Tang Dynasty


One of the most glorious periods in the history of China was that of the Tang (T'ang) dynasty (618-906), at whose zenith the Chinese empire was the largest, wealthiest, and most populous on earth. Li Yuan (Li Yan), the first Tang emperor, came to power in 618 and abdicated in 626 in favor of his ambitious son, who reigned (627-49) as Taizong (T'ai-tsung). This period marked the first great blossoming of the Tang era, as Chinese suzerainty was extended west into Afghanistan and Turkistan as well as south to Tibet. Taizong's successor, Gaozong (Kao-tsung; r. 649-83), brought Korea and Japan into tributary relationship to China. Further consolidation was carried out by the Empress Wu (r. 690-705), one of China's few female sovereigns.

A massive bureaucracy was recruited by a perfected and increasingly used examination system. The Tang government and the Tang code of laws, based on Confucian thought, became models for neighboring states. Towns grew with the expansion of trade. Foreigners were welcome; they introduced new ideas and technology as well as new religions, such as Zoroastrianism and Nestorian Christianity.

In this tolerant atmosphere the arts flourished, culminating in the second blossoming of the Tang dynasty during the reign (712-56) of the emperor Tang Xuanzong (T'ang Hsan-tsung). The painter Wu Daozi (Wu Tao-tzu) and China's two famous poets, Li Bo (Li Po) and Du Fu (Tu Fu), were active at this time. A little later, Bo Ju'yi (Po Ch-i) began writing poetry in a near vernacular style, and the art of short-story writing was soon thriving. The advent of popular culture was foreshadowed by the printing of a Buddhist sutra (a collection of precepts) in 868 from wood blocks.

Under Tang Xuanzong military commanders began to acquire independent authority and a decline of the central administration began. By the 9th century, Tang power was spent, and the dynasty ended in a welter of rebellions and civil strife.

Bibliography: Bingham, W., The Founding of the T'ang Dynasty (1941; repr. 1970); Munro, Eleanor C., Through the Vermilion Gates (1971); Scott, Hugh D., The Golden Age of Chinese Art (1966; repr. 1981); Weschler, H. J., Offerings of Jade and Silk (1985); Wright, A. F., ed., Perspectives on the T'ang, rev. ed. (1981).