throughout the country, since students attempting to pass the imperial examinations by 730 had to write an essay on the device as an exam requirement. However, the most common type of public and palace timekeeping device was the inflow clepsydra. Its design was improved c. 610 by the Sui-dynasty engineers Geng Xun and Yuwen Kai. They provided a steelyard balance that allowed seasonal adjustment in the pressure head of the compensating tank and could then control the rate of flow for different lengths of day and night. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Wood Block Printing: from Tang-Era China

The Chinese are credited with inventing wood block printing in the A.D. 3rd century, and printing presses in the 11th century.Block printing on paper was widely developed in the Tang dynasty. The emperor's library in the 7th century held about forty thousand manuscript rolls. Before giving China full credit for inventing printing it must pointed out the wood-block printing invented by the Chinese was very different from the movable type printing used by Gutenberg to print his famous Bible in the 15th century. "Making repeated images for printing textiles from a carving on wood was an ancient folk art," Daniel Boorstin in The Discoverers. "At least as early as the third century the Chinese had developed an ink that made clear and durable impressions from these wood blocks. They collected the lamp black from burning oils or woods and compounded it into a stick, which then dissolved to the black liquid that we call India ink." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin |=|]

The world's oldest surviving printed documents, a miniature Buddhist dharani sutra unearthed at Xi'an in 1974, dates roughly from 650 to 670. A copy of the Diamond Sutra found at Dunhuang is the earliest surviving full-length book printed at regular size, complete with illustrations embedded within the text and dated precisely to 868. Among the earliest documents to be printed were Buddhist texts as well as calendars, the latter essential for calculating and marking which days were auspicious and which days were not. [Source: Wikipedia]

The world's oldest surviving book, the Diamond Sutra, was printed with wooden blocks in China in A.D. 868. It consists of Buddhist scriptures printed on seven 2½-foot-long, one-foot-wide sheets of paper pasted together into one 16-foot-long scroll. Part of the Perfection of Wisdom text, a Mahayanist sermon preached by Buddha, it was found in cave in Gansu Province in 1907 by the British explorer Aurel Stein, who also found well-preserved 9th century silk and linen paintings.

The idea for wood-block printing on paper began when someone decided to take the handle off a wooden stamp so that printing surface could be placed face up on a table. A sheet of paper then could be laid on the inked block, rubbed with a brush, to produce a print. The making of large woodcuts became possible when several of these "wooden stamps" were placed side by side. Buddhism played an instrumental role in the development of block printing in China in the A.D. 7th century. Buddhists believe they can earn "merit" (brownie points on the path to Nirvana) by duplicating the image of Buddha and repeating sacred texts. The more images or texts a Buddhist makes the more merit he earns. Buddhists use rubbings from stones, seals, stencils and small wooden stamps to make images over and over. For them printing is perhaps the easiest, most efficient and most cost effective way to earn merit. The earliest examples of Chinese printing were destroyed during a crackdown on Buddhism in 845 when temples were destroyed and a quarter of a million nuns and monks were forced to flee their monasteries. |=|

Chinese ideograms are not well suited for movable type. There are so many Chinese characters it is difficult to make multiple copies of them and to categorize them in a way that is easy to retrieve. Roman letters are better suited for movable type because there are many fewer letters. Chinese ideograms have a couple of advantages over Roman letters when it comes to printing. Their intricate forms are more interesting for carvers to make and their large size makes them easier to align on a page and grasp and put into place with the fingers. |=|

Impact of Wood Block Printing


Diamond sutra

Block printing made the written word available to vastly greater audiences. As a result of the much wider distribution and circulation of reading materials, the general populace were for the first time able to purchase affordable copies of texts, which correspondingly led to greater literacy. While the immediate effects of woodblock printing did not create a drastic change in Chinese society, in the long term, the accumulated effects of increased literacy enlarged the talent pool to encompass civilians of broader social-economic circumstances and backgrounds, who would be seen entering the imperial examinations and passing them by the later Song dynasty. [Source: Wikipedia]

In Imperial times, the Chinese preferred handwritten calligraphy over printing for important texts. Printing was used by those who could not afford anything better. In 932 a Chinese prime minister wrote: "We have seen... men from Wu and Shu who sold books that were printed from blocks of wood. There were many different texts, but there were among them no orthodox Classics [of Confucianism]. If the Classics could be revised and thus cut in wood and published, it would be a very great boon to the study of literature."

The revival of Confucianism during the Chinese Renaissance of the Song dynasty (A.D. 960-1127) is partly attributed to the printing of Confucian texts which helped spread the word of the philosophy to a greater number of people. By the end of the 10th century scholars printed the first of the great Chinese dynastic histories, consisting of several hundred volumes, and Buddhist monks printed the Tripitaka, the whole Buddhist canon with 5,048 volumes and 130,000 pages. In 1019, the 4,000-volume Taoist cannon was printed. In the 11th century Muslims in China printed calendars and almanacs while the Koran continued to be made by hand.

The commercial success, profitability and astonishing low price offered by woodblock were pointed out by a British observer in China at the end of the nineteenth century: “We have an extensive penny literature at home, but the English cottager cannot buy anything like the amount of printed matter for his penny that the Chinaman can for even less. A penny Prayer-book, admittedly sold at a loss, cannot compete in mass of matter with many of the books to be bought for a few cash in China. When it is considered, too, that a block has been laboriously cut for each leaf, the cheapness of the result is only accounted for by the wideness of sale. [Source: Barrett, Timothy Hugh, “The Woman Who Discovered Printing,” Yale University Press, 2008]

Although Bi Sheng later invented the movable type system in the 11th century, Tang dynasty style woodblock printing would remain the dominant mode of printing in China until the more advanced printing press from Europe became widely accepted and used in East Asia. However it was not Gutenberg's letterpress that made the decisive breakthrough for Western methods in China as it is commonly believed, but lithography, a nineteenth century technological marvel almost wholly forgotten in Europe. +

Medicine and Alchemy in the Tang Dynasty


The Chinese of the Tang era were also very interested in the benefits of officially classifying all of the medicines used in pharmacology. In 657, Emperor Gaozong of Tang (r. 649–683) commissioned the literary project of publishing an official materia medica, complete with text and illustrated drawings for 833 different medicinal substances taken from different stones, minerals, metals, plants, herbs, animals, vegetables, fruits, and cereal crops. In addition to compiling pharmacopeias, the Tang fostered learning in medicine by upholding imperial medical colleges, state examinations for doctors, and publishing forensic manuals for physicians. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Authors of medicine in the Tang include Zhen Chuan (d. 643) and Sun Simiao (581–682), the former who first identified in writing that patients with diabetes had an excess of sugar in their urine, and the latter who was the first to recognize that diabetic patients should avoid consuming alcohol and starchy foods. As written by Zhen Chuan and others in the Tang, the thyroid glands of sheep and pigs were successfully used to treat goiters; thyroid extracts were not used to treat patients with goiter in the West until 1890. The use of the dental amalgam, manufactured from tin and silver, was first introduced in the medical text Xinxiu Bencao written by Su Gong in 659. +

The Chinese of the Tang period employed complex chemical formulas for an array of different purposes, often found through experiments of alchemy. These included a waterproof and dust-repelling cream or varnish for clothes and weapons, fireproof cement for glass and porcelain wares, a waterproof cream applied to silk clothes of underwater divers, a cream designated for polishing bronze mirrors, and many other useful formulas. The vitrified, translucent ceramic known as porcelain was invented in China during the Tang, although many types of glazed ceramics preceded it. +

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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