Chinese History - 618-906 AD - Tang / T'ang Dynasty
For many reasons the T'ang dynasty deserves the name of the Golden Era of Chinese history. Foremost in splendor is the poetry of the age. "Poetry," says a modern Chinese writer, "reached perfection under the T'angs." The "Complete Collection of the Poetry of the T'ang Period" contains 48,900 poems in thirty volumes. L1 Po. Many of these poets were, as in the preceding age, men of disreputable character, such as Wang Po, who had to get drunk before he could write. Han Yii, described as foremost among the statesmen, philosophers, and poets of the T'ang dynasty, and one of the most venerated names in Chinese literature. As a philosopher he took a middle ground between those who with Confucius and Mencius maintained that the nature of man is innately good and those who believed it to be naturally depraved.
Of the splendid art of the period some idea may be gained from a study of the pictures brought away from the oasis of Tun-huang in Eastern Turkestan by Dr. Stein. Many of them may now be seen in the British Museum. They deal largely with Buddhist subjects and are of a very high order of excellence.11 The greatest painter of the period, indeed of all periods in China, was Wv, Tao-yiian. No work at present exists which can with certainty be ascribed to him, but a Japanese picture in the British Museum, "The Death of Buddha," founded on one of his masterpieces, may give some idea of his originality and power. The story is told that when men criticized adversely the famous picture of the " Western Paradise," Wu Tao-yiian answered his critics by stepping calmly into the Paradise which he had painted, and so disappeared from the sight of men.
Where the Sui Dynasty brought stability to warring China, the T'ang brought imperial unity. Past institutions of nobility and soldiery, legal code and state-owned land, and sponsorship of Buddhism and Taoism were handed to T'ang rulers who fashioned them anew. Almost immediately the bureaucracy set about re-styling Sui's ponderous legal code, reducing its 1,735 articles to 502. Advanced for its day, the code's influence stretched four hundred years and affected the surrounding kingdoms of Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
Li Yuan, the general through whose treachery the last of the preceding dynasties had been displaced, took the throne of China under the name of Kao Tsu, thus inaugurating, however unpropitiously, the splendid line of the T'angs. His nine years' rule was disturbed by invasions by the Turks and Kao Tsu adopted the dangerous policy of buying off the invaders with money. The plan, so futile in the majority of the cases in which it has been employed, in this instance succeeded, at any rate long enough to afford the dynasty time to consolidate its strength and the Turkish power, correspondingly, time to wane. Having accomplished so much, Kao Tsu resigned the cares of state to his son, Li Shih-min, already famous as the Prince of T'ang.
Li Shih-min [AD 627-650] had already achieved fame. As a warrior he had fought against and vanquished the Turks whom it was his father's policy to subsidize. As a man he had already proved superior to the manifold temptations of the Court. Gazing upon the luxurious furnishings of the magnificent palaces and contrasting all this with the poverty of the people, he exclaimed, "Must a nation be thus exhausted in order that it may pander to the vanity and passions of one man?" On the abdication of Kao Tsu, he took the name of T'ai Tsung and made it one of the most glorious in the annals of China. He was able from the first to inspire a singular measure of devotion in the hearts of many brave soldiers, and the two heroes, Yu-ch'e Kung and Tsin Kung, who kept watch and ward at his chamber door, became the two worthies, "the guardians of the door," whose names, or the equivalent, are pasted on the doors of houses to the present day.
T'ai Tsung proceeded at once to make the name of China respected beyond the frontiers. He conquered the tribes westward to the Caspian, divided the subjugated realms into satrapies, after the Persian manner, and ruled vigorously over the whole vast Empire, until, before long, the men of the south were as proud to speak of themselves as T'ang jen, or "men of T'ang," as they had formerly been to describe themselves as "the sons of Han." Ambassadors came from far lands, including the kingdoms of India; the Greek Emperor sent a mission to his court, and scholars of renown continued their journeys from China to the Western Kingdoms.
T'ai Tsung was a beneficent patron of religion and missionaries of all faiths had reason to be grateful for his tolerance and even hospitality. In AD 621 came to China the first representatives of the religion of Zoroaster, driven out of the land of its birth by the fierce onslaughts of the hosts of Islam. A little later, in AD 628, came the emissaries of the persecuting creed, including, it is said, an uncle of the Prophet himself, and Muhamadans and Magians settled down peaceably in the capital, Singanfu, where both a fire-temple and a mosque were erected, by permission of the Emperor. Three years later, AD 631, came Olupun, the missionary of Nestorian Christianity.
The Emperor was also sympathetically mindful of the social condition of the people. One day, paying a visit to the public prisons, he found two hundred and ninety criminals condemned to death. He at once sent them forth into the fields to assist in the harvest, accepting their word of honor to return when the work was done. To a man they justified their sovereign's trust and T'ai Tsung was so pleased at their fidelity that he forthwith set them free. Thereupon he made the rule that henceforth no Emperor should ratify a sentence of death until he had passed three days in abstinence, lest the lives of ignorant or innocent people should be sacrificed to the impulse or the passion of a moment.
T'ang's second emperor, T'ai-tsung, was a firm administrator, frugal at court but who invested in state-wide internal improvements. Under his rule T'ang spread, revenues were up, and China enjoyed its greatest reach with tribute states extending as much as five thousand miles west from its capital, Loyang.
But as was so often the case, what could be done, could be undone. T'ai-tsung's successor, Emperor Kao, was weak, dominated by his wife, the Empress Wu Chao. Empress Wu ensured her son would be the next emperor. She later had him banished and installed his brother, who then abdicated the throne. Seizing the moment, Wu declared herself China's first female emperor and embarked on a long and corrupt reign. She emptied the treasury on lavish ceremony and ill-considered foreign adventures, traded lovers openly, and executed those who displeased her. When she died in 705 at age 82, the country was in economic and political chaos, and the bureaucracy swelled with the addition of one thousand eunuchs.
Five years later her banished son, Hsüan-tsung (also known as Tang Ming Huang; 712-756), returned to begin the most influential reign of the T'ang emperors. A man of many talents, including loyalty and wisdom, Emperor Hsüan-tsung, restored frugality to the palace, created a fair tax code, and restyled the military. In Western terms a Renaissance Man, the Emperor opened his court to scholars, artists, foreigners, and various religions. He surrounded himself with few, but brilliant, advisors and banished the eunuchs.
Under his rule China flourished, but with the passing years the Emperor lost interest in governing, instead turning his interests to Taoism. His indifference opened the door to rebellion, and for seven years the country suffered war waged by a governor named An Lu-shan. Though put down, a frail state was left in its wake. The eunuchs returned, choosing each emperor to the last of T'ang.
It may be worth adding that a census taken of the Fifteen Provinces in the year AD 754 showed that the Empire at this epoch contained nine and a half million families, or nearly fifty-three million individuals. China was widely known throughout the civilized world. Arab traders, pushing out from India and the Malay peninsula, began to establish trading stations at Canton and other Chinese ports. In AD 751 they erected in Canton a pagoda or minaret which still stands. They presumed so much on their right to remain for trade that they occasionally also claimed the privilege of burning and pillaging. The traveler, Ibn Wahab, has left a very interesting account of travels in China in the 9th Century. A large number of foreigners seem to have been at this time permanently resident in China. At the close of the 8th Century four thousand foreign families are said to have been settled in the capital. That China was not unacquainted with the political condition of the outside world we may gather from the remark of a T'ang Emperor quoted in the Arab "Chain of Chronicles" to the effect that there were five great sovereigns, viz: The King of Irak (the Khalif), who was King of Kings; the King of China, who was King of Men; the King of Turks, who was King of wildmen; the King of India, who was King of elephants; and the King of Rome, who was King of fine men.
An attempt was made during the reign of the Emperor Te Tsung (AD 780-805) to reform the then existing system of taxation. The official responsible for the effort was the Minister of State, Yang Yen, who was raised from an inferior station. The three existing forms of monetary and personal obligation towards the State, known respectively as land-tax, statutory labor, and payment in kind, were abolished, and in their stead a semi-annual collection of money-tax was introduced, an entirely new assessment throughout the Empire forming its basis. The result, however, was not satisfactory, and the unsuccessful political economist was banished, and, before reaching his intended destination, strangled by the Emperor's order.
Wu Tsung [AD 841-847] detaches himself a little from the other monarchs of the 9th Century and gains a certain sinister interest as the furious persecutor of Buddhism. He believed that the social weakness and military incapacity of the Empire was largely due to the multiplication of monasteries and nunneries and the consequent withdrawal of large numbers of men and women from the duties and responsibilities of civil life. Certainly there was something to be said for his view. The Chinese records state that four thousand six hundred monasteries were destroyed in this persecution and upwards of a quarter of a million monks and nuns sent back to the secular life.
The institutions that defined the dynasty were strained and twisted almost beyond recognition. Its last days were marked by battles over the tax code and Buddhist church, foreign threats, gangsterism, floods, and droughts. To onlookers at this time the T'ang dynasty was plainly doomed. The Arab traders then at Canton compared the condition of China with that of the Macedonian Empire on the death of Alexander the Great. Wracked by purges and financial collapse, Heaven's Mandate was revoked and T'ang fell.
The general Li Ch'iian-chung, better known as Chu Wen, is found at the end of the 9th Century struggling against his ambitions on the one hand and yet hopeless of loyalty, wavering between the policy based on his respect for the past and that suggested by desire to make secure the future. He assassinated one monarch in order to place another, a mere infant, upon the throne. But the temptations and opportunities of power proved too strong for his loyalty to the T'angs and, hardly two years after, spite of the protests and warnings of his elder brother, Chu Wen proclaimed himself the first sovereign of a new dynasty, to be known in history as that of the Later Liang.
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