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Chinese History --- Tang Dynasty

The Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907), with its capital at Chang'an, is regarded by historians as a high point in Chinese civilization equal, or even superior, to the Han period. Its territory, acquired through the military exploits of its early rulers, was greater than that of the Han. Stimulated by contact with India and the Middle East, the empire saw a flowering of creativity in many fields. Buddhism, originating in India around the time of Confucius, flourished during the Tang period, becoming thoroughly Chinese and a permanent part of Chinese traditional culture. 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. 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 grass-roots level and the government.

Xian-showBy 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.

The Tang are considered to be one of the great dynasties of Chinese history; many historians rank them right behind the Han. They extended the boundaries of China through Siberia in the North, Korea in the east, and were in what is now Vietnam in the South. They even extended a corridor of control along the Silk Road well into modern-day Afghanistan.

There are two interesting historical things about the Tang. The first is the Empress Wu, the only woman ever to actually bear the title 'Emperor' (or, in her case, Empress). The second was the An Lushan Rebellion, which marked the beginning of the end for the Tang.

The Empress Wu was not a nice person. She makes Catherine the Great look like an angel of mercy. While Empress Wu was still a concubine in the imperial Tang household, she deposed of a rival by murdering her own son, and then claiming her rival did it. In her own vicious, ruthless, scheming way, she was absolutely brilliant. Had Machiavelli known of her, he probably would have written "The Princess."

The An Lushan Rebellion had its roots in the behavior of one of the great emperors of Chinese history, Xuanzong. Until he fell in love with a young concubine named Yang Guifei, he had been a great ruler, and had brought the Tang to its height of prosperity and grandeur. He was so infatuated with Yang that the administration of the government soon fell into decay, which was not made any better by the fact that Yang took advantage of her power to stuff high administrative positions with her corrupt cronies. She also took under her wing a general named An Lushan, who quickly accumulated power.

An Lushan eventually decided that he would make a pretty good emperor, and launched his rebellion. The civil war lasted for eight years, and was, for the years 755-763, pretty destructive. The emperor was forced to flee the capital, and on the way, the palace guard, blaming Yang Guifei for all the problems that had beset the dynasty (to be fair, it wasn't all her fault; there were forces of political economy at work that were pretty much beyond anybody's control), strangled her and threw her corpse in a ditch. There is a legend that what actually happened was that the emperor had procured a peasant look alike who was actually the one killed, but as far as I know, that is only fiction. Anyway, the rebellion pretty much shattered centralized Tang control, and for the remaining 150 years of the dynasty, the country slowly disintegrated.


Li Bai - Tang Poet

From a pot of wine among the flowers
I drank alone. There was no one with me --
Till, raising my cup, I asked the bright moon
To bring me my shadow and make us three.
Alas, the moon was unable to drink
And my shadow tagged me vacantly;
But still for a while I had these friends
To cheer me through the end of spring....
I sang. The moon encouraged me.
I danced. My shadow tumbled after.
As long as I knew, we were boon companions.
And then I was drunk, and we lost one another.
...Shall goodwill ever be secure?
I watch the long road of the River of Stars.

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