Key events: Tang dynasty consolidated and stabilized political, economic, cultural and religious developments of Sui dynasty. Tang dynasty is considered as most prosperous dynasties of Imperial China. Often is said that it was peak and highest point of Chinese civilization. During its period China was strongest, richest and most advanced country in the world in economic, social, scientific and cultural terms.

First and significant Emperor of Tang was Emperor Gaozu. Between 618 and 621 he launched many actions against rebels that were located in Luoyang. He finished that successfully and than whole power was completely transferred to imperial court in Changan. In 624 with help of Confucian scholars he created new legal code that served for regulating all state affairs and was highest legal act that could be only amended by Emperor. Emperor Gaozu was killed by his son who declared himself as Emperor Taizong in 626. He was very successful emperor too. Chinese troops prevented several attacks of Turkic Khaganate on the west.  Merchants from all over the world were threatened by Turkic attacks on Silk Road. Therefore Emperor Taizong launched large scale campaigns against Turks and defeated them and expanded to the west on former territories of Han dynasty. Turkic Khaganate wasn’t completely destroyed but became tributary vassal state which had to pay tributes to China and acknowledge supremacy of Emperor. Emperor Taizong was very tolerant when it comes to religion. He allowed settling of Buddhism and even Christianity which came to China by Silk Road. About it will be later more. Emperor Taizong decreased taxes for peasants and was merciless for corrupt officials. He is considered as one of most successful emperors of Tang dynasty when almost no corruption existed, trade bloomed, culture, arts and science developed very fast. Emperor promoted development of culture, poetry, arts and music. He gave a lot of money for building new temples and pagodas and invested in development of big cities such as Changan and Luoyang.  He promoted Chinese teachings, culture and science by sending scholars to Persia, Japan, Gogureyo, Indian kingdoms and Champa( Vietnam). In 640ies Taizong launched more offensives against Turks and conquered Turpan. He established there Protectorate to Pacify West a special military institution in Turpan which had purpose to secure Tarim Basin an important part of Silk Road and control territory and population in purpose to protect economic interests and secure free trade.  Further protectorate was expanded to parts of todays Afghanistan( Herat, Kabul) and Uzbekistan( Samarkand). In 638 Tibetan Empire attacked Chinese territory in parts of todays Sichuan. In few battles Tibetan forces were defeated.

TANG map
Map of Tang China,

In 641 Princess Wenchang was sent to marry Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo. It was first step in formalizing relations between Chinese and Tibetan Empire. In past marriages served as way of creating alliances between two countries. Since this period Chinese trace their legitimacy over Tibet.

Emperor Taizong launched several invasions on Goguryeo between 645 and 649. All of them finished with failure but few times Tang troops entered deeply in Korean territory sieging Pyongyang. But winter forced troops to retrieve.

In 647 was formed new Protectorate for North after defeating northern Turkic tribes such as Tiele and Uyghurs. Territory of Protectorate for securing routes on North included territories between Baikal Lake, Gobi dessert and Altay mountains.  Both protectorates instead of civil officials on top had military officials and that differed them from other territories within empire. It was like that since they were considered a more risky area and they had to control them more firmly. By end of 7th century protectorates were deceased and some northern and western areas stayed in China while other were in  tributary relations.

In 649 Emperor Taizong died and was succeeded by Emperor Gaozong( his son). However he was quite weak emperor due to his bad health. His concubine Wu Zetian killed her own baby in 655 claiming that Empress Wang( Gaozongs wife) did it. Empress Wang  was executed and Wu Zetian became official Empress of Emperor Gaozong. Wu Zetian was ruling from shadow behind Emperor Gaozong and all major decisions were made by her. In 650ies Su Dingfang general defeats Turks again at battle of Irtysh river. During 660ies Chinese empire defeated Japanese Kingdom Yamato and Korean Kingdom Baekje. In same time general Su Dingfang was invited by Persian Empire to bring his troops to fight against Arab invasion. Chinese troops launched several unsuccessful attacks on Gogureyo and due to lack of supplies had to cease siege of Pyongyang. Finally in 668 Pyongyang was captured and Gogureyo was defeated and protectorate over Gogureyo was established. However control of Gogureyo was short lasting only until 699 since Silla( another Korean kingdom) fought Tang troops and defeated them at Tianmenling . Therefore Gogureyo was reestablished and protectorate withdrew but tributary relations stayed. In 670 Tibetan Empire attacked again at Dafei river and in 678 in todays Qinghai and defeated Chinese troops.  During that time Wu Zetian was becoming more and more influential. Her husband Emperor Guozong had worse and worse health so she tried to usurp the throne. Wu Zetian killed many of his allies in some plots. Emperor Gaozong stayed as puppet ruler until his death in 683. Than Wu Zetian was already a de facto ruler of China but she has put her son as puppet emperor- Emperor Zhongzong. But already in 684 she put another son to be emperor who was more prone for manipulation- Emperor Ruizong.

Empress Wu Zetian wasn’t satisfied with being only de facto ruler but declared her own dynasty of Zhou and moved capital to Luoyang in 690. It was short period of break of Tang dynasty period. Many state officials disagreed with her declaration of new dynasty but she eliminated in plots or poisoned a lot of opponents including princes and princesses. Wu Zetian is often officially seen as part of Tang dynasty despite fact that she declared own dynasty. She was first independent empress in history of China.  Empress Wu Zetian was one of most powerful rulers in Chinese history. She stabilized taxation, invested in trade and agriculture. Empress invested a lot in building palaces and temples. She was mostly interested in Buddhism and promoted it more than Taoism. Wu Zetian was very careful in maintaining power and wasn’t afraid to remove any threat to her power. Her fellow officials used plots and accusations against their opponents in order to secure their positions under Wu Zetians regime. There were constant treacheries between Tang family and her own dynasty between princesses, princes, ministers, wives, concubines and children. She was very afraid of rebellions that were often during her governance. Therefore Wu Zetian established secret police that had to operate across China and inform about potential rebellions, catch organizers so they could be imprisoned or executed on time.

silkroad tang
trade routes between China and other countries,

In 705 some ministers and Wu Zetians son Zhongzong organized coup and overthrew Empress Wu Zetian.  Immediately after that her son Zhongzong took back throne and abolished her dynasty. Emperor Zhongzong as soon as he came on throne in 705 returned capital to Changan and it is considered as continuation of Tang dynasty.  In the same year Wu Zetian died from illness. Emperor Zhongzong was poisoned by his wife Princess Wei in 710. She put their son Emperor Shang on throne.He was less than 3 weeks on throne and was killed by daughter of Gaozong Princess Taiping. She brought to power Emperor Ruizong.  He abdicated in favor of his son Xuanzong. Finally after few years of instability after Wu Zetians death came again stable period under Emperor Xuanzong. Already at beginning of his governance he achieved significant victory in 717. In Battle of Aksu( todays Xinjiang, China)  in 717 his army with help of Karluk( Turkic tribe) severely defeated  united troops of Umayyad Caliphate, Tibetan Empire and Turgesh ( Turkic tribe).  Emperor Xuanzong was one of most successful emperors of Tang dynasty. Emperor Xuanzong believed that Taoism is best spiritual practice for own peace and harmony with yourself, family and society. He considered that every household should have copy of Taoist scriptures and promoted Taoism widely. Emperor Xuanzong promoted praying to Taoist deities and Heaven and promoted harmony with nature but he never imposed Taoist beliefs by force. Many scholars believe that his Taoist beliefs encouraged peace in society and rise of foreign trade. Emperor Xuanzong abolished death penalty and improved economy by financial reforms, building roads and increasing production. He also built many temples. Emperor reintroduced professional army as he considered it more effective than recruiting peasants into army. This measure additionally secured Silk Road. Emperor Xuanzong invested widely in culture and arts by promoting painting and poetry, building libraries and promoting literacy. He allowed printing calendars and various books and ordered to make them available for everyone. Emperor wanted to make population more equal and wanted to give chances for everyone- particularly for members of lower classes. He made state imperial exam available for lower classes what was great chance for talented people who didn’t belong to elite to enter state service.  He also promoted healthcare, diet and healthy life. It was peak not only of Tang dynasty but of Imperial China. Emperor Xuanzong considered balance and fairness as core concepts for successful functioning of state and society. Therefore he pursued accepting officials in state service on basis of qualities not on basis on family connections what many emperors did.

Everything was prosperous, functioning and balanced until Emperor Xuanzong stuck to mentioned values. But as soon as he stopped to care about state affairs everything went downwards very fast.  This is another proof that monarchies and personal regimes are not reliable for state and society since everything depends on will of monarch. When ruler is honest, responsible and capable everything works. If ruler is corrupt, uninterested or unorganized then everything goes wrong. Emperor Xuanzong is perfect example since in first period he was very careful and ambitious but later he became totally uninterested and disorganized what led to big loss in Tang dynasty. In 740 he fell in love with his sons wife Princess Yang and took her to his palace. He stopped to care totally about state affairs as he had put Li Linfu as prime minister and other family members of his new wife on important positions. They were abusing their positions and were too corrupt while Emperor Xuanzong just spent time with his wife. New ministers and generals were abusing positions, stealing money from state budget and bringing their incapable relatives on important positions. In 740ies they twice defeated Tibetan armies and were defeated by newly established state of Nanzhao( todays Yunnan and parts of Sichuan, Laos and Vietnam) a state that declared independence from China. Emperor Xuanzong didn’t much care about loss of this fertile land of Yunnan and it caused anger among some military circles. Sino-Turkic general An Lushan got angry with behavior of Emperor and started large scale rebellion in 755. An Lushan overthrew Emperor Xuanzong, captured Luoyang and established own dynasty of Yan. On throne in Changan came Emperor Suzong.  Rebels fought until 763 against Tang forces. Tang dynasty defeated rebels in several battles and recaptured An Lushans territories but had large losses.  An Lushan rebellion is considered as beginning of an end of Tang dynasty and its prosperity since power of regional generals increased and central power declined. Next few emperors were too careless, corrupt and didn’t care about state affairs. They spent time with concubines and drinking alcohol while corrupt officials were pursuing selfish goals. Situation got a bit better when Emperor Xianzong came to power in 806. He for short time restored former glory of Tang dynasty and China by sending large forces to battle against corrupt officials. After defeating all rebellions he centralized power and returned meritocratic system that was lost after Emperor Xuanzong in corruption and nepotism. In 817 Confucian scholar Han Yu blamed Buddhism as enemy of China and threat to Chinese values and therefore persecution of Buddhism started. Many governmental officials blamed Buddhism for providing shelters for rebels since Buddhist monks acted compassionately towards everyone even rebels. Taoism wasn’t persecuted since it was considered as indigenous teaching and they obeyed governmental prohibition of providing shelters for rebels.

Tang town
Depiction of a street in Changan during Tang rule,

Between 817 and  846 persecution of Buddhism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism that settled in China too occurred. Many temples were destroyed, scripts burnt and monks killed. Taoist monks and some Confucian scholars didn’t support persecution of Buddhism which was conducted by government officials. During that time many emperors didn’t care about state affairs and were often killed by wives, eunuchs or sons. In 846 for short time order was reestablished when Emperor Xuanzong II came to power. He was last successful Emperor of Tang dynasty. Xuanzong II completely banned persecution of Buddhists and reestablished religious freedom and religious harmony which was one of main values of earlier Tang period. Emperor Xuanzong II strengthened state control over all affairs and conducted financial and military reforms. He was battling corruption too until 859 when he was poisoned after drinking elixir of immortality. Next was very selfish and careless Emperor Yizong who ruled until 873. His son Emperor Xizong( 873-888) was the same. Because of corruption and lack of control over economy large famine started killing many people while Emperor Xizong enjoyed luxorious life. It was sign that he lost mandate of Heaven and large rebellion started led by Huang Chao a former governmental official. Huang Chao created large army of rebels that destroyed and looted many big cities such as Luoyang, Guangzhou and Changan. Huang Chao captured Changan after bringing severe damage and robbing city in 881. Emperor Xizong fled the city and went to Chengdu where he stayed until 884 when Changan was recaptured and Huang Chao expelled. Supremacy of Tang in China was unreturnable and aristocratic, military and other powerful officials streams pursued own goals contradictory to each others interests. In 885 already another state official Qin Zongquan declared himself as Emperor and captured Luoyang but was expelled and defeated very fast. In 888 Xizong died and was put on throne by eunuchs Emperor Zhaozong.  He tried to restore order but situation was far from control. Powerful general Zhu Wen fought against him who captured Hebei province. Zhu Wen killed all eunuchs in Changan in 902. He fought other generals and his former allies when he got enough power.

In 904 Zhu Wen expelled Emperor Zhaozong from Changan to Luoyang. Emperor Zhaozong was in short time killed in Luoyang. Zhu Wen put 11 years old son of Zhaozong as Emperor Ai in 904. In 907 Zhu Wen killed his puppet Emperor Ai and declared his dynasty of Later Liang. It was end of Tang dynasty. China was in chaos again that lasted until 960 and was divided on 10 kingdoms and 5 dynasties( claiming as imperial) that fought for supremacy.

Simply example of Tang dynasty shows that in imperial China if emperor didn’t have tight control of state affairs, international affairs, economy, taxation and religious affairs everything was abused and chaotic.

In next article there will be focus on culture, society, religion, arts and inventions that marked glory of Tang dynasty.



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