A government system supported by a large class of Confucian literati selected through civil service examinations was perfected under Tang rule. This competitive procedure was designed to draw the best talents into government. But perhaps an even greater consideration for the Tang rulers, aware that imperial dependence on powerful aristocratic families and warlords would have destabilizing consequences, was to create a body of career officials having no autonomous territorial or functional power base. As it turned out, these scholar-officials acquired status in their local communities, family ties, and shared values that connected them to the imperial court. From Tang times until the closing days of the Qing empire in 1911, scholar officials functioned often as intermediaries between the grassroots level and the government. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

The Tangs ruled with a pyramidal administration system consisting of the Emperor, and three main ministries at the top. Underneath them were nine courts and six advisory boards. To discourage warlordism and establish regional power bases, China itself was broken down into 300 prefectures and 1,500 counties, a system which persists to this day. The three main ministries were obliged to draft, review, and implement policies respectively. There were also six ministries under the administrations that implemented policy, each of which was assigned different tasks. These Three Departments and Six Ministries included the personnel administration, finance, rites, military, justice, and public works—an administrative model which would last until the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). [Source: * Wikipedia +]

The center of the political power of the Tang was the capital city of Chang'an (modern Xi'an), where the emperor maintained his large palace quarters and entertained political emissaries with music, sports, acrobatic stunts, poetry, paintings, and dramatic theater performances. The capital was also filled with incredible amounts of riches and resources to spare. When the Chinese prefectural government officials traveled to the capital in the year 643 to give the annual report of the affairs in their districts, Emperor Taizong discovered that many had no proper quarters to rest in and were renting rooms with merchants. Therefore, Emperor Taizong ordered the government agencies in charge of municipal construction to build every visiting official his own private mansion in the capital. +

Han-Tang Era Government Administration

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “As early as in the Han period there had been a dual administration—the civil and, independent of it, the military administration. One and the same area would belong to a particular administrative prefecture (chun) and at the same time to a particular military prefecture (chou). This dual organization had persisted during the Toba period and, at first, remained unchanged in the beginning of the Tang. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Towards the end of the Tang period the state secretariat was set up in two parts: it was in possession of all information about the economic and political affairs of the empire, and it made the actual decisions. Moreover, a number of technical departments had been created—in all, a system that might compare favourably with European systems of the eighteenth century. At the end of the Tang period there was added to this system a section for economic affairs, working quite independently of it and directly under the emperor; it was staffed entirely with economic or financial experts, while for the staffing of the other departments no special qualification was demanded besides the passing of the state examinations. In addition to these, at the end of the Tang period a new department was in preparation, a sort of Privy Council, a mainly military organization, probably intended to control the generals, just as the state secretariat controlled the civil officials. The Privy Council became more and more important in the tenth century and especially in the Mongol epoch. Its absence in the early Tang period gave the military governors much too great freedom, ultimately with baneful results.

“At first, however, the reforms of A.D. 624 worked well. The administration showed energy, and taxes flowed in. In the middle of the eighth century the annual budget of the state included the following items: over a million tons of grain for the consumption of the capital and the palace and for salaries of civil and military officials; twenty-seven million pieces of textiles, also for the consumption of capital and palace and army, and for supplementary purchases of grain; two million strings of money (a string nominally held a thousand copper coins) for salaries and for the army. This was much more than the state budget of the Han period. The population of the empire had also increased; it seems to have amounted to some fifty millions. In the capital a large staff of officials had been created to meet all administrative needs. The capital grew enormously, at times containing two million people. Great numbers of young members of the gentry streamed into the capital for the examinations held under the Confucian system.

Emperor and His Court and Inner Circle:
1) Emperor
2) Three counsellors to the emperor 2. Three counsellors and three (with no active functions) assistants (with no active functions)
3) Eight supreme generals (only 3. Generals and Governors-General appointed in time of war) (only appointed in time of war; but in practice continuously in office)
4) State secretariat: 1) Central secretariat; 2) Secretariat of the Crown; 3) Secretariat of the Palace and imperial historical commission;
Emperor's Secretariat; 1) Private Archives; 2) Court Adjutants' Office; 3) Harem administration
5) Court administration 5. Court administration

1) Ministry for state sacrifices
2) Ministry for imperial coaches and horses coaches and horses
3) Ministry for justice at court
4) Ministry for receptions (i.e. foreign affairs)
5) Ministry for ancestors' temples temples
6) Ministry for supplies to the court
7) Ministry for the harem
8) Economic and financial Ministry
9) Ministry for the palace
10) Ministry for the payment of guards’salaries
11) Ministry for the court;
12) Ministry for armament (state secretariat) and magazines
13 Ministry of the Interior (Provincial administration)
14) Foreign Ministry
15) Censorship (Audit council).

Administration of the capital:
1) Crown prince's palace
2) Security service: Palace guards and guards' capital office
3) Arms production department
4) Guards of the capital
5) Guards of the city gates
6) Building department
7) Labour service department
8) Building department
9) Transport department
10) Department for education (of sons of officials!)

Religion and Politics in Tang Dynasty China

From the outset, religion played a role in Tang politics. In his bid for power, Li Yuan had attracted a following by claiming descent from the Daoist sage Laozi (fl. 6th century B.C.). People bidding for office would have monks from Buddhist temples pray for them in public in return for cash donations or gifts if the person was selected. Before the persecution of Buddhism in the 9th century, Buddhism and Daoism were accepted side by side, and Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–56) invited monks and clerics of both religions to his court. At the same time Xuanzong exalted the ancient Laozi by granting him grand titles, wrote commentary on the Daoist Laozi, set up a school to prepare candidates for examinations on Daoist scriptures, and called upon the Indian monk Vajrabodhi (671–741) to perform Tantric rites to avert a drought in the year 726. In 742 Emperor Xuanzong personally held the incense burner during a ceremony led by Amoghavajra (705–74, patriarch of the Shingon school) reciting "mystical incantations to secure the victory of Tang forces." [Source: Wikipedia +]

While religion played a role in politics, politics also played a role in religion. In the year 714, Emperor Xuanzong forbade shops and vendors in the city of Chang'an to sell copied Buddhist sutras, instead giving the Buddhist clergy of the monasteries the sole right to distribute sutras to the laity. In the previous year of 713, Emperor Xuanzong had liquidated the highly lucrative Inexhaustible Treasury, which was run by a prominent Buddhist monastery in Chang'an. This monastery collected vast amounts of money, silk, and treasures through multitudes of anonymous people's repentances, leaving the donations on the monastery's premise. Although the monastery was generous in donations, Emperor Xuanzong issued a decree abolishing their treasury on grounds that their banking practices were fraudulent, collected their riches, and distributed the wealth to various other Buddhist monasteries and Daoist abbeys, and to repair statues, halls, and bridges in the city. +

Tang-Era Imperial Examinations

Imperial exam

Following the Sui dynasty's example, the Tang abandoned the nine-rank system in favor of a service system. Students of Confucian studies were potential candidates for the imperial examinations, the graduates of which could be appointed as state bureaucrats in the local, provincial, and central government. There were two types of exams that were given, mingjing ('illuminating the classics examination') and jinshi ('presented scholar examination'). The mingjing was based upon the Confucian classics and tested the student's knowledge of a broad variety of texts. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The jinshi tested a student's literary abilities in writing essay-style responses to questions on matters of governance and politics, as well as their skills in composing poetry. Candidates were also judged on their skills of deportment, appearance, speech, and level of skill in calligraphy, all of which were subjective criteria that allowed the already wealthy members of society to be chosen over ones of more modest means who were unable to be educated in rhetoric or fanciful writing skills. There was a disproportionate number of civil officials coming from aristocratic as opposed to non-aristocratic families. The exams were open to all male subjects whose fathers were not of the artisan or merchant classes, although having wealth or noble status was not a prerequisite in receiving a recommendation. In order to promote widespread Confucian education, the Tang government established state-run schools and issued standard versions of the Five Classics with selected commentaries. +

This competitive procedure was designed to draw the best talent into government. But perhaps an even greater consideration for the Tang rulers, aware that imperial dependence on powerful aristocratic families and warlords would have destabilizing consequences, was to create a body of career officials having no autonomous territorial or functional power base. The Tang law code ensured equal division of inherited property amongst legitimate heirs, allowing a bit of social mobility and preventing the families of powerful court officials from becoming landed nobility through primogeniture. As it turned out, these scholar-officials acquired status in their local communities and in family ties, while they also shared values that connected them to the imperial court. From Tang times until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912, scholar-officials functioned often as intermediaries between the grassroots level and the government. Yet the potential of a widespread examination system was not fully realized until the Song dynasty, when the merit-driven scholar official largely shed his aristocratic habits and defined his social status through the examination system. +

As historian Patricia Ebrey states of the Song period scholar-officials: “The examination system, used only on a small scale in Sui and Tang times, played a central role in the fashioning of this new elite. The early Song emperors, concerned above all to avoid domination of the government by military men, greatly expanded the civil service examination system and the government school system.” Nevertheless, the Sui and Tang dynasties institutionalized and set the foundations for the civil service system and the new elite class of exam-drafted scholar-officials. [Source: Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999]

Tang Dynasty Legal Code

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Law, in the sense of pronouncements from a ruler describing offensive behavior and prescribing punishments for such behavior, dates back to the edicts of the kings of the Western Zhou dynasty (1046.771 B.C.). Later, in the sixth century B.C. (during the Warring States period), rulers of some of the many constituent states of the Zhou feudal kingdom issued their own penal laws and cast them on bronze vessels. Subsequent dynastic governments, while subscribing to Confucian political and moral philosophy, also followed the practical “Legalist” expedient of having codified laws. The Great Tang Code thus grew out of a long tradition of law.making which included the laws of Qin, Han, and Sui. The Tang Code is, however, the earliest Chinese legal code that we have in its complete form. The Tang Code served as a model for all subsequent dynastic codes of law, including those of the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“The Tang Code is organized into two main parts: general principles and specific offenses. In the section of specific offenses, each offense is named, and the appropriate punishment is prescribed. Over the years, the Tang Code was supplemented with commentaries and subcommentaries which assisted county magistrates and their superiors at the provincial and imperial levels of government in applying the code to individual offenses. The text of the code itself is attributed to Zhangsun Wuji (d. 659 CE), a high.ranking official and brother-in-law of Emperor Tang Taizong (r. 627.650 CE). The portion below describes the “Ten Abominations”.. the ten most serious offenses a person could commit. The penalties for “plotting rebellion,” “plotting great sedition,” and “plotting treason” called for punishment not only of the individual incriminated in the plot, but also of that person’s entire family.. parents, children, brothers, and sisters.. who were liable for penalties up to and including execution.”

Legal Reform Made in the Tang Dynasty

Emperor Taizong (ruled from 626 to 649) set out to solve internal problems within the government which had constantly plagued past dynasties. Building upon the Sui legal code, he issued a new legal code that subsequent Chinese dynasties would model theirs upon, as well as neighboring polities in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. The earliest law code to survive was the one established in the year 653, which was divided into 500 articles specifying different crimes and penalties ranging from ten blows with a light stick, one hundred blows with a heavy rod, exile, penal servitude, or execution. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The legal code clearly distinguished different levels of severity in meted punishments when different members of the social and political hierarchy committed the same crime. For example, the severity of punishment was different when a servant or nephew killed a master or an uncle than when a master or uncle killed a servant or nephew. The Tang Code was largely retained by later codes such as the early Ming dynasty (1368–1644) code of 1397,yet there were several revisions in later times, such as improved property rights for women during the Song dynasty (960–1279).

Although the founders of the Tang related to the glory of the earlier Han dynasty (3rd century B.C.– A.D. 3rd century), the basis for much of their administrative organization was very similar to the previous Northern and Southern dynasties. The Northern Zhou (6th century) fubing system of divisional militia was continued by the Tang, along with farmer-soldiers serving in rotation from the capital or frontier in order to receive appropriated farmland. The equal-field system of the Northern Wei (4th–6th centuries) was also kept, although there were a few modifications.

Although the central and local governments kept an enormous number of records about land property in order to assess taxes, it became common practice in the Tang for literate and affluent people to create their own private documents and signed contracts. These had their own signature and that of a witness and scribe in order to prove in court (if necessary) that their claim to property was legitimate. The prototype of this actually existed since the ancient Han dynasty, while contractual language became even more common and embedded into Chinese literary culture in later dynasties.

Great Tang Code : Article 6, "The Ten Abominations"

The ten abominations (shie) are the most serious of those offenses that come within the five punishments. They injure traditional norms and destroy ceremony. They are specially placed near the head of this chapter in order to serve as a clear warning. The number of extreme abominations being classified as ten is the reason why they are called the ten abominations. [Source: The Great Tang Code: Article 6, "The Ten Abominations" by Zhangsun Wuji, d. 659; from Sources of Chinese Tradition, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 549-552 -]

Article: The first is called plotting rebellion (moufan). Subcommentary: The Gongyang Commentary states: “The ruler or parent has no harborers [of plots]. If he does have such harborers, he must put them to death.” This means that if there are those who harbor rebellious hearts that would harm the ruler or father, he must then put them to death. The Zuo Commentary (Zuozhuan) states: “When the seasons of Heaven are reversed, we have calamities … when the virtues of men are reversed, we have disorders.” The king occupies the most honorable position and receives Heaven’s precious decrees. Like Heaven and Earth, he acts to shelter and support, thus serving as the father and mother of the masses. As his children, as his subjects, they must be loyal and filial. Should they dare to cherish wickedness and have rebellious hearts, however, they will run counter to Heaven’s constancy and violate human principle. Therefore this is called plotting rebellion. -

“Commentary: Plotting rebellion means to plot to endanger the Altars of Soil and Grain [sheji, that is, the ruler and the state that he rules]. Subcommentary: She is the spirit of the five colors of soil [corresponding to the Five Phases). Ji is the regulator of the fields, which uses the spirits’ earthly virtue to control the harvest. The ruler is the lord of these spirits of agriculture. The food that they ensure is as Heaven to the people. When their lord is in peace, these spirits are at rest. When the spirits are in repose, the seasons give a plentiful harvest. However, ministers and subjects may plot and scheme to rebel against traditional norms and have minds that would discard their ruler. If the ruler’s position is endangered, what will the spirits rely upon? Not daring to make direct allusion to the honored name of the ruler, we therefore use the phrase “Altars of Soil and Grain” to designate him. The Rites of Zhou states: “On the left the Temple of the Ancestors, on the right the Altar of the Soil.” These are what the ruler honors. -

“Article: The second is called plotting great sedition (mou dani). Subcommentary: This type of person breaks laws and destroys order, is against traditional norms, and goes contrary to virtue. There can be no greater sedition. Therefore it is called great sedition. Commentary: Plotting great sedition means to plot to destroy the ancestral temples, tombs, or palaces of the reigning house. “Subcommentary: There are persons who “offend against Heaven,” “who do not know where to stop,” and who secretly think of letting loose their hatred. Planning recklessness, they conceive evil thoughts and plot destruction of the ancestral temples, tombs, or palaces of the reigning house. -

Article: The third is called plotting treason (mou pan). Subcommentary: The kindness of father and mother is like “great Heaven, illimitable.” “Entering into the inheritance of our ancestors,” we may not be frivolous. Let one’s heart be like the xiao bird or the jing beast, and then love and respect both cease. Those whose relationship is within the five degrees of mourning are the closest of kin. For them to kill each other is the extreme abomination and the utmost in rebellion, destroying and casting aside human principles. Therefore this is called contumacy. Commentary: Contumacy means to beat or plot to kill [without actually killing] one’s paternal grandparents or parents; or to kill one’s paternal uncles or their wives, or one’s elder brothers or sisters, or one’s maternal grandparents, or one’s husband, or one’s husband’s paternal grandparents, or his parents. -

Article: The fifth is called depravity (budao). Subcommentary: This article describes those who are cruel and malicious and who turn their backs on morality. Therefore it is called depravity. “Commentary: Depravity means to kill three members of a single household (jia) who have not committed a capital crime, or to dismember someone. Commentary: The offense also includes the making or keeping of poison (gu) or sorcery. Subcommentary: This means to prepare the poison oneself, or to keep it, or to give it to others in order to harm people. But if the preparation of the poison has not yet been completed, this offense does not come under the ten abominations. As to sorcery, there are a great many methods, not all of which can be described. All, however, comprise evil customs and secret practices that are illegal and whose intent is to cause the victim pain and death. -

Article: The sixth is called great irreverence (da bujing). Subcommentary: Rites are the root of reverence; reverence is the expression of rites. Therefore, “The Evolution of Rites” [chapter of the Record of Rites] states: “Rites are the great instrument of the ruler. It is by them that he resolves what is doubtful and brings to light what is abstruse … examines institutions and regulations, and distinguishes humaneness and rightness.” The responsibility of those who offend against ritual is great and their hearts lack reverence and respect. Therefore it is called great irreverence. … Commentary: Great irreverence means to steal the objects of the great sacrifices to the spiritsor the carriage or possessions of the emperor.-

“Article: The seventh is called lack of filiality (buxiao). Subcommentary: Serving one’s parents well is called filiality. Disobeying them is called lack of filiality. Commentary: This has reference to accusing to the court or cursing one’s paternal grandparents or parents. -

Article: The ninth is called what is not right (buyi). Subcommentary: Rites (ritual decorum) honor rightness. This section originally did not include blood relatives because, basically, rightness is exercised only toward associates. It is concerned with turning one’s back on rightness and violating humaneness. … Therefore it is called “what is not right.”Commentary: [This] means to kill one’s department head, prefect, or magistrate, or the teacher from whom one has received one’s education. -

Article: The tenth is called incest (neiluan). Subcommentary: The Zuo Commentary (Zuozhuan) states: “The woman has her husband’s house; the man has his wife’s chamber; and there must be no defilement on either side.” If this is changed, then there is incest. If one behaves like the birds and beasts and introduces licentious associates into one’s family, the rules of morality are confused. Therefore this is called incest. Commentary: This section includes having illicit sexual intercourse (jian) with relatives who are of the fourth degree of mourning or closer. -

Emperor Taizong's Political Reforms


Taizong — considered by many historians the greatest of China's imperial rulers — issued a series of sweeping reforms According to the Middle Ages Reference Library: He put into place a complex but efficient bureaucracy divided into three branches for making, reviewing, and implementing policy. The review board was allowed to criticize the emperor's decisions, and the policy-making branch exercised further checks on imperial authority by making suggestions as well. In a land where strong emperors enjoyed near-absolute power, it was highly unusual to see a regime exercise such a great degree of openness. [Source: Middle Ages Reference Library, Gale Group, Inc., 2001]

Taizong also instituted badly needed land reforms, redistributing property to reflect changes in the size of peasant families. Though taxes on farmers were high, peasants now felt a sense of ownership over their lands, which could no longer be snapped up by feudal lords. The Tang government also greatly extended the canal network put in place by the Sui, thus aiding the transport of goods from north to south in a land where most major rivers flowed eastward.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Li Shimin reigned as Taizong, second emperor of the Tang dynasty (618-907), from 626 until his death in 649. An energetic ruler, Tang Taizong had played a major part in the military campaigns that brought his father (Li Yuan, Tang Gaozu, r. 618 -626) to the throne as the first emperor of the Tang dynasty. Having eliminated his two competitors for the throne (his brothers Li Jiancheng and Li Yuanji) in an ambush at the capital city’s Xuanwu Gate in 624, Li Shimin forced his father into retirement in 626 to take the throne for himself. As the second emperor of the Tang dynasty, Li Shimin gave shape to the administrative structure of the empire. The text recommended below was written in 648, near the end of his reign, and was meant to serve as advice to his heirs. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Emperor Taizong on Effective Government

Emperor Taizong wrote in “Effective Rulership, the Law, and Taxes”: A country cannot be a country without people and a ruler cannot be a ruler without a country. When the ruler looks as lofty and firm as a mountain peak and as pure, bright, and illuminating as the sun and the moon, the people will admire and respect him. He must broaden his will so as to be able to embrace both Heaven and earth and must regulate his heart so as to be able to make just decisions. He cannot expand his territory without majesty and virtue; he cannot soothe and protect his people without compassion and kindness. He comforts his relations with benevolence, treats his officials with courtesy, honors his ancestors with filial respect, and receives his subordinates with thoughtfulness. Having disciplined himself, he practices virtue and righteousness diligently. This is how a ruler should act. [Source:“ Effective Rulership, the Law, and Taxes” by Emperor Taizong (r. 626-649), translated by Chiu.yueh Lai; From “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 112-115 /~/]

“Differentiation of the ranks and duties of officials is a means of improving customs. A wise emperor, therefore, knows how to choose the right person for the right task. He is like a skillful carpenter who knows to use straight timber to make shafts, curved timber to make wheels, long timber to make beams, and short timber to make posts. Wood of all shapes and lengths is thus fully utilized. The emperor should make use of personnel in the same way, using the wise for their resourcefulness, the ignorant for their strength, the brave for their daring, and the timid for their prudence. As a good carpenter does not discard any timber, so a wise emperor does not discard any gentleman. A mistake should not lead the emperor to ignore a gentleman’s virtues, nor should a flaw overshadow his merits. /~/

“Government affairs should be departmentalized to make the best use of officials’ abilities. A tripod large enough for an ox should not be used to cook a chicken, nor should a raccoon good only at catching rats be ordered to fight against huge beasts. … Those with low intelligence or capability should not be entrusted with heavy tasks or responsibilities. If the right person is given the right task or responsibility, the empire can be governed with ease. This is the proper way of utilizing people. Whether the emperor gets hold of the right person for the right task determines whether his empire will be well governed. /~/

“Music should be played when a victory is gained; ritual should be established when the country is at peace. The ritual and music to be promulgated are rooted in Confucianism. Nothing is better than literature to spread manners and guide customs; nothing is better than schooling to propagate regulations and educate people. The Way is spread through culture; fame is gained through learning. Without visiting a deep ravine, one cannot understand how deep the earth is; without learning the arts, one cannot realize the source of wisdom. Just as the bamboos of the state of Wu cannot be made into arrows without feathers, so a clever man will not achieve any success without accumulating learning. Therefore, study halls and ritual halls should be built, books of various schools of thought should be widely read, and the six arts [propriety, music, archery, charioteering, writing, and mathematics] should be carefully studied...Literary arts and military arts should be employed by the state alternately. When the world is in an uproar and a battle will determine the fate of the country, military arts should be highlighted and schools given low priority. Reserve the two when the country is peaceful and prosperous; then slight the military and give weight to the classics. Neither military nor culture can the country do without; which to emphasize depends on circumstances. Neither soldiers nor scholars can be dispensed with. /~/

Emperor Taizong on Establishing Relatives

Emperor Taizong wrote in “Effective Rulership, the Law, and Taxes”: The country is huge and responsibility for it is heavy. A huge country cannot be evenly governed by the emperor alone; the responsibility is too great for one man. Thus, the emperor should enfeoff relatives to guard the outlying prefectures. Whether the country is at peace or in danger, they cooperate; whether the country is thriving or declining, they work together with one heart. Both distant and close relations are supported and employed; encroachment and rebellion are prevented. [Source:“ Effective Rulership, the Law, and Taxes” by Emperor Taizong (r. 626-649), translated by Chiu.yueh Lai; From “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 112-115 /~/]

“Formerly when the Zhou dynasty was at its height, the empire was divided among the royal clan. Nearby there was Jin and Zheng to help; far off there was Lu and Wei. In this way, the dynasty was able to survive several centuries. Toward the end of the Qin dynasty, however, the emperor rejected Chunyu’s scheme [of enfeoffing relatives] and accepted Li Si’s plan [to enfeoff nonrelatives]. He thus detached himself from his relatives and valued only the wise. /~/

“With no relatives to rely on, the dynasty fell after two generations. Isn’t this all because of the fact that if a tree has a mass of branches and leaves, it is difficult to root up, but if the limbs are disabled, the trunk has nothing to depend on? Eager to avoid Qin’s errors, the Han dynasty, upon stabilizing the land within the passes, enfeoffed the closest relatives generously. Outdoing the ancient system, the largest fiefs were as big as kingdoms, and the smallest had at least several prefectures. But a branch can get so heavy that it breaks the trunk; a tail can get too big to be wagged. Thus, his throne was usurped and his dynasty was overthrown by someone of a different surname. This is a good example of the old saying that a river does not run when its source dries up and branches wither when the root of the tree decays. /~/

“Subordinates granted too much power can develop into insurmountable problems for the throne. On the other hand, subordinates granted too little power will not be strong enough to protect the throne. Thus, the best way is to enfeoff many relatives to even up their power and to have them regulate one another and share one another’s ups and downs. By doing so, the throne need not suspect its subordinates and the subordinates need not worry about being wronged or injured. These are the precautions one should take in granting fiefs. Neutralizing the power of subordinates so that none of them gets to be too strong or too weak is indeed the key to securing one’s throne.” /~/

Welcoming Advice, Discouraging Slander and Avoiding Extravagance

Taizong's writing

Emperor Taizong wrote in “Effective Rulership, the Law, and Taxes”: “The emperor, living in the palace, is blocked from direct access to information. For fear that faults might be left untold or defects unattended, he must set up various devices to elicit loyal suggestions and listen attentively to sincere advice. If what is said is right, he must not reject it even though it is offered by a low servant. On the other hand, if what is said is wrong, he must not accept it even though it is given by a high official. He should not find fault with the rhetoric of a comment that makes sense, nor cavil at the wording of a suggestions worth adopting. … If he acts these ways, the loyal will be devoted and the wise will fully employ their resourcefulness. Government officials will not keep any secrets from the emperor and the emperor, through his close ties to them, can thus gain access to the world. [Source:“ Effective Rulership, the Law, and Taxes” by Emperor Taizong (r. 626-649), translated by Chiu.yueh Lai; From “”Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”,” edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 112-115 /~/]

“A foolish emperor, in comparison, rebuffs remonstrations and punishes the critics. As a result, high officials do not give any advice lest they lose their salary and low officials do not make any comment lest they lose their lives. Being extremely tyrannical and dissipated, he blocks himself from any access to information. He considers himself more virtuous than the Three Lords and more talented than the Five Emperors. This eventually brings him and his empire to destruction. How sad it is! This is the evil consequence of rejecting remonstrations. /~/

“Slanderers and flatterers are as harmful to the country as grubs to seedlings. They devote all their time to getting ahead. At court they compete for power and out of court they compete for profit. They fawn to prevent the loyal and the worthy from outranking them; they cheat out of fear that others will acquire riches and honor before them. Acting in collusion and copying each other, they succeed all too often. They get close to their superiors by using fine words and pleasant manners; they please the emperor by anticipating and attending to his wishes.” /~/

“Advice that grates is difficult to take, but words that fall in with one’s wishes are easy for one to follow. This is because while the former is like good medicine that tastes bitter, the latter is like poisoned wine that tastes sweet. A wise emperor accepts bitter criticisms that benefit his conduct; a foolish emperor takes sweet flattery that leads him to destruction. Beware! /~/

“The ruler cultivates his character through frugality and peacefulness. Restraining himself, he will not tire his people or disturb his subordinates. Thus, his people will not complain and his rule will not go off course. If the emperor indulges himself in curiosities, women, music, hunting, or travel, agriculture will be disturbed and labor service will have to be increased, leading to the exhaustion of the people and the neglect of farming. If the emperor indulges himself in magnificent dwelling, precious jewelry, or fine clothes, taxes will have to be increased, leading the people to flee and the country to be impoverished. A chaotic age is marked by a ruler who is arrogant and extravagant, indulging his desires. While his dwelling and garments are richly ornamented, his people are in need of simple clothes; while his dogs and horses are tired of grain, his people do not have enough husks and chaff. As a result, both the gods and the people become resentful, and the ruler and the ruled become estranged. The dynasty is overthrown before the emperor has satisfied his wishes. Such is the fearsome cost of being arrogant and extravagant.” /~/

Taxes in the Tang Dynasty

The early Tang government established both the grain tax and cloth tax at a relatively low rate for each household under the empire. This was meant to encourage households to enroll for taxation and not avoid the authorities. According to the earlier system of census registration, persons aged sixteen or more were classified as “half adult” (zhong), and those twenty-one or older were classified as adult (ding). After 744 CE, the ages were raised to eighteen and twenty-two, respectively.

In the late 8th century, Lu Zhi wrote in the “Memorial Against the Twice-a-Year Tax”: According to the established law of the dynasty, there were three kinds of taxes. The first was known as the land tax; the second, cloth contribution; the third, labor service. This threefold tax system followed the example of former sages and took into consideration the advantages and disadvantages of the tax measures of previous dynasties. … [Source:“Memorial Against the Twice-a-Year Tax” by Lu Zhi (754-805), “The New History of the Tang Dynasty,” From Sources of Chinese Tradition, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 554-558]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Every dynastic government of China needed to collect revenue from the empire’s vast agricultural economy in order to support the imperial house and the imperial government and to carry out all the responsibilities of government, such as maintenance of social order, defense of the frontiers, famine relief, building and maintenance of roads, canals, and temples, control of trade routes and, from time to time, aggressive territorial expansion. Taxation was a matter of life and death to the government. It was also an eternal challenge: how to collect taxes efficiently, fairly, and at sufficient rates to pay for government expenses. The problem was made all the more challenging by the unfortunate fact that Chinese landowners, small and large, were no more enthusiastic about paying taxes than people are today. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“The early rulers of the Tang empire had devised a system under which the state owned all agricultural land and assigned it on a provisional basis to individual farming families. In return, the families (whose temporary holding of the land was registered with the government) were responsible for paying taxes and providing soldiers for the government. Over the decades, this system fell apart: as a result, tax revenue declined significantly. By the mid-Tang, imperial officials were trying to address this problem by devising new and more efficient tax systems that would be adapted to the real situation, which was that agricultural land had, in fact, reverted to private ownership.

Debate on Tang Taxes: Memorial Proposing the Twice-a-Year Tax

According to “The New History of the Tang Dynasty: “Very little of the tax revenue that should have gone to the emperor was actually presented. Altogether there were several hundred kinds of taxation: those that had been formally abolished were never dropped, and those that duplicated others were never eliminated. Old and new taxes piled up, and there seemed to be no limit to them. The people drained the last drop of their blood and marrow; they sold their loved ones. … Rich people with many able-bodied adults in their families sought to obtain exemption from labor services by having them become officials, students, Buddhist monks, and Daoist priests. The poor had nothing they could get into [to obtain such an exemption] and continued to be registered as able-bodied adults liable to labor service. The upper class had their taxes forgiven, while the lower class had their taxes increased. Thereupon the empire was ruined and in distress, and the people wandered around like vagrants. Fewer than four or five out of a hundred lived in their own villages and stayed on their own land. “Yang Yan was concerned over these evils and petitioned the throne to establish the Twice-a- Year Tax in order to unify the tax system. [Source: “Memorial Proposing the Twice-a-Year Tax” by Yang Yan (727-781), “The New History of the Tang Dynasty,”From Sources of Chinese Tradition, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 554-558 ~~]

Yang Yan wrote in his “Memorial Proposing the Twice-a-Year Tax”: “The way to handle all government expenses and tax collections is first to calculate the amount needed and then to allocate the tax among the people. Thus the income of the state would be governed according to its expenses. All households should be registered in their places of actual residence, without regard to whether they are native households or non-native. All persons should be graded according to their wealth, without regard to whether they are fully adult or only half adult. Those who do not have a permanent residence and do business as traveling merchants should be taxed in whatever prefecture or subprefecture they are located at the rate of one.thirtieth [of their capital holdings]. ~~

“It is estimated that the amount taken from them will be the same as that paid by those having fixed domicile, so that they could not expect to gain from chance avoidance of the tax. The tax paid by residents should be collected twice a year, during the summer and autumn. All practices that cause annoyance to the people should be corrected. The separate land and labor tax, and all miscellaneous labor services, should be abolished, and yet the count of the able-bodied adults should still be kept. The tax on land acreage should be based upon the amount of land cultivated in the fourteenth year of Dali [779], and the tax should be collected equally. The summer tax should be collected no later than the sixth month, and the autumn tax no later than the eleventh month. At the end of the year, local officials should be promoted or demoted according to the increase or decrease in the number of households and tax receipts. Everything should be under the control of the President of the Board of Revenue and the Commissioner of Funds.” ~~

Yang’s suggestion was adopted. According to “The New History of the Tang Dynasty: ““The emperor approved of this policy, and officials in the capital and the various provinces were informed of it. There were some who questioned and opposed the measure, considering that the old system of land and labor taxes had been in operation for several hundred years and that a change should not be made precipitously. The emperor did not listen to them, however, and eventually the empire enjoyed the benefits of the measure.” Unfortunately, the next year he was on the losing end of a factional struggle at court, was transferred to a minor post in the provinces, and forced to commit suicide. ~~

Debate on Tang Taxes: Memorial Against the Twice-a-Year Tax

Lu Zhi (754-805) initially supported the tax, but later expressed reservations about it. In the “Memorial Against the Twice-a-Year Tax”, he wrote: “As a means of making life secure, it made for permanence of domicile without restrictive legislation; as a means of imposing labor service, it became possible to know the population without a vexatious census; as a means of government, it enabled the rulers to carry out their duties without complex and exacting laws; as a means of taxation, it produced enough for those above [the government] without impoverishing those below [the people]. [Source:“Memorial Against the Twice-a-Year Tax” by Lu Zhi (754-805), “The New History of the Tang Dynasty,” From Sources of Chinese Tradition, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 554-558]

“But as a result of the barbarian uprisings in the later years of the Tianbao period (742.756), utterconfusion reigned in our land and untold suffering came upon our people; the registers and administrative divisions became outmoded because of the shift in population and the tax laws vitiated because of the ever.growing demands of the armies. At the beginning of the Jianzhong period (780.783) there was an attempt at reform. The government realized the necessity of rectifying the evils, but the measures it introduced were not based upon sound principles. It realized the wisdom of simplification, but the methods it adopted were not founded on realities.

“Now, without trying first to bring order to the times that are at fault, changes have been made in laws that are free from blame. The traditional measures of cloth contribution and labor service were swept aside and the new scheme of the Twice-a-Year Tax introduced. Being faulty in conception and careless in detail, the new tax scheme has only exhausted the people and made their lot worse every day. … To achieve this [reform] proper steps should have been taken to take away from those above in order to give to those below, to cut expenses in order to save wealth, to discourage extravagance and greed in order to reverse the trend toward corruption, to eliminate unnecessary outlays in order to relieve the people of heavy exactions. ++

“But instead, the provinces have been subjected to great hardship because of the irksome examination of the registers and tax rolls necessary to determine the highest annual tax rate during the Dali period (766-780), which the Twice-a-Year Tax must use as a base. This is in effect the adoption of an unconstitutional expedient as fixed law and the incorporation of oppressive exactions of doubtful origin as regular features of the tax scheme. This amounts to making the extraction of money from the people the primary objective of government; one can hardly say that it is consistent with concern for the people. ++

“Now surely wealth can be produced only by human labor. Skill and industry lead to wealth and plenty, ineptitude and laziness to want and deficiency. It is for this reason that the ancient sage kings made the able-bodied male the tax unit when they instituted the tax system. They did not demand from a man more than his just portion; nor did they let him escape with less. They did not increase a man’s taxes because he worked hard at his crops, nor did they lighten them because he abandoned his tillage. Thus people were encouraged to sow as much as they could. ++

“They did not add to a man’s taxes because he lived in settled productivity, nor did they exempt a man from his cloth contribution because he wandered about without an established home. Thus stability was achieved. They did not exact more labor from a man because of his industry, nor did they accept less from a man because of his laziness. Thus diligence was encouraged. Only by such ways as these can the people be happy in their abode and willingly contribute their best. ++

“The Twice-a-Year Tax works on a different principle. It is based upon property only and not on the able- bodied male. This means that the more property one has, the more one has to pay, and the less property, the less tax. The system entirely fails to take into account the diverse natures of various types of property. … But under the Twice-a-Year system, these diverse types of property are all converted into so many strings of money, and it surprises no one that the system should work inequities and encourage evasion. For under this system those who range over the land and traffic in commerce are often able to escape their share of the tax burden, while those who devote themselves to the basic vocation [of agriculture] and establish fixed homes are constantly harassed by ever-increasing demands. This amounts to tempting the people to circumvent the law and forcing them to shirk their just share of labor. It is inevitable that productivity should decline and morals deteriorate, depression come to the villages and towns, and a decrease result in the tax collections.

“Furthermore, in drawing up the scheme no effort was made to achieve an equal distribution of the tax burden. The provinces and districts were merely ordered to levy the new taxes according to the old rate. It was not realized that because of the long military campaigns conditions were far from being the same in the different localities. Not only was the nature of the demands made upon a place different from that made upon another, but there was also great disparity in the ability of the administrators. Thus the tax burden varies greatly from place to place, just as opinions differ among the respective commissioners. ++

“In introducing new regulations, existing inequities should have been recognized and changes made wherever necessary; but instead, the officials were more interested in collecting as much in taxes as they could and were loath to eliminate anything. The actual resources and capacities of the various administrative districts were not given any weight at all; the old rate was the only thing that mattered. Thus the new law had the effect of causing ever heavier migrations away from regions where the rate was high and toward regions where the rate was low. The result was that in the former regions the burden became heavier because the quota had to be shared by fewer people than before, while in the latter regions the burden became even lighter because the quota could be distributed among more people. In this way the situation tends to become more and more inequitable.” ++

Censuses during the Tang Dynasty

The Tang dynasty government attempted to create an accurate census of the size of their empire's population, mostly for effective taxation and matters of military conscription for each region. In the census of 609, the population was tallied by efforts of the government at a size of 9 million households, or about 50 million people. The Tang census of 742 again approximated the size of China's population at about 50 million people. Patricia Ebrey writes that even if a rather significant number of people had avoided the registration process of the tax census, the population size during the Tang had not grown significantly since the earlier Han dynasty (the census of the year 2 recording a population of roughly 58 million people in China). S.A.M. Adshead disagrees, estimating that there were about 75 million people by 750. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In the Tang census of the year 754, there were 1,859 cities, 321 prefectures, and 1,538 counties throughout the empire. Although there were many large and prominent cities during the Tang, the rural and agrarian areas comprised the majority of China's population at some 80 to 90 percent. There was also a dramatic migratory shift of the population from northern to southern China, as the North held 75 percent of the overall population at the dynasty's inception, but by its end was reduced to 50 percent. +

Chinese population size would not dramatically increase until the Song dynasty period, when the population doubled to 100 million people because of extensive rice cultivation in central and southern China, coupled with rural farmers holding more abundant yields of food that they could easily provide to the growing market. +

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; 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; 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 August 2021

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