DECLINE AND FALL OF THE TANG DYNASTY

AN LUSHAN REBELLION (755-763)


An Lushan

The disintegration of the Tang Empire is closely associated with the loss of good will between Chinese and non-native populations. The beginnings of this decline are commonly dated to the year 751, when Tang forces were destroyed by an army composed of allied Türkic and Arab forces at Atlach on the Talas River (west of Lake Balkash in modern Kazakhstan). A few years later in 755, a rebellious army of 150,000 frontier troops led by General An Lushan would take the city of Jojun (modern Beijing) in the northeastern region of the empire. It took the Tang military eight years to crush the rebellion, and the empire never fully recovered. Perhaps a million people died. [Source: John D. Szostak, University of Washington washington.edu +|+]

The Tang Empire was at its height of power up until the middle of the 8th century, when the An Lushan Rebellion (December 16, 755 – February 17, 763) occurred. Of Iranian and Turkic descent, An Lushan rose rapidly at court and became a favorite of Xuanzong. After Arab forces defeated Chinese troops at Talas in Central Asia (751), however, it became clear that the Tang had reached the limits of their power. In 755 An launched a rebellion against the emperor. Soon afterward, palace guards killed Xuanzong’s favorite concubine for her part in the rebellion, and in 757 An was murdered on the orders of his own son. The revolt continued until 763, however, further weakening Tang power. The dynasty would maintain control for another almost 150 years, but its glory days were over,[Source: Middle Ages Reference Library, Gale Group, Inc., 2001]

The Uyghur khan Moyanchur took advantage of teh situation and married his own daughter to a Chinese diplomatic envoy, receiving Chinese princess as his bride in return. The Uyghurs helped recapture the Tang capital from the rebels, but refused to leave until the Tang paid them an enormous sum of tribute in silk. Abbasid Arabs also assisted the Tang in putting down the An Lushan's rebellion. Tibetans took advantage of the upheaval to grab Chinese territory, and held on to some it even after the Tibetan Empire feel apart in 842. The Uyghurs empire fell soon after that but the Tang was so weakened by the An Lush rebellion it was unable to reconquer much of the territory it lost and make inroads into Central Asia. An Lushan was killed by one of his eunuchs in 757, but fighting and insurrection continued until rebel Shi Siming was killed by his own son in 763. So significant was this loss and humiliation of the rebellion that decades later Chinese scholars were required to write an essay on the causes of the Tang's decline as part of their jinshi examinations. +

An Lushan

An Lushan (703-757). was a half-Sogdian, half-Turk Tang commander known best for his mostly unsuccessful campaigns against the Khitans of Manchuria. He was given great responsibility in Hebei, near Manchuria, which allowed him to rebel with an battle-hardened army of more than one hundred thousand troops. After capturing Luoyang (the eastern capital of the Tang Dynasty, he named himself emperor of a new, but short-lived, Yan state. Despite early victories scored by Tang General Guo Ziyi (697–781), the newly recruited troops of the Tang army were no match for An Lushan's die-hard frontier veterans, so the court fled Chang'an. The Tang heir apparent raised troops in Shanxi and Xuanzong and fled to Sichuan province, and sought help from the Uyghur Turks in 756. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: His mother was a Turkish shamaness, his father, a foreigner probably of Sogdian origin. An Lushan succeeded in gaining favour with the Li clique, which hoped to make use of him for its own ends. Chinese sources describe him as a prodigy of evil, and it will be very difficult today to gain a true picture of his personality. In any case, he was certainly a very capable officer. His rise started from a victory over the Kitan in 744. He spent some time establishing relations with the court and then went back to resume operations against the Kitan. He made so much of the Kitan peril that he was permitted a larger army than usual, and he had command of 150,000 troops in the neighborhood of Peking. Meanwhile Li Linfu died. He had sponsored An as a counterbalance against the western gentry. When now, within the clique of Li Linfu, the Yang family tried to seize power, they turned against An Lushan. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

According to the BBC: “An Lushan was a general who was supposed to be fighting nomads but turned his armies on Emperor Xuanzong instead. The emperor panicked and fled the capital - his supporters blamed his favourite concubine, Yang Guifei, for everything, and he reluctantly gave orders for her to be strangled. Yang Guifei had a complicated back-story having been married to the emperor's son and done a stint as a Taoist priestess, as well as being the adoptive mother of An Lushan. So, for the sake of some toxic court rivalry, the country was thrown into chaos from 755-763. An Lushan was eventually killed by his own son.” For more on Yang Guifei, See Tang Emperors. [Source: BBC]

Events During the An Lushan Rebellion

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: An Lushan “ marched against the capital, Ch'ang-an, with 200,000 men; on his way he conquered Loyang and made himself emperor (756: Yen dynasty). Tang troops were sent against him under the leadership of the Chinese Kuo Tzu-i, a Kitan commander, and a Turk, Ko-shu Han.The first two generals had considerable success, but Ko-shu Han, whose task was to prevent access to the western capital, was quickly defeated and taken prisoner. The emperor fled betimes. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“An Lushan captured Ch'ang-an. The emperor now abdicated; his son, emperor Su Tsung (756-762), also fled, though not with him into Sichuan, but into north-western Shaanxi. There he defended himself against An Lushan and his capable general Shih Ssu-ming (himself a Turk), and sought aid in Central Asia. A small Arab troop came from the caliph Abu-Jafar, and also small bands from Turkestan; of more importance was the arrival of Uighur cavalry in substantial strength.

At the end of 757 there was a great battle in the neighborhood of the capital, in which An Lushan was defeated by the Uighurs; shortly afterwards he was murdered by one of his eunuchs. His followers fled; Loyang was captured and looted by the Uighurs. The victors further received in payment from the Tang government 10,000 rolls of silk with a promise of 20,000 rolls a year; the Uighur khan was given a daughter of the emperor as his wife. An Lushan's general, the Turk Shih Ssu-ming, entered into An Lushan's heritage, and dominated so large a part of eastern China that the Chinese once more made use of the Uighurs to bring him down. The commanders in the fighting against Shih Ssu-ming this time were once more Kuo Tzu-i and the Kitan general, together with P'u-ku Huai-en, a member of a Tölös family that had long been living in China. At first Shih Ssu-ming was victorious, and he won back Loyang, but then he was murdered by his own son, and only by taking advantage of the disturbances that now arose were the government troops able to quell the dangerous rising.

“In all this, two things seem interesting and important. To begin with, An Lushan had been a military governor. His rising showed that while this new office, with its great command of power, was of value in attacking external enemies, it became dangerous, especially if the central power was weak, the moment there were no external enemies of any importance. An Lushan's rising was the first of many similar ones in the later Tang period. The gentry of eastern China had shown themselves entirely ready to support An Lushan against the government, because they had hoped to gain advantage as in the past from a realm with its centre once more in the east. In the second place, the important part played by aliens in events within China calls for notice: not only were the rebels An Lushan and Shih Ssu-ming non-Chinese, but so also were most of the generals opposed to them. But they regarded themselves as Chinese, not as members of another national group. The Turkish Uighurs brought in to help against them were fighting actually against Turks, though they regarded those Turks as Chinese. We must not bring to the circumstances of those times the present-day notions with regard to national feeling.

Negative Legacy of the An Lushan Rebellion

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The An Lushan Uprising and its sequels broke the power of the dynasty, and also of the empire. The extremely sanguinary wars had brought fearful suffering upon the population. During the years of the rising, no taxes came in from the greater part of the empire, but great sums had to be paid to the peoples who had lent aid to the empire. And the looting by government troops and by the auxiliaries injured the population as much as the war itself did. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“In the capital, eunuchs ruled in the interests of various cliques. Several emperors fell victim to them or to the drinking of "elixirs of long life". Abroad, the Chinese lost their dominion over Turkestan, for which Uighurs and Tibetans competed. There is nothing to gain from any full description of events at court. The struggle between cliques soon became a struggle between eunuchs and literati, in much the same way as at the end of the second Han dynasty. Trade steadily diminished, and the state became impoverished because no taxes were coming in and great armies had to be maintained, though they did not even obey the government.

Even before the An Lushan rebellion, beginning in 710, the Tang government had to deal with the gradual rise of regional military governors, the jiedushi, who slowly came to challenge the power of the central government. After the An Lushan Rebellion, the autonomous power and authority accumulated by the jiedushi in Hebei went beyond the central government's control. After a series of rebellions between 781 and 784 in today's Hebei, Shandong, Hubei and Henan provinces, the government had to officially acknowledge the jiedushi's hereditary ruling without accreditation. The Tang government relied on these governors and their armies for protection and to suppress locals that would take up arms against the government. In return, the central government would acknowledge the rights of these governors to maintain their army, collect taxes and even to pass on their title to heirs. [Source: Wikipedia +]

As time passed, these military governors slowly phased out the prominence of civil officials drafted by exams, and became more autonomous from central authority. The rule of these powerful military governors lasted until 960, when a new civil order under the Song dynasty was established. Also, the abandonment of the equal-field system meant that people could buy and sell land freely. Many poor fell into debt because of this, forced to sell their land to the wealthy, which led to the exponential growth of large estates. With the breakdown of the land allocation system after 755, the central Chinese state barely interfered in agricultural management and acted merely as tax collector for roughly a millennium, save a few instances such as the Song's failed land nationalization during the 13th-century war with the Mongols. +

With the central government collapsing in authority over the various regions of the empire, it was recorded in 845 that bandits and river pirates in parties of 100 or more began plundering settlements along the Yangtze River with little resistance. In 858, enormous floods along the Grand Canal inundated vast tracts of land and terrain of the North China Plain, which drowned tens of thousands of people in the process. The Chinese belief in the Mandate of Heaven granted to the ailing Tang was also challenged when natural calamities occurred, forcing many to believe the Heavens were displeased and that the Tang had lost their right to rule. Then in 873 a disastrous harvest shook the foundations of the empire; in some areas only half of all agricultural produce was gathered, and tens of thousands faced famine and starvation. In the earlier period of the Tang, the central government was able to meet crises in the harvest, as it was recorded from 714–719 that the Tang government responded effectively to natural disasters by extending the price-regulation granary system throughout the country. The central government was able then to build a large surplus stock of foods to ward off the rising danger of famine and increased agricultural productivity through land reclamation. In the 9th century, however, the Tang government was nearly helpless in dealing with any calamity. +

Uyghurs, Tibetans and Warlords Threaten Tang China

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “When the emperor Suzong died, in 762, Tengri, the khan of the Uyghurs, decided to make himself ruler over China. The events of the preceding years had shown him that China alone was entirely defenceless. Part of the court clique supported him, and only by the intervention of P'u-ku Huai-en, who was related to Tengri by marriage, was his plan frustrated. Naturally there were countless intrigues against P'u-ku Huai-en. He entered into alliance with the Tibetan T'u-fan, and in this way the union of Turks and Tibetans, always feared by the Chinese, had come into existence. In 763 the Tibetans captured and burned down the western capital, while P'u-ku Huai-en with the Uyghurs advanced from the north. Undoubtedly this campaign would have been successful, giving an entirely different turn to China's destiny, if P'u-ku Huai-en had not died in 765 and the Chinese under Kuo Tzu-i had not succeeded in breaking up the alliance. The Uyghurs now came over into an alliance with the Chinese, and the two allies fell upon the Tibetans and robbed them of their booty. China was saved once more. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Friendship with the Uyghurs had to be paid for this time even more dearly. They crowded into the capital and compelled the Chinese to buy horses, in payment for which they demanded enormous quantities of silkstuffs. They behaved in the capital like lords, and expected to be maintained at the expense of the government. The system of military governors was adhered to in spite of the country's experience of them, while the difficult situation throughout the empire, and especially along the western and northern frontiers, facing the Tibetans and the more and more powerful Kitan, made it necessary to keep considerable numbers of soldiers permanently with the colours. This made the military governors stronger and stronger; ultimately they no longer remitted any taxes to the central government, but spent them mainly on their armies.

“Thus from 750 onward the empire consisted of an impotent central government and powerful military governors, who handed on their positions to their sons as a further proof of their independence. When in 781 the government proposed to interfere with the inheriting of the posts, there was a great new rising, which in 783 again extended as far as the capital; in 784 the Tang government at last succeeded in overcoming it. A compromise was arrived at between the government and the governors, but it in no way improved the situation. Life became more and more difficult for the central government. In 780, the "equal land" system was finally officially given up and with it a tax system which was based upon the idea that every citizen had the same amount of land and, therefore, paid the same amount of taxes. The new system tried to equalize the tax burden and the corvée obligation, but not the land. This change may indicate a step towards greater freedom for private enterprise. Yet it did not benefit the government, as most of the tax income was retained by the governors and was used for their armies and their own court.

Rebuilding and Recovery After the An Shan Rebellion


Zhu Wen

Although these natural calamities and rebellions stained the reputation and hampered the effectiveness of the central government, the early 9th century is nonetheless viewed as a period of recovery for the Tang dynasty. The government's withdrawal from its role in managing the economy had the unintended effect of stimulating trade, as more markets with less bureaucratic restrictions were opened up. By 780, the old grain tax and labor service of the 7th century was replaced by a semiannual tax paid in cash, signifying the shift to a money economy boosted by the merchant class. Cities in the Jiangnan region to the south, such as Yangzhou, Suzhou, and Hangzhou prospered the most economically during the late Tang period. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The government monopoly on the production of salt, weakened after the An Shi Rebellion, was placed under the Salt Commission, which became one of the most powerful state agencies, run by capable ministers chosen as specialists. The commission began the practice of selling merchants the rights to buy monopoly salt, which they would then transport and sell in local markets. In 799 salt accounted for over half of the government's revenues. S. A. M. Adshead writes that this salt tax represents "the first time that an indirect tax, rather than tribute, levies on land or people, or profit from state enterprises such as mines, had been the primary resource of a major state." Even after the power of the central government was in decline after the mid 8th century, it was still able to function and give out imperial orders on a massive scale. +

The Tangshu (Old Book of Tang) compiled in the year 945 recorded that in 828 the Tang government issued a decree that standardized irrigational square-pallet chain pumps in the country: In the second year of the Taihe reign period [828], in the second month...a standard model of the chain pump was issued from the palace, and the people of Jingzhao Fu (d footnote: the capital) were ordered by the emperor to make a considerable number of machines, for distribution to the people along the Zheng Bai Canal, for irrigation purposes.

Decline of the Tang Dynasty

The humiliations that resulted from the annihilation of the Tang forces at the Battle of Talas destabilization that occurred during the An Shan Rebellion revealed weakness of the Tang Dynasty and opened it up to further rebellions. In the 9th next century, both peasant revolts and foreign incursions increased, while more autonomous power was passed to provincial rulers as the centralized Tang state slowly collapsed.

As time went on spirit of tolerance that had marked Tang rule soon faded as emperors persecuted Buddhists and other adherents of "foreign" religions. Famine ravaged northern China, and in 881 the rebel leader Huang Ch'ao sacked Ch'ang-an, forcing the government to Luoyang, an ancient capital. In its last three decades, competing forces at court further sapped the dynasty's strength[Source: Middle Ages Reference Library, Gale Group, Inc., 2001]

During the Tang dynasty arts and ideas flourished when record rice harvest were being recorded, but the entire dynasty began to collapse when the rising population began to outstrip the food supply. An Arab traveler to China at end of the Tang dynasty wrote that “Chinese law permits the eating of human flesh, and this flesh is sold publicly in markets” as a means of providing enough food.

In the last decades of the Tang Dynasty, the weakened central government largely withdrew from managing the economy, though the country's mercantile affairs stayed intact and commercial trade continued to thrive, at least until agrarian rebellions in the latter half of the 9th century brought the dynasty to its knees, resulting in damaging atrocities such as the Guangzhou Massacre (879), in which thousands were killed, including many foreigners.

The peaceful and profitable relationship between Chinese and foreign residents of Tang's largest cities continued until friction arose between foreign traders and Chinese merchants in the late eight century. This friction slowly escalated in the form of increasing resentment and suspicion of the expatriate tradesmen living in the Chang-an and other urban centers, until laws were passed in 836 that forbade extraneous social contact between Chinese and foreigners. In 845 the Tang court's liberal policies towards religion were reversed, and all foreign religions were outlawed. [Source: John D. Szostak, University of Washington washington.edu +|+ ]

Heather Colburn Clydesdale wrote: ““Eventually, the fruits of the Tang's effervescent outlook and international ambitions created fissures in the central government's foundation. Hostilities with Tibet began to divert resources, while quelling rebellions at home necessitated pulling back garrisons from the northwest. A pragmatic alliance with the Uyghurs to the west would prove to have expensive and even bloody consequences. To the Tang, the charms of alien cultures began to wane and more native tastes were renewed. From 842 to 846, the Tang government rejected its previously tolerant stance toward foreign religions and waged a brutal campaign against Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, and Zoroastrianism. Perceiving the imperial government's increasing feebleness, kingdoms to the south and west raided China's borders, while bandits and rebellions instigated further unrest within, until the Tang ultimately disintegrated almost 300 years after its founding. [Source: Heather Colburn Clydesdale, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Tang Attack on Religions and Confiscation of Buddhist Property

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Events that exerted on the internal situation an influence not to be belittled were the break-up of the Uighurs (from 832 onward) the appearance of the Turkish Sha-t'o, and almost at the same time, the dissolution of the Tibetan empire (from 842). Many other foreigners had placed themselves under the Uighurs living in China, in order to be able to do business under the political protection of the Uighur embassy, but the Uighurs no longer counted, and the Tang government decided to seize the capital sums which these foreigners had accumulated. It was hoped in this way especially to remedy the financial troubles of the moment, which were partly due to a shortage of metal for minting. As the trading capital was still placed with the temples as banks, the government attacked the religion of the Uighurs, Manichaeism, and also the religions of the other foreigners, Mazdaism, Nestorianism, and apparently also Islam. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

In 843 alien religions were prohibited; aliens were also ordered to dress like Chinese. This gave them the status of Chinese citizens and no longer of foreigners, so that Chinese justice had a hold over them. That this law abolishing foreign religions was aimed solely at the foreigners' capital is shown by the proceedings at the same time against Buddhism which had long become a completely Chinese Church. Four thousand, six hundred Buddhist temples, 40,000 shrines and monasteries were secularized, and all statues were required to be melted down and delivered to the government, even those in private possession. Two hundred and sixty thousand, five hundred monks were to become ordinary citizens once more. Until then monks had been free of taxation, as had millions of acres of land belonging to the temples and leased to tenants or some 150,000 temple slaves.

“Thus the edict of 843 must not be described as concerned with religion: it was a measure of compulsion aimed at filling the government coffers. All the property of foreigners and a large part of the property of the Buddhist Church came into the hands of the government. The law was not applied to Taoism, because the ruling gentry of the time were, as so often before, Confucianist and at the same time Taoist. As early as 846 there came a reaction: with the new emperor, Confucians came into power who were at the same time Buddhists and who now evicted some of the Taoists. From this time one may observe closer co-operation between Confucianism and Buddhism; not only with meditative Buddhism (Dhyana) as at the beginning of the Tang epoch and earlier, but with the main branch of Buddhism, monastery Buddhism (Vinaya). From now onward the Buddhist doctrines of transmigration and retribution, which had been really directed against the gentry and in favour of the common people, were turned into an instrument serving the gentry: everyone who was unfortunate in this life must show such amenability to the government and the gentry that he would have a chance of a better existence at least in the next life. Thus the revolutionary Buddhist doctrine of retribution became a reactionary doctrine that was of great service to the gentry. One of the Buddhist Confucians in whose works this revised version makes its appearance most clearly was Niu Seng-yu, who was at once summoned back to court in 846 by the new emperor. Three new large Buddhist sects came into existence in the Tang period. One of them, the school of the Pure Land (Ching-t'u tsung, since 641) required of its mainly lower class adherents only the permanent invocation of the Buddha Amithabha who would secure them a place in the "Western Paradise"—a place without social classes and economic troubles. The cult of Maitreya, which was always more revolutionary, receded for a while.

Peasant Revolts in the Late Tang Period

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The chief sufferers from the continual warfare of the military governors, the sanguinary struggles between the cliques, and the universal impoverishment which all this fighting produced, were, of course, the common people. The Chinese annals are filled with records of popular risings, but not one of these had attained any wide extent, for want of organization. In 860 began the first great popular rising, a revolt caused by famine in the province of Zhejiang. Government troops suppressed it with bloodshed. Further popular risings followed. In 874 began a great rising in the south of the present province of Hebei, the chief agrarian region. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The rising was led by a peasant, Wang Hsien-chih, together with Huang Ch'ao, a salt merchant, who had fallen into poverty and had joined the hungry peasants, forming a fighting group of his own. It is important to note that Huang was well educated. It is said that he failed in the state examination. Huang is not the first merchant who became rebel. An Lushan, too, had been a businessman for a while. It was pointed out that trade had greatly developed in the Tang period; of the lower Yangtze region people it was said that "they were so much interested in business that they paid no attention to agriculture". Yet merchants were subject to many humiliating conditions. They could not enter the examinations, except by illegal means. In various periods, from the Han time on, they had to wear special dress. Thus, a law from c. A.D. 300 required them to wear a white turban on which name and type of business was written, and to wear one white and one black shoe. They were subject to various taxes, but were either not allowed to own land, or were allotted less land than ordinary citizens. Thus they could not easily invest in land, the safest investment at that time. Finally, the government occasionally resorted to the method which was often used in the Near East: when in 782 the emperor ran out of money, he requested the merchants of the capital to "loan" him a large sum—a request which in fact was a special tax.

“Wang and Huang both proved good organizers of the peasant masses, and in a short time they had captured the whole of eastern China, without the military governors being able to do anything against them, for the provincial troops were more inclined to show sympathy to the peasant armies than to fight them. The terrified government issued an order to arm the people of the other parts of the country against the rebels; naturally this helped the rebels more than the government, since the peasants thus armed went over to the rebels. Finally Wang was offered a high office. But Huang urged him not to betray his own people, and Wang declined the offer. In the end the government, with the aid of the troops of the Turkish Sha-t'o, defeated Wang and beheaded him (878). Huang Ch'ao now moved into the south-east and the south, where in 879 he captured and burned down Canton; according to an Arab source, over 120,000 foreign merchants lost their lives in addition to the Chinese. From Canton Huang Ch'ao returned to the north, laden with loot from that wealthy commercial city. His advance was held up again by the Sha-t'o troops; he turned away to the lower Yangtze, and from there marched north again. At the end of 880 he captured the eastern capital. The emperor fled from the western capital, Ch'ang-an, into Sichuan, and Huang Ch'ao now captured with ease the western capital as well, and removed every member of the ruling family on whom he could lay hands. He then made himself emperor, in a Ch'i dynasty. It was the first time that a peasant rising had succeeded against the gentry.

“There was still, however, the greatest disorder in the empire. There were other peasant armies on the move, armies that had deserted their governors and were fighting for themselves; finally, there were still a few supporters of the imperial house and, above all, the Turkish Sha-t'o, who had a competent commander with the sinified name of Li K'o-yung. The Sha-t'o, who had remained loyal to the government, revolted the moment the government had been overthrown. They ran the risk, however, of defeat at the hands of an alien army of the Chinese government's, commanded by an Uighur, and they therefore fled to the Tatars. In spite of this, the Chinese entered again into relations with the Sha-t'o, as without them there could be no possibility of getting rid of Huang Ch'ao. At the end of 881 Li K'o-yung fell upon the capital; there was a fearful battle. Huang Ch'ao was able to hold out, but a further attack was made in 883 and he was defeated and forced to flee; in 884 he was killed by the Sha-t'o.

End of Tang Dynasty

In much of the late 8th century the Tang Dynasty was in decline. In the 9th century disputes within the court grew more acrimonious and the Tang dynasty weakened further. Though a Tang emperor occupied the throne until 907, by the 890s most of the empire was in the hands of independent and ambitious military leaders. Invaders from the north destroyed the Tang dynasty in 907, and China once again was thrown into a period of anarchy and disunity that lasted this time for about a half a century. After the Tang Dynasty collapsed the empire split into ten kingdoms, and would remain fragmented until its reunification under the Song dynasty.

In addition to natural calamities and jiedushi amassing autonomous control, the Huang Chao Rebellion (874–884) resulted in the sacking of both Chang'an and Luoyang, and took an entire decade to suppress. Although the rebellion was defeated by the Tang, it never recovered from that crucial blow, weakening it for the future military powers to take over. There were also large groups of bandits, in the size of small armies, that ravaged the countryside in the last years of the Tang, who smuggled illicit salt, ambushed merchants and convoys, and even besieged several walled cities. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Zhu Wen, originally a salt smuggler who had served under the rebel Huang, surrendered to Tang forces. By helping to defeat Huang, he was granted a series of rapid military promotions. In 907 the Tang dynasty was ended when Zhu Wen, now a military governor, deposed the last emperor of Tang, Emperor Ai of Tang, and took the throne for himself (known posthumously as Emperor Taizu of Later Liang). He established the Later Liang, which inaugurated the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. A year later the deposed Emperor Ai was poisoned by Zhu Wen, and died. +

There were Dukedoms for the offspring of the royal families of the Zhou dynasty, Sui dynasty, and Tang dynasty during the Later Jin (Five Dynasties). The Tang Longxi lineage also included sub lineages like the Guzang Li, from which Li Zhuanmei came from, who served the Later Jin. Some of the Tang dynasty Imperial family's cadet branches ended up in Fujian. One founded by Li Dan which became prominent in the Song dynasty. another founded by Li Fu also becoming prominent during the Song dynasty. Today, descendants of the Tang Emperors live in Chengcun village near the Wuyi mountains in Fujian. +

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “This popular rising, which had only been overcome with the aid of foreign troops, brought the end of the Tang dynasty. In 885 the Tang emperor was able to return to the capital, but the only question now was whether China should be ruled by the Sha-t'o under Li K'o-yung or by some other military commander. In a short time Chu Ch'uan-chung, a former follower of Huang Ch'ao, proved to be the strongest of the commanders. In 890 open war began between the two leaders. Li K'o-yung was based on Shanxi; Chu Ch'uan-chung had control of the plains in the east. Meanwhile the governors of Sichuan in the west and Zhejiang in the south-east made themselves independent. Both declared themselves kings or emperors and set up dynasties of their own (from 895). [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Within the capital, the emperor was threatened several times by revolts, so that he had to flee and place himself in the hands of Li K'o-yung as the only leader on whose loyalty he could count. Soon after this, however, the emperor fell into the hands of Chu Ch'uan-chung, who killed the whole entourage of the emperor, particularly the eunuchs; after a time he had the emperor himself killed, set a puppet—as had become customary—on the throne, and at the beginning of 907 took over the rule from him, becoming emperor in the "Later Liang dynasty".

“That was the end of the Tang dynasty, at the beginning of which China had risen to unprecedented power. Its downfall had been brought about by the military governors, who had built up their power and had become independent hereditary satraps, exploiting the people for their own purposes, and by their continual mutual struggles undermining the economic structure of the empire. In addition to this, the empire had been weakened first by its foreign trade and then by the dependence on foreigners, especially Turks, into which it had fallen owing to internal conditions. A large part of the national income had gone abroad. Such is the explanation of the great popular risings which ultimately brought the dynasty to its end.

The rebellion of Huang Chao in the 870s in fact meant the end of the Tang dynasty and the division of China into a number of independent states. Only for reasons of convenience we keep the traditional division into dynasties and have our new period begin with the official end of the Tang dynasty in 906.

Image Sources: Tang Camel. Ohio State University; Tang map, St. Marin edu; Tang Buddist sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art; 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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