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A brief history of the Chinese Tang dynasty, the classical empire of China that cemented its influence in Asia for centuries to come.

Both within China and all the areas it influenced, the Tang dynasty, to this day, represents the pinnacle of Chinese culture. During this time, China’s international prestige was never greater. Literature and invention flourished, prompting developments like woodblock printing. Diverse cultures and religions blossomed, creating many of China’s most impressive monuments that can still be visited today.

The Tang dynasty unified China and expanded its territory by defeating the Turks. The dynasty oversaw a range of cultural improvements. This included more poetry and recognizing a range of religions. Because of this, the people experienced a period of economic prosperity and social peace. This is why some people refer to the Tang dynasty as the golden age of ancient China.

But what led to this second Chinese Golden Age during the Tang dynasty and what made it such an important time in Chinese history? This article will examine the influence of the Tang dynasty, the major events that took place during its reign, and the lasting effects that the dynasty had on Chinese history.

Who Are the People of the Tang Dynasty?

The Tang dynasty was populated primarily by ethnic Han Chinese. In the centuries since the fall of the Han dynasty, the idea of a Han Chinese ethnicity had become a fixture throughout the region — even in those times of separate warring kingdoms.

However, that is not to say there were no other populations within the imperial borders. In fact, the Tang era was perhaps the most cosmopolitan that China had ever been. Both the Silk Road trade routes secured and maritime trade taking place with emerging empires along the Asian coast as distant as Persia introduced many new peoples to China. The establishment of ethnic and cultural enclaves became a common practice, particularly in the capital Chang’an (modern Xi’an).

Origins of the Tang Dynasty

The Tang dynasty came to power at the end of the Sui dynasty. The Sui dynasty was an attempt to unify North and South China. However, it ended quickly after only two emperors. During this time, there was mass rebellion across the country.

At the time, Li Yuan was the leader of the Shanxi region and was known as the Duke of Tang. He took the chance to seize control of the area, making his way to Chang’an (modern Xi’an), where he won out against other contenders for the throne.

He removed the Emperor from power, then acted as a regent to the child-Emperor, who was too young to take the throne. When the child was killed by a General, Li Yuan declared himself to be the Emperor. After that, Chang’an was declared the capital. The state was called Tang. This officially signaled the beginning of the Tang Empire. 

Tang Dynasty Name Origins

The Tang dynasty takes its name from an official title held by its founder prior to the establishment of the new dynasty. The founding emperor, Gaozu, was previously known as Li Yuan, the Duke of Tang.

After rising to the position of ruler, this name became the name of his new dynasty.

Culture and Beliefs of the Tang Dynasty

During the Tang dynasty, perhaps more than any period before, China was open to the rest of the world. This led to a vast influx of new ideas, cultures, and religions. Some of these expanded on what had already been in China for centuries, while others evolved into something wholly new.

Art and Architecture

The cosmopolitanism of the Tang dynasty had a significant and lasting impact on the culture of China during this period. Many of the most defining art and architectural styles that would continue on in Chinese monuments for centuries originated at this time. 

Some of these monuments are still standing today. For example, the Nanchan Temple was constructed in Shanxi Province. It’s believed that this dates back to 782 CE and holds the title of China’s oldest wooden building. Despite its age, it is still well-preserved and a visitor can still see some of the Tang markings on the interior.

Another famous example of Tang dynasty architecture is the Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an. This Buddhist tower is part of the Daci’en Temple and rises a remarkable seven stories, being built without any cement.

Literature

There was an explosion in the number of poems that were published. It’s estimated that around 48,000 of these poems and works of literature are still surviving today. It’s believed that poetry competitions were common around the dinner table. There were also encyclopedias and histories of other dynasties. These are used by modern researchers to gain a better understanding of these civilizations.

Religion

This  era exploded in a great diversity of religions. While Buddhism had existed as a came to prominence during this period. It is one of the ideas that was likely imported by travelers from the Silk Road. This was officially recognized and practiced, including by some members of the royal family. There is a range of monuments that were built to help those worship.

At the time, Confucius and Taoist influences continued to play a big role in shaping the culture. The government also recognized some religions from other countries as foreign influences began to take root in China. For example, a Christian monastery was built in Shaanxi province during this time.

Leisure and Holidays

During the Tang dynasty,  and sometimes aided by it directly, a wide range of holiday traditions were introduced that continue into Chinese culture today. A couple examples of these include the traditional New Year celebration, the Lantern Festival, and even the little-known Cold Food Festival all began to play a bigger cultural role. 

While these were considered universal holidays, there were an additional 69 grand carnivals held. These carnivals were used to celebrate important events, like military victories.

Likewise, a wide range of leisure activities became popular during the Tang Dynasty These included archery competitions, horse polo, and even an early form of football (soccer) originating back in the Han dynasty, known as Cuju.

History of the Tang Dynasty

In the nearly 300 years that China was ruled by the Tang dynasty, it experienced perhaps its greatest period of interaction with the rest of the world. This springboarded it both in international prestige and in its own internal development.

These events that took place during the Tang dynasty are highly revered by the Chinese people in their own history and continue to be a source of popular media, being adapted into movies and television. 

Expansion of Territory

Another significant moment in the Tang dynasty was the fall of the Eastern Turkic Khaganate, at the hands of military officer Li Jing. This marked the beginning of the acceptance by the Turks of the Tang rule. This allowed them to expand their territory. The conflict with the Western Turks would continue for several years. Eventually, the Western Turkic Khaganate was destroyed in 657 CE.

Strong Economy

One of the most celebrated benefits of the Tang dynasty was the creation of a strong economy through the re-opening of the Silk Road. This important trade route was kept open during most of the Tang dynasty’s reign. They also encouraged merchant ships to sail into China. This brought thousands of merchants with cargo loads full of new products and ideas.

Geography of the Tang Dynasty

At its height, the Tang dynasty was able to exert a lot of power over Asian countries. For example, it’s believed that they had a significant cultural influence on Japan and Korea. As we mentioned, the Tang also oversaw an increase of their territory, with major victories over the Turks.

To give you a better understanding of the size and power of the Tang dynasty, the capital Chang’an was once the world’s most populous city. It had a population of 50 million between the 7th and 8th centuries. By the end of the dynasty, this was approaching 80 million.

The Tang Dynasty in East Asia

Perhaps more than any other of China’s historic dynasties, the Tang dynasty had a profound and lasting cultural impact on the neighboring kingdoms and countries. From Tang architecture and dress to their laws and religious traditions, Tang culture was a juggernaut in East Asia.

Most of these traditional Tang aspects have eroded from Mainland China. This is both from centuries of successive dynasties and the active destruction of the Cultural Revolution.  However, somewhat ironically, Tang influence can still be seen and experienced to this day in much of the traditional cultures of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. 

The Tang Dynasty in the Hexi Corridor

Like their predecessors that had united China with varying degrees of success in the past, the Tang rulers sought to maintain a strong presence and defense along the Hexi Corridor. This narrow strip of passable land between the harsh landscapes of the Gobi Desert and the Kunlun Mountains was China’s primary overland route to connect it to the rest of the world via the Silk Road.

However, the nomadic tribes that roamed the steppes to the north and west had long been a threat to Chinese control over this stretch of land. Peoples like the Xiongnu, the Xianbei, the Uighurs, and eventually the Mongols would raid both trade caravans and permanent settlements, taking anything valuable and destroying whatever might be left.

During their reign, the Tang dynasty had unprecedented success in securing these trade routes. This brought in a continued stream of traders, missionaries, and diplomats from all points west. Settlements sprang up along the trade routes west of Chinese-controlled land, forming new kingdoms that further defended the trade routes in their own self interest. 

In all, the three centuries under Tang rule were a safe and prosperous time along the Hexi Corridor and the greater Silk Road.

What Happened to the Tang Dynasty?

The leaders of the Tang dynasty were starting to lose sight of their duty to the people. While most of the country was facing a devastating famine, they continued to enjoy the finest food and wine. Because of this, their dislike amongst the people started to increase.

This led to a widespread uprising. When they started to lose control, the amount of power they were able to exert started to decline rapidly. This culminated in the Huang Zho rebellion. They stormed the capital Chang’an, leaving it destroyed. Though the battle would devastate the country. Over 100,000 people died and the resulting years saw the families who had claimed control of territories, strengthen their armies. This is known as the Ten Kingdoms period.

Cities of the Tang Dynasty

Chang’an (Ancient Xi’an)
Shaanxi, China
GPS: 34.30942, 108.95516

Taiyuan
Shaanxi, China
GPS: 37.87286, 112.54943

Nanchang
Jiangxi, China
GPS: 28.67933, 115.86181

Luoyang
Henan, China
GPS: 34.62301, 112.45571

Changsha
Hunan, China
GPS: 28.22913, 112.94219

Lanzhou
Shaanxi, China
GPS: 36.06017, 103.83522

Suzhou
Shaanxi, China
GPS: 31.29978, 120.58525

Monuments of the Tang Dynasty

Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
Shaanxi, China
GPS: 34.21821, 108.96415

Small Wild Goose Pagoda
Shaanxi, China
GPS: 34.23919, 108.94207

Qianling Mausoleum
Shaanxi, China
GPS: 34.57444, 108.21416

Nanchan Temple
Shanxi, China
GPS: 38.70089, 113.11371

Dragon and Tiger Pagoda
Shandong, China
GPS: 36.4547, 117.12766

Thousand Buddha Caves
Shandong, China
GPS: 36.48967, 117.10709

Dazu Rock Carvings
Chongqing, China
GPS: 29.75111, 105.79889

Leshan Giant Buddha
Sichuan, China
GPS: 29.54392, 103.77149

Rongxian Giant Buddha
Sichuan, China
GPS: 29.45338, 104.43041

Fast Facts

Name: Tang Dynasty
Origin: Established as the Sui dynasty, which has begun reuniting northern and southern CHina began to fall apart.
Language: Chinese dialects
Religion: Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and others
Period/Era: 618-907 CE
Location: Mainland China
Capital: Chang’an (modern Xi’an)
Decline: Civil unrest broke out as the ruling class began losing control to regional military powers.

Glossary

Buddhism
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.

Confucianism
Indigenous Chinese religion promoting ancestor worship, filial piety, and duty to the state.

Han dynasty 汉朝
The ruling dynasty of China from 202 BCE – 220 CE. Han doctrine was characterized by economic prosperity through outside trade via the Silk Road creating the earliest sense of a single Chinese “Han” identity.

Hexi Corridor 河西走廊
A narrow geographic region between the Gobi Desert and the Tibetan Plateau in western China that was an important path on the Chinese end of the Silk Road. The Han dynasty secured and fortified the Hexi Corridor, allowing trade caravans to become more common.

Mandate of Heaven 天命
The Chinese belief that the rulers are chosen by Heaven due to their righteousness. If a ruler becomes unworthy, Heaven would show signs through natural disasters and the rulers would be overthrown. 

Shaanxi 陕西
Province in northern China that has historically served as the capital and heartland of most of China’s dynasties.

Silk Road
A vast trade network connecting China to India, the Middle East, and Europe through Central Asia that was responsible for the intercultural spread of goods and ideas. Although trade began along these routes prior to the Qin dynasty, it began flourishing during the Han dynasty when they secured the Hexi Corridor.

Tang dynasty
The ruling dynasty of China from 618-907 CE, which embraced trade with the outside world and was accepting of foreign ideologies.

Xiongnu
Nomadic ethnic group originating from the steppes along the northwestern border of China, and presumed to be the ancestors of the Huns. The Xiongnu raided the Chinese borders and trade routes along the early Silk Soad.

Sources

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

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