The Tang dynasty ((618–907) is considered by many people to be the golden age of Chinese civilization. Its emperors presided over one of the greatest periods of Chinese art, culture and diplomacy. Under Tang leadership, China dominated the Far East in a generally amicable and peaceful way; Silk Road trade flourished; Christianity was introduced to China; and Buddhism became so well entrenched that the reproduction of Buddhist texts led to the invention of block printing and calendars.

The Tang Dynasty saw a blossoming of poetry and art and was period of expansion, as China increased its territory to the west into Xinjiang, to the north into Mongolia and south into Tibet .Under the Sui (581–618) and the Tang a vast domain, much of which had first been assimilated to Chinese culture in the preceding period, was unified and brought into the fold through by a civil service chosen by an examination system based on the Chinese classics. Buddhism spread while Confucianism experienced a rebirth.The end of the Tang was marked by a withdrawal from conquered border regions to the center of Chinese culture. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

The Tang Dynasty was centered in Chang'an, a city established by the Han dynasty on the ruins of Emperor Qin Shi Huang's capital of Xian and developed by Sui emperor Wen Tu. Under the Tangs, Chang'an became a thriving metropolis and center of international trade filled with merchants, foreign traders, missionaries from numerous religions, acrobats, artists and entertainers. It was the largest city in Asia, perhaps the world, with a population of around two million people at a time when no city in Europe had a population of more than a few hundred thousand. The city was linked to the rest of China through a network of canals and toll roads which brought more riches and taxes into Chang'an.

Tang Dynasty was an imperial dynasty of China preceded by the Sui dynasty and followed by the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. Government : Monarchy. First Emperor: Emperor Gaozu (A.D. 618–626). Last Emperor: Emperor Ai (904–907). Established on June 18, 618; Usurped by Wu Zetian (690–705). The An Lushan rebellion occurred in 755–763. Abdication in favour of the Later Liang on June 1, 907. Area in 715: 5,400,000 square kilometers (2,084,952 square miles). Area in 866: 3,700,000 square kilometers (1,428,578 square miles). Population in the 7th century, estimated: 50 million; Population in the 9th century, estimated: 80 million. Currency: Chinese coin. [Source: Wikipedia +]

There is some debate as to when the Tang dynasty began. Most historians argue that it was inaugurated by a Sui official named Li Yuan (later known as Gaozu) who took power after the last Sui emperor was assassinated in 618. The Tangs had Turkic influences and a little Turkish blood. Li Yuan was a member of the Li family, who seized power during the decline and collapse of the Sui Empire. The dynasty was briefly interrupted when Empress Wu Zetian seized the throne, proclaiming the Second Zhou dynasty (690–705) and becoming the only Chinese empress regnant. The Tang dynasty was largely a period of progress and stability in the first half of the dynasty's rule, until the An Lushan Rebellion and the decline of central authority in the later half of the dynasty. Like the previous Sui dynasty, the Tang dynasty maintained a civil service system by recruiting scholar-officials through standardized examinations and recommendations to office. This civil order was undermined by the rise of regional military governors known as jiedushi during the 9th century. +

During the Tang dynasty Chang'an was the most populous city in the world and the center of a golden age of cosmopolitan culture. Tang territory, acquired through the military campaigns of its early rulers, was equal to about 60 percent of persent-day China. Censuses in the 7th and 8th centuries, estimated the population by the Tang state to be about 50 million people. By the 9th century, it is estimated that the population had grown by then to about 80 million people. +

History of the Tang Dynasty

Following the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220 A.D., China was divided and fragmented for more than 300 years until it was once again unified under the Sui dynasty (581–618). According to the Asia Society Museum: The Sui was short-lived, “but the Tang dynasty (618–906), which succeeded it, achieved a political unity that survived for three centuries. Unlike the kingdoms and dynasties that had ruled northern China, the Sui and Tang were Chinese dynasties. Yet the founder of the Tang was of part Central Asian ancestry, and the Tang, during its first half, at least, remained open to influences from the rest of Asia.[Source: “Monks and Merchants, curated by Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, November 17, 2001,Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org == ]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The political and governmental institutions established during this brief period lay the foundation for the growth and prosperity of the succeeding Tang dynasty. Marked by strong and benevolent rule, successful diplomatic relationships, economic expansion, and a cultural efflorescence of cosmopolitan style, Tang China emerged as one of the greatest empires in the medieval world. Merchants, clerics, and envoys from India, Persia, Arabia, Syria, Korea, and Japan thronged the streets of Chang'an, the capital, and foreign tongues were a common part of daily life. [Source: Department of Asian Art, "Tang Dynasty (618–906)", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, metmuseum.org October 2001 \^/]

“In the beginning decades of the Tang, especially under the leadership of Emperor Taizong (r. 627–50), China subdued its nomadic neighbors from the north and northwest, securing peace and safety on overland trade routes reaching as far as Syria and Rome. The seventh century was a time of momentous social change; the official examination system enabled educated men without family connections to serve as government officials. This new social elite gradually replaced the old aristocracy, and the recruitment of gentlemen from the south contributed to the cultural amalgamation that had already begun in the sixth century. \^/

Extent of Tang China in 742

The eighth century heralded the second important epoch in Tang history, achieved largely during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–56), called minghuang—the Brilliant Monarch. It is rightfully ranked as the classical period of Chinese art and literature, as it set the high standard to which later poets, painters, and sculptors aspired. The expressions and images contained in the poems of Li Bo (ca. 700–762) and Du Fu (722–770) reflect the flamboyant lives of the court and the conflicting sentiments generated by military campaigns. The vigorous brushwork of the court painter Wu Daozi (active ca. 710–60) and the naturalist idiom of the poet and painter Wang Wei (701–759) became artistic paradigms for later generations. Although the An Lushan rebellion in the middle of the century considerably weakened the power and authority of the court, the restored government ruled for another century and a half, providing stability for lasting cultural and artistic development." \^/

“By the middle of the eighth century A.D., Tang power had ebbed. Domestic economic instability and military defeat in 751 by Arabs at Talas, in Central Asia, marked the beginning of five centuries of steady military decline for the Chinese empire. Misrule, court intrigues, economic exploitation, and popular rebellions weakened the empire, making it possible for northern invaders to terminate the dynasty in 907. The next half-century saw the fragmentation of China into five northern dynasties and ten southern kingdoms. [Source: Library of Congress]

Historiography: The first classic work about the Tang is the Old Book of Tang by Liu Xu (887–946) et al. of the Later Jin, who redacted it during the last years of his life. This was edited into another history (labelled the New Book of Tang) in order to distinguish it, which was a work by the Song historians Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072), Song Qi (998–1061), et al. of the Song dynasty (between the years 1044 and 1060). Both of them were based upon earlier annals, yet those are now lost. Both of them also rank among the Twenty-Four Histories of China. One of the surviving sources of the Old Book of Tang, primarily covering up to 756, is the Tongdian, which Du You presented to the emperor in 801. The Tang period was again placed into the enormous universal history text of the Zizhi Tongjian, edited, compiled, and completed in 1084 by a team of scholars under the Song dynasty Chancellor Sima Guang (1019–1086). This historical text, written with 3 million Chinese characters in 294 volumes, covered the history of China from the beginning of the Warring States (403 B.C.) until the beginning of the Song dynasty (960). [Source: Wikipedia]

Economic Development During the Tang Dynasty

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations: “Under the early Tang, especially under Emperor Taizong ( r.627–49), China became powerful. The bureaucratic system, begun by the Han, was further developed, including the regular use of an examination system to recruit officials on the basis of merit. Handicrafts and commerce flourished, a system of roads radiated from the capital (at the site of Xi'an), successful wars were fought in Central Asia, and China became the cultural and economic center of Asia. Poetry and painting flourished, particularly under Emperor Xuan-Zong (Hsuantsung, r.712–56).

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations: “In the area of policy implementation, or carrying out the work of the government, the Tang system had few rivals. Along the highways and waterways of the empire, the government placed monitoring stations to oversee taxation, review local grievances, police commercial activities, and even provide accommodations for travelers. Overseeing this smooth-running machine was one of the most talented and highly trained groups of civil servants China had ever seen. Even after Tang power receded, its administrative system would prevail for several centuries. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

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. [Source: Middle Ages Reference Library, Gale Group, Inc., 2001]

“As the economy of Tang China thrived, new goods such as tea from Southeast Asia made their appearance. China in turn exported a variety of items, including silk and printed materials. The latter was an outgrowth of two outstanding Chinese innovations: paper, first developed around a.d. 100, and block printing, a process whereby a printer would carve out a piece of wood and, using ink, press the block onto paper, leaving behind an image of the carving. Ink came from the black substance secreted by burning wood and oil in lamps. Later, when this innovation passed to the West, it would be incorrectly called "India ink."

Tang Dynasty Achievements

The golden age of the Tang lasted until 751 and saw great advancements in the arts and sciences. Block printing increased the spread of new ideas. The first fireworks and abacus appeared during this era. The abacus had existed in various form since ancient times and was known to the Romans; but the Chinese abacus that was used in Tang China is still widely used in parts of the Far East today. The Tang Chinese import knowledge of astronomy and mathematics from India, and spread their own cultural advances to Korea and Japan.

According to the McClung Museum: “In the short reign of the Sui dynasty (A.D. 581–618), great improvements were made in China, including the establishment of an internal communications system and the construction of canals and roads, which directly contributed to China’s wealth. With the establishment of the new Tang dynastic ruling house in AD 618, an efficient central government administration based upon scholar bureaucrats chosen by an examination system was introduced by emperor Taizong (reigned AD 627–649). Also at that time a vigorous foreign policy focusing on massive westward expansion was initiated, extending control as far as the Tarim River Basin and present-day eastern Tajikistan in central Asia. Interestingly, it was contact with the skilled horsemen of this region that stimulated in the Tang elite the love of horses that is featured prominently in their art. [Source: “Reflections of a Golden Age: Chinese Tang Pottery,” McClung Museum, December 13, 1997 |::|]

“This stable period of international prestige continued from the second quarter of the seventh century until about the middle of the eighth century, with the Tang capital city of Chang’an (Xian) serving as the cultural center of Asia. This city of two million inhabitants was among the largest in the world, rivaling even Constantinople. Within the country, commerce and cultural ideas thrived and spread through trade to Europe, Korea, and Japan. In addition to the instruments of civilization, exports included silk textiles, wine, ceramics, metalwork, tea, and medicines, as well as delicacies such as peaches, honey, and pine nuts. Foreign merchants supplied the Tang elite with horses, leather goods, furs, gems, textiles, ivory, and rare woods. Tang China was cosmopolitan and tolerant, welcoming new ideas and other religions, and, in this environment, literature, painting, and the ceramic arts flourished.” |::|

Stimulated by contact with India and the Middle East, the empire saw a flowering of creativity in many fields. Block printing was invented, making the written word available to vastly greater audiences. The Tang period was the golden age of literature and art.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. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Establishment of the Tang Dynasty

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. *

New inventions from the T'ang dynasty included the magnetic compass, gunpowder, the abacus, printing, and cataract surgery. Silks, porcelain and art were traded for spices, ivory and other goods along the Silk Road caravan routes. Sea routes took Chinese goods as far away as Africa and the Middle East.

See Science and Technology in the Tang Dynasty

Founding of the Tang Dynasty by Li Yuan

The Tang dynasty was founded by Li Yuan, a military commander who proclaimed himself emperor in 618 after suppressing a coup staged by the attendants-turned-assassins of the Sui emperor, Yangdi (reigned 614-618). The Sui dynasties unified China under indigenous Chinese rule for the first time since the end of the Han period, and the Tang inherited this legacy. [Source: John D. Szostak, University of Washington washington.edu+|+]

Li Yuan belonged to the Li family, a northwest military aristocracy that had a strong presence during the Sui dynasty and claimed to be descendants of the Taoist founder Lao zi, the Han dynasty General Li Guang, and Western Liang ruler Li Gao on their paternal side. The family had Xianbei (proto-Mongol) blood on their maternal side. The mother of the first Tang Emperor (Gaozu) — Duchess Dugu — was Xianbei. This family was known as the Longxi Li lineage which includes Li Bai. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Li Yuan was Duke of Tang and governor of Taiyuan during the Sui dynasty's collapse, which was caused in part by the Sui failure to conquer the northern part of the Korean peninsula during the Koguryo–Sui War. He had prestige and military experience, and was a first cousin of Emperor Yang of Sui (their mothers were sisters). Li Yuan rose in rebellion in 617, along with his son and his equally militant daughter Princess Pingyang (d. 623), who raised and commanded her own troops. In winter 617, Li Yuan occupied Chang'an, relegated Emperor Yang to the position of Taishang Huang or retired emperor, and acted as regent to the puppet child-emperor, Emperor Gong of Sui. On the news of Emperor Yang's murder by General Yuwen Huaji on June 18, 618, Li Yuan declared himself the emperor of a new dynasty, the Tang. Li Yuan, who became known as Emperor Gaozu of Tang, ruled until 626, when he was forcefully deposed by his son Li Shimin, the Prince of Qin.

Consolidation of the Tang Dynasty Under Taizong


While Gaozu (Li Yuan) was the first of the Tang emperors, it was under his son Taizong (reigned 624-649) that the Tang dynasty consolidated its power and began to achieve a domestic peace that would last for virtually unbroken for three centuries, interrupted only by the nine-year-long An Lushan rebellion (755-763). [Source: John D. Szostak, University of Washington washington.edu+|+]

Unlike the Sui emperors, Taizong was of part Turkic ancestry, born and raised on the frontier, so he was intimately familiar with the problem of nomadic raiders who were pressing on the Tang northern borders. By 630 Taizong had defeated the first eastern Türkic nomads and resettled them north of the Ordos in Inner Mongolia. Other Central Asian peoples and minor kingdoms in northwestern China submitted to the Tang court, naming Taizong and his heirs their "supreme Khan." This brought the important Hexi corridor and Gobi oases under imperial Chinese control, and Taizong enlisted garrisons of Turkic and Central Asian soldiers to protect the trade routes, facilitating a renewed flow of trade goods transported by Central Asian, Indian and Near Eastern merchants, who also brought along with them their religion and their culture. +|+

Tang Taizong is one the most admired Chinese leaders and is known for his love of art. He so admired the calligrapher Wang His-chi he took his famous work “Preface to the Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion” with him to his grave. Tang Dynasty China under Emperor Tang Taizong prospered under the peaceful development of the Chinese econo. Taizong emphasized in the welfare of his subjects, promoted a policy of low taxes and fair treatment to the frontier minorities.

Tang Emperors

Tang Dynasty rulers: Gaozu (618–626); Taizong (626–650); Gaozong (649–683); Zhongzong (684, 705–710); Ruizong (684–690); Wu Zetian (690–705); Xuanzong (712–756); Suzong (756–762); Daizong (762–779); Dezong (779–805); Shunzong (805); Xianzong (805–820); Muzong (820–824); Jingzong (824–827); Wenzong (826–840); Wuzong (840–846); Xuanzong (846–859); Yizong (859–873); Xizong (873–888); Zhaozong (888–904); Aidi (Zhaoxuan) (904–906). [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

One of the most famous Tang ruler was Xuangzong (685-761), who was also known as the "Radiant Emperor" (Minghuang). He developed Chang'an into a center of art and culture. His court drew scholars and artists from all over Asia

The Tang dynasty had its share of corrupt, incompetent and decadent leaders. One 8th century Tang emperor spent nearly all of his time hunting and kept 5,000 chows and a staff of 10,000 huntsmen. In the later years of his reign it is said, Xuangzong was so distracted by a concubine named Yang Guifei it led to the catastrophe of 755.


Tang Power and Leadership


The T'ang dynasty was one of the most militarily powerful of all the Chinese dynasties. It expanded the Chinese empire across the Great Wall of China and beyond the Himalayas. At its height, it administered much of present-day China and exerted control or received tributes from a dozen other kingdoms, including those in Korea, Tibet, Mongolia, Japan, Indonesia and most of Southeast Asia.

The Tang didn't build walls. They were skilled at dealing with the Central Asian tribes that challenged them, knowing when to use diplomacy and when to go to war. The fact they were part Turkish, the ethnicity of many of the Central Asian tribes that threatened them, also helped

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.

Advances to the West by the Tang Dynasty were slowed by the Turks in the late 7th century. In 751, in the Battle of Talas, Tang Chinese forces attempting to extend the Chinese empire into Central Asia but were annihilated by a Muslim army not far from Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan. The defeat kept the Chinese out of Central Asia and opened up Central Asia and Western China to Islam.

Openness and Ideas in the Tang Dynasty

The Tang emperors were known for their openness to new ideas about art, religion, philosophy and music that were brought in by foreigners who flowed into China along the Silk Road trade routes. Unlike most Chinese dynasties which tried to cut off their empire from influences from the outside world, the Tang ruling families tolerated outsiders and members of variety of religious sects.

The Tang era is notable for its great material prosperity, high artistic and cultural achievement, and a level of interest and tolerance regarding foreign cultures and religions that made Chang-an, the Tang capital, the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Followers of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Islam and Nestorianism worshipped according to their own customs in temples, mosques or churches, some of which were built with finances donated by the Tang court. [Source: John D. Szostak, University of Washington washington.edu]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “Changan, with its approximately one million inhabitants, was a well organised cosmopolitan city, where international embassies and traders had their own, designated quarters. The city bustled with Central Asian horsemen, international traders, many in their national costumes, as well as elegant beauties with tiny, painted lips, all of them immortalised in the Tang-period terracotta statuettes. The terracotta figurines also give enlightening information about the many forms of music, dance, mimes and other entertainment which were in vogue during that time." [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

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.

Internationalism in the Tang Dynasty

rendering of a horse from the Fergana Valley in Central Asia

Thousands of foreigner merchants and artisans lived in Chang-an and other large cities of the Tang empire. Foreign envoys were regular visitors to the Tang court, carrying gifts and tribute of Türkic, Uighur, Tocharian, Sogdian and Iranian origin. Another breed of diplomatic envoy were the Buddhist clerics who traveled to China from India, Central Asia, Korea and Japan to both study and teach at famed temples. These clerics were often greeted at court, and in the same manner, Chinese Buddhist priests journeyed to the centers of religious learning (such as Dunhuang) that had developed in the Tarim Basin, where they interacted with clerics of many faiths. Other priests, such as the famed Xuanzang, traveled all the way to India in search of scriptures from the land of Buddhism's birth. [Source: John D. Szostak, University of Washington washington.edu +|+]

The independent art scholar Heather Colburn Clydesdale wrote: “Boldly syncretic, the arts of China's Tang dynasty (618–906) exhibit myriad international influences that were absorbed through diplomacy, conquest, trade, and pilgrimage. At the center of it all was Chang'an (present-day Xi'an), the most populous city in the world at the time, the seat of power for the Tang imperial court, and a pulsing hub of art, fashion, and culture. [Source: Heather Colburn Clydesdale, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“A popular theme for Tang court painters was that of foreign ambassadors submitting tribute to the emperor. Diplomatic missions and the concomitant opulent offerings were an important medium of international exchange. In the dynasty's first decades, the Tang expanded control north and east to Koguryo and Baekje (in Manchuria and the Korean peninsula), north to the steppes of Mongolia, west to the deserts and oases of Central Asia (in what is now Xinjiang), and south to parts of the present-day provinces of Guangxi, Yunnan, and northern Vietnam."^/

“These and other kingdoms sent staples and exotica: lions from Persia and rhinoceroses from Champa (a kingdom in south and central Vietnam), hawks from the Korean peninsula, ostriches sent by Western Turks, sandalwood from the Indonesian archipelago, cardamom from the coast of the Malay peninsula, indigo from Samarkand, and wool from Tibet. Even entertainers—musicians, dancers, and performers—were presented as gifts. Of the many varieties of tribute, horses from the west were perhaps the most valuable. They were considered vital assets in the Tang emperor's ability to both wage triumphant conquests abroad and maintain tranquility at home.” \^/

Multi-Ethnic, Polygot Character of the Tang Dynasty

Ping-Ti Ho, the late Chinese-American historian at Columbia University, wrote: “The most eloquent testimonial to the polyglot and multiethnic character of the T’ang empire was the assumption by T’ang T’ai-tsung of a second and entirely novel imperial title of “Heavenly Khan,” upon the requests of vanquished Turkish khans and rulers of various other steppe tribal states and ethnic groups in the year 630, shortly after he had crushed the Eastern Turkish empire. An event of no less significance was the acceptance by T’ang T’ai-tsung in the early spring of 647, after a great deal of feasting and merry-making, of a plea jointly made by all attending tribal chieftains that a road be opened up between the northerly Uighurs and the southerly Turks, and be named the “Road to facilitate [various vassal peoples of the steppe} to make obeisance to their ‘Heavenly Khan (Ts’an t’ien-k’o-han tao)'” [Tzuchih-t’ung-chien, T’ang Chi, 198, 114}. From abundant T’ang records, there can be little doubt that this and many similar requests and gestures from the steppe peoples were spontaneous and sincere. [Source: Excerpted from Ping-Ti Ho, “In Defense of Sinicization: A Rebuttal of Evelyn Rawski’s “Reenvisioning the Qing,” ” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Feb., 1998), pp. 123-155 ]

“We can catch glimpses of the grandeur of the T’ang multiethnic empire from the top of the mausoleum of Emperor Kao-tsung (650-83) and Empress Wu (684-704): halfway down the hill there stand at attention two symmetrically arranged groups of stone statues, each representing the head or envoy of one of the sixty-four vassal states that stretch 3,000 miles from Korea across the Eurasian steppe to the state of Tokhara, southeast of the Aral Sea. The rare sense of mutual belonging between T’ang T’aitsung and his multiethnic vassals and ministers can be detected from the ground plan of his own mausoleum, which was made in 636, thirteen years before his death: the mausoleum to be guarded in the north by statues representing fourteen of his loyal Turkish and other ethnic vassals and appended in the south by a very large cemetery consisting of tombs of some members of the imperial lineage, meritorious Chinese, and non-Chinese officials and generals.

“During the entire T’ang period there were altogether 369 “prime ministers” from 98 surname groups. Those of non-Chinese ethnic origins account for 9 percent of the total but constitute 17.4 percent of the aggregate of surnames-a record unsurpassed by any “Chinese” dynasty. No less unique in Chinese history is the fact that the various steppe ethnic groups, such as the Turks, Sogdians, and other Central Asians; the Khitans, Hsi, Koreans; and toward late T’ang the Sha-t’o Turks, consistently dominated the T’ang polyethnic army.

Taizong gives audience to the ambassador of Tibet

Influx of Turkic, Korean and Tibetan People Into Tang-Era China

Ping-Ti Ho wrote: ““Before concluding the section on the T’ang, I would like to examine some available figures. Between T’ang T’ai-tsung’s accession in 617 and the outbreak of the An Lu-shan rebellion in 755, a span of 138 years, the aggregate number of such steppe people as the Turks and the nineteen Turkish T’ieh-Ie tribes, the Koreans, the T’ufan Tibetans, the Tang-hsiang Tibetans (the Tanguts), and Central and Western Asians who were captured by the T’ang army or voluntarily submitted to the T’ang and were hence settled within China amounted to at least 1.7 million (Fu 1992,257). This total does not, of course, include those alien ethnics who chose to reside in China through normal channels, nor does it include those alien ethnics who took up permanent residence in China in the late eighth and ninth centuries. Thousands of Uighurs served in the T’ang army as mercenaries. After having helped the T’ang court to crush the An Lu-shan rebellion, many Uighurs became merchants and usurers. The number of Uighurs who eventually settled in Ch’ang-an and other cities of China is impossible to estimate. There were Persians in Ch’ang-an and Yang-chou by the thousands. A very large Arab population resided in Kuang-chou (Canton) in late T’ang. C. P. Fitzgerald summarizes thus: “the Arab and other foreign communities resident in the port were very large…. Abu Zaid, an Arab traveler who was in China towards the end of the T’ang period, relates that when Canton was taken by storm by the rebel Huang Tsao in A.D. 879, 120,000 foreigners, Arabs, Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians, were massacred, as well as native population of the city” (Fitzgerald 1935, 334). The kind of true metropolitanism that characterized the life, outlook, and attitude of the T’ang Chinese is almost unique in world history, paralleled perhaps only by the Roman Empire from Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 117-80). [Source: Excerpted from Ping-Ti Ho, “In Defense of Sinicization: A Rebuttal of Evelyn Rawski’s “Reenvisioning the Qing,” ” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Feb., 1998), pp. 123-155 ]

“In regard to early T’ang’s basic principle in handling interethnic affairs, certain Western scholars hold views more critical than what has been presented in this section. Let us analyze what is the actual meaning of the much-quoted Turkish inscription of Kocho-Tsaidam, which H. J. Wechsler thinks “eloquently relates the fate suffered by the conquered Turks.” The sons of the Turkish nobles became slaves to the Chinese people, and their innocent daughters were reduced to serfdom. The nobles, discarding their Turkish titles, accepted those of China, and made submission to the Chinese Qaghan, devoting their labour and their strength for fifty years. For him, both toward the rising sun and westward to the Iron Gates, they launched their expeditions. But to the Chinese Qaghan they surrendered their empire and their institutions. (Cited and commented on in Wechsler 1979, 223)

“I have read six other Turkish inscriptions available in Chinese translation (Lin 1988, 241-86), but the passage quoted above should enable us to get at the truth. When we realize that this inscription represents basically the nomad’s nostalgia about the “freedom” of his mode of life on the vast expanse of the Eurasian steppe with the blessing of the lord of the boundless blue sky (Tengri), then such expressions as “slaves” and “serfdom” are merely metaphorical. What the inscription says about “the nobles, discarding their Turkish titles,” accepting “those of China” is true because these Turkish nobles did receive at least comparable ranks and ample material rewards from the “Heavenly Khan.” What is more important is the fact that T’ang T’ai-tsung’s success in playing the game of divide and rule was primarily due to great-khan Hsieh-Ii’s cruelty and tyranny to his own people and also accidentally to unusually severe snowstorms that hit the steppe in the winter of 629-30. To do justice to T’ang T’ai-tsung, he prevailed over conservative opinion and decided to resettle some one hundred thousand surrendered Turks in the Ordos area without changing their tribal mode of living and commissioned more than a hundred Turkish nobles as officers of higher and middle ranks, several as generals. It was said that in the year 630 the total of Turkish officers at the T’ang court almost matched that of similarly ranked Chinese civil officials. Consequently, before long nearly ten thousand households of Turks came to reside in the metropolitan Ch’ang-an area (Tzu-chih t’ung-chien, “T’ang-chi,” ch. 193, p. 907).

“In the spring of 630 when the great khan Hsieh-Ii was brought to T’ang T’aitsung as a war captive, the emperor, after reprimanding him for his acts of atrocity, not only spared his life but ordered that he be well taken care of by the director of the bureau of imperial stud horses for the remainder of his life. In 658, the Turkish general A-shih-na Ho-Iu, having turned traitor in plotting the great Turkish rebellion, was captured and offered to be executed at T’ang T’ai-tsung’s mausoleum as a redemption for his ingratitude; the emperor Kao-tsung was so moved that he spared Ho-Iu’s life and later decided to bury him beside the grave of his original supreme ruler, Hsieh-Ii great khan (Lin 1988, 115). These anecdotes and many others go far to testify to the fact that early T’ang rulers treated alien subjects fairly, without discrimination but with feeling. As pointed out above, such genuine feeling for alien subjects found its expression even in the design of T’ang T’ai-tsung’s mausoleum.

Spring Outing of the Tang Court

“While the ratio of non-Chinese ethnics to the entire Chinese population at the height of T’ang prosperity in the early eighth century may not be as high as that during the fourth century, the acculturation between the various ethnic and religious groups and the Chinese went on at an accelerated pace because of the peace in the Eurasian steppe ensured by the system of Heavenly Khan and of the prevailing spirit of cosmopolitanism in the nation at large. Instead of reasserting the superiority of the Chinese political and cultural tradition as a force of forced assimilation of the aliens, the T’ang Chinese watched with amusement the adoption of certain steppe ways and customs by the playful aristocrats and commoners. They resigned themselves to the fate of “barbarization” of the northeast after the An Lu-shan rebellion, but welcomed with open arms the introduction of Central and Western Asian music, dance, food, drinks and games, as well as ancient and rising religions. It is through T’ang China’s attitude towards religions that we can best understand that it is the open-mindedness and the large-heartedness that account substantially for sinicization’s innate strength.”

Turkic-Mongol Traditions Live on the Tang Dynasty

Ping-Ti Ho wrote: “The greatest political and military genius produced by this northwestern biethnic bloc was Li Shih-min (597-649), the second ruler but the real founder of the T’ang dynasty. Since his grandmother and mother were Hsien-pei, he was genetically 75 percent Hsien-pei, though legitimately Chinese. It was from this multiethnic cultural milieu that he acquired a profound understanding of the traits and customs of the most powerful of the steppe peoples, the Turks under the Great Khan Hsieh-li. From various historical sources it can now be ascertained that as early as 617-18 he had already entered a sworn brotherhood with Tu-li, the second-ranking great khan and nephew and adopted son of Hsieh-Ii. I suspect he was able to speak Turkish because in the fall of 624 when Hsieh-Ii and his troops reached the north bank of the Wei River near the capital city of Ch’ang-an, he determinedly left his forces behind and rode alone without any escort to confront Hsien-li from south ofthe river, reproaching the latter for failure to observe the spirit of a previous oath. Then he dispatched someone to remind Tu-li not to forget the bond of “sworn brotherhood (hsiang-huomeng).” This and many later accounts show that T’ang T’ai-Tsung was truly unique because the Turks and various steppe peoples genuinely believed that he was “one of them.” [Source: Excerpted from Ping-Ti Ho, “In Defense of Sinicization: A Rebuttal of Evelyn Rawski’s “Reenvisioning the Qing,” ” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Feb., 1998), pp. 123-155 ]

“For a proper historical perspective, one should search deeper into the significance of the system of “Heavenly Khan.” Rawski, relying entirely on Pamela Crossley, contends that the origin of the “Khan of Khans” must be sought in Chinggis Khan and that “the ‘Khan of Khans’ was not a Chinese emperor” (Rawski 1996, 835). As is shown above, the archetypal Khan of Khans was the T’ang emperor T’ai-tsung’s “Heavenly Khanate.” E. G. Pulleyblank explains it best: “It established a separate basis of legitimacy for his rule beyond the Great Wall, with its roots in nomad conditions, and was not simply an extension of universalist claims by a Chinese Son of Heaven. Moreover, it had as its corollary the assumption, quite contrary to Chinese traditional attitudes, of the equality of barbarian and Chinese as subjects. This was a point ofview consciously maintained and expressed by T’ai-tsung” (Pulleyblank 1976, 38). Needless to say, T’ang T’ai-tsung’s legitimacy as the Chinese emperor was never questioned, while later “Khan of Khans” such as Kublai or Ch’ien-Iung, being “resident alien” in China, had to devise various political, institutional, cultural, and ideological means to legitimize their rulership in China. On the other hand, while later Tibetan Lamaist Buddhism could make Kublai or Ch’ien-Iung “God” incarnate (Franke 1978, esp. 77-79), T’ang T’ai-tsung’s Heavenly Khanate was a secular institution, though not devoid of cosmological meaning.

Religion and Philosophy in Tang Dynasty China


Taoists, Confucian scholars, Nestorian Christian missionaries, Zoroastrian priests and Buddhist monks, among them ones who helped found Zen Buddhism in Japan, all felt comfortable in Tang era China and practiced and to certain degrees proselytized their religions.

Since ancient times, the Chinese believed in a folk religion and Taoism that incorporated many deities. The Chinese believed Tao and the afterlife was a reality parallel to the living world, complete with its own bureaucracy and afterlife currency needed by dead ancestors. Funerary practices included providing the deceased with everything they might need in the afterlife, including animals, servants, entertainers, hunters, homes, and officials. This ideal is reflected in Tang dynasty art. This is also reflected in many short stories written in the Tang about people accidentally winding up in the realm of the dead, only to come back and report their experiences. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Taoism was the official religion of the Tang. Buddhism, originating in India around the time of Confucius, continued its influence during the Tang period and was accepted by some members of imperial family, becoming thoroughly sinicized and a permanent part of Chinese traditional culture. In an age before Neo-Confucianism and figures such as Zhu Xi (1130–1200), Buddhism had begun to flourish in China during the Northern and Southern dynasties, and became the dominant ideology during the prosperous Tang. +

The prominent status of Buddhism in Chinese culture began to decline as the dynasty and central government declined as well during the late 8th century to 9th century. This situation also came about through new revival of interest in native Chinese philosophies, such as Confucianism and Daoism. Han Yu (786–824)—who Arthur F. Wright stated was a "brilliant polemicist and ardent xenophobe"—was one of the first men of the Tang to denounce Buddhism. Although his contemporaries found him crude and obnoxious, he would foreshadow the later persecution of Buddhism in the Tang, as well as the revival of Confucian theory with the rise of Neo-Confucianism of the Song dynasty. +

Daoism (Taoism), which has its roots in the book of the Daodejing (attributed to Laozi in the 6th century B.C.) and the Zhuangzi, had strong links with Tang Dynasty Emperors and ruling class. The ruling Li family of the Tang dynasty claimed descent from Laozi. Many Tang princes and princesses became Daoist priests and priestesses and had their lavish former mansions converted into Daoist abbeys and places of worship. Many Daoists were interested in alchemy and seeking an elixir of immortality and methods of creating from various. Some of ther efforts contributed to the discovery of new metal alloys, porcelain products, and new dyes. The historian Joseph Needham labeled the work of the Daoist alchemists as "proto-science rather than pseudo-science." Nathan Sivin disputes the close connection between Daoism and alchemy, arguing that alchemy was just as prominent (if not more so) in the secular sphere and practiced more often by laymen. +

Tolerance in Foreign Faiths

8th century Nestorians

According to Silk Road Foundation: Tang emperors often prided themselves as patrons of all religions, including Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism, and Islam. China was opened to many pilgrims came here to preach. Song could be heard filtering out of a Nestorian Christian church from Syria. Five times a day the call to prayer rang out from the Muslim mosques serving Persian and Arab traders. At Daoist temples Chinese wives burned incense and in the Buddhist temples, the monks chanted sacred texts. There were abundant religious activities recorded during this time. The Mazdean temple in Ch'ang-an was rebuilt in 631; the Nestorians were honored by the erection of a church in 638; the Manichaeans proposed their doctrines to the court in 694. [Source: “Exoticism in Tang (618-907), Silkroad Foundation”, Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com ]

The Tang dynasty also officially recognized various foreign religions. The Assyrian Church of the East, otherwise known as the Nestorian Christian Church, was given recognition by the Tang court. In 781, the Nestorian Stele was created in order to honor the achievements of their community in China. A Christian monastery was established in Shaanxi province where the Daqin Pagoda still stands, and inside the pagoda there is Christian-themed artwork. Although the religion largely died out after the Tang, it was revived in China following the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “Buddhism, brought from India via Central Asia, became the dominant religion. Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism and later Islam were also practised. During liberal times they lived peacefully side by side with the traditional indigenous belief systems and ideologies, Taoism and Confucianism. In the visual arts the pan-Asian Buddhist style was combined with the refinement of Tang court elegance. Tang China was open to outside influences and the trade routes brought to Changan monks, scholars, artists, musicians and dancers from all over the then known world." [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

Buddhism in the Tang Dynasty

20080216-Tang bodgisatva shang M.jpg
Tang Buddhist sculpture
Buddhism reached its height in the Tang Dynasty. Doctrines were refined. Schools expanded. The Pure Land School and the worship of Amitabha became widespread. Many Tang emperors were Buddhists, or at least nominally favorable to Buddhism. Some great Chinese poets from the period were monks. Many Indian and Central Asian monks and pilgrims came to teach in China. Chinese pilgrims was sent to India to study Buddhism. The Indian culture made great inroads, when Buddhist philosophy accompanied by the Indian arts of astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and philology. Chan (a school of Mahayana Buddhism combined with Taoism, which gave birth to Zen in Japan) was the dominant sect. Famous Chan monks from the Tang era include Mazu Daoyi, Baizhang, and Huangbo Xiyun. Pure Land Buddhism initiated by the Chinese monk Huiyuan (334–416) was also popular. It fused with Chan Buddhism after the Tang Dynasty.

Buddhism began to flourish in China during the Northern and Southern dynasties (A.D. 386-589). During the 6th century, before the Tang Dynasty, Chinese Buddhism was consolidated and standardized. Great schools were founded that boasted thousands of disciples. Schools with royal patrons built huge monasteries. Between A.D. 476 and 540 the number temples rose from 6,500 to 30,900 and the number of monks and nuns grew from 80,000 to 200,000 (out of a population of 50 million).

In A.D. 629, early in the Tang Dynasty period, the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang) left the Tang dynasty capital and traveled west — on foot, on horseback and by camel and elephant — to India and returned in A.D. 645 with 700 Buddhist texts from which Chinese deepened their understanding of Buddhism. Hsuan Tsang is remembered as a great scholar for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese but also for his descriptions of the places he visited — the great Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Samarkand and the great stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. His trip was the inspiration of the for Journey to the West, widely regarded as one of the great novels of Chinese literature. [Book: "Ultimate Journey, Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment" by Richard Bernstein (Alfred A. Knopf)]

Buddhist monasteries played an integral role in Chinese society, offering lodging for travelers in remote areas, schools for children throughout the country, and a place for urban literati to stage social events and gatherings such as going-away parties. Buddhist monasteries were also engaged in the economy, since their land property and serfs gave them enough revenues to set up mills, oil presses, and other enterprises. Although the monasteries retained 'serfs', these monastery dependents could actually own property and employ others to help them in their work, including their own slaves. At Wild Goose Pagoda, built by 709, adjacent to the Dajianfu Temple in Chang'an, Buddhist monks from India and elsewhere gathered to translate Sanskrit texts into Chinese. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Towards the end of the Tang dynasty, Chinese emperors began to favor Taoism over Buddhism;. monks and nuns were secularized; temples and libraries were destroyed. The prominent status of Buddhism in Chinese culture began to decline as the dynasty and central government declined as well during the late 8th century to 9th century. Buddhist convents and temples that were exempt from state taxes beforehand were targeted by the state for taxation. In 845 Emperor Wuzong of Tang finally shut down 4,600 Buddhist monasteries along with 40,000 temples and shrines, forcing 260,000 Buddhist monks and nuns to return to secular life; this episode would later be dubbed one of the Four Buddhist Persecutions in China. Although the ban would be lifted just a few years after, Buddhism never regained its once dominant status in Chinese culture. Buddhism remained overshadowed by Taoism and Confucianism until it experienced a revival in the 11th century. Nonetheless, Chán Buddhism gained popularity amongst the educated elite.


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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