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Tang Dynasty: Early History

Tang Dynasty: Early History (618-756)


The Tang Dynasty followed the Sui (581-618), which unified China after the Han Dynasty collapsed in 220. In the year 618, one of the Sui’s dukes and army generals, Li Yuan, seized the Sui capital to establish the Tang Dynasty. He changed the name of the Sui western capital from Yangzhou to Chang’an. It took emperor Li Yuan, later known as Gaozu, six years before he consolidated his control over the many rival factions.

Gaozu reestablished the imperial examinations for the civil service bureaucracy, reopened universities in the capital, and created schools throughout the prefectures and counties. He also established frontier garrisons for protection from the northern hordes. But perhaps most important was the need to restore the economy and financial situation of the empire. To do this, Gaozu brought back the equal fields system. This gave about thirteen acres to all adult males between the ages of seventeen and fifty-nine who would farm the land. In return the peasants paid taxes to the government: two or three percent of the annual harvest, along with twenty feet of silk or linen. The men also had to perform public service, twenty days for the central government and two months for the local government. This work often involved infrastructure projects, such as flood control and land reclamation.

To create a stable form of money, the emperor ordered the minting of new copper coins. These had uniform shapes, weights and metal content. These copper coins, also called cash, were round with square holes in the center so they could be strung on string or cords. Large transactions were conducted in gold, silver and silk.

The wife of the third emperor, Gaozong, was the empress Wu. She served as the covert seat of power as her husband’s health failed. Upon Gaozong’s death she deposed the eldest son, and installed her second son, Ruizong. For the next six years she governed as a regent. In 690 she deposed Ruizong and assumed the throne outright. Some historians have described her reign as ruthless and cruel, sending into exile and executing thousands.

In the year 705, old Tang loyalists deposed Empress Wu and restored Zhongzong to the throne. Zhongzong’s wife, Empress Wei, took advantage of her husband by promoting her daughters to high positions. She also sold high level government positions, as well as Buddhist and Daoist ordination certificates. This enabled the holders to avoid paying taxes. She and her daughters stole gold and jade from the palace treasury. In 710 she poisoned some of her husband’s food. Once again the old Tang loyalists stormed the palace, killing the empress and one of her daughters.

In the year 712, emperor Xuanzong came to power. He ruled for the next forty-four years. It was during this time period that the Tang Dynasty, and the Chinese people, enjoyed relative prosperity and peace. After years of corruption from the Empress Wei period, Xuanzong had to find more money for the government treasury. He cut back on palace expenditures, melting down the gold and silver vessels to fund his armies. He took measures against the Buddhist church by closing the tax loopholes. To increase income, Xuanzong reregistered all rural households, as many had become unregistered through immigration. After these measures, the government’s financial situation improved dramatically. The emperor expanded the system of granaries, thereby stabilizing the prices for food during periods of both feast and famine. Land reclamation and agricultural productivity increased. Law and order was maintained and travel was safe enough for trade to flourish.

Xuanzong was a poet, musician, calligrapher, and patron of the arts. He especially supported musicians, singers and dancers. He established the Pear Garden Troupe that trained many of these performers.

A relative peace prevailed between the empire and it’s neighbors during this time. The government’s foreign policy involved more diplomacy rather that war, and also lacked any kind of expansionist desires. This policy created large and permanent armies, which included militia units of non-Chinese cavalry troops along the northern borders. Along with these forward garrisons came permanent military commanders to lead these forces. These generals were given considerable latitude in governing their troops, and in the use of imperial funds. In 737 the drafting of soldiers from the populace was abandoned in favor of a long-serving volunteer army.

After 736, Xuanzong delegated more and more of his powers to two of his chief ministers, along with the garrison commanders. Then in 740 he fell in love with Yang Guifei, who soon became his favorite consort. As time went on, the emperor spent more and more time with her, ignoring many of his imperial duties and responsibilities. He appointed many of her relatives to high level government positions. Their love story is one of the most famous in Chinese history.  This neglect of duties led to one of the garrison commanders, An Lushan, to start a rebellion against the central government.

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