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Tang Dynasty 618 - 907

Tang dynasty China map Tang dynasty

Echoing the foundation of the preceding Sui dynasty the illustrious Tang dynasty was founded by a northern aristocratic family member serving as an official in the Sui government. Li Yuan [566 - 635] rose in revolt at Taiyuan, Shanxi against Emperor Yangdi in 617 and soon captured the capital, he took the name Gaozu (‘High Ancestor’ see below on names) on accession in 618. (Note that the temple name Gaozu had also been used by a number of Emperors including Liu Bang founder of the Han dynasty). His son Li Shimin was the main military genius behind the conquest. Although of mixed Han/Turkic/Mongol/Xianbei descent the imperial Tang dynasty embraced Chinese culture and married into the former Imperial Sui and Northern Zhou families. Their ancestral Turkic language remained in use among the Imperial family members. Li Shimin's eldest son Li Cheng Qian became obsessed with his Tartar ancestry and wore Turkish clothes, spoke Turkish and adopted a nomadic herder's lifestyle. The Central Asian roots is evident in the surviving artwork showing the Tang love of horses, horse riding and polo playing.

Tang Emperors and Empress

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Wu Zetian

Gaozu restored peace between the rival ruling families and laid the foundation for the Tang period of wise rule. His land reforms paved the way to peace and prosperity. Gaozu's son Li Shimin [598 - 649] who had the title Taizong (‘High Ancestor’) is one of the great Chinese Emperors, who started by living frugally, seeking advice from others, working hard and ruling wisely. Examples of Taizong's fine calligraphy have been found at Dunhuang, he was artistic and literate. One story recounts how he broke off from a meal to draw an unusual bird that had landed nearby. He drew on all the native Chinese religions in making his decisions. His plans to subjugate the Koreans, failed just as Sui Emperor Yangdi had failed before. The corruption engendered by such total power gradually took its toll in Taizong's later years. After a conflict between two of his sons, it was a younger son Gaozong who took the throne. Gaozong rule was overshadowed by his powerful wife Wu Zetian who soon achieved power in her own right (founding a new ‘Zhou dynasty’) after the death of her son Zhongzong. She became the only Chinese Empress in history and women in general had more power and influence than in later dynasties. The modern epic film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is set at this time. She is portrayed as ruling ruthlessly, killing any who opposed her, even her own son; however her rule is generally considered wise and benevolent, and it is probable that later historians tried to besmirch the dangerous precedent of a female emperor. She sought to secure her power by appointing officials based on merit through a re-invigorated examination system. One story is told that she decided that she had the divine power to cause flowers to bloom, when peonies ignored her Imperial edict all peonies were uprooted and burnt. She was eventually deposed and Emperor Zhongzong's reign followed a similar pattern, his Empress Wei took on more power and fighting between rival family factions continued.

Imperial Names

The names of Chinese Emperors is a common cause of confusion because they were so many of them.

In Europe the tradition is to stick with the same name throughout life, not so in China. Ordinary people as well as the Imperial family often changed their name. An important event in life was a typical reason to change name. A relatively recent example is former leader Hua Guofeng who was born as Su Zhu, he took the name Hua Guofeng to protest his resistance to the Japanese Occupation. The Republican leader Sun Yatsen went by many names during his life and is known in China chiefly by the name Sun Zhongshan. Poets would have a literary name (a sort of nom de plume) as well as their given name.

However the situation for Imperial names is more complex. The unchanging bedrock was an Emperor's family and given name. In the case of the great Tang dynasty Emperor Taizong, he was born Li Shimin ( Lǐ Shì mín). ‘Li’ is the family name of all the Tang Emperors, his forename was ‘Shimin’ (given name míng hào). On accession to the Imperial throne he took the reign name of Zhēnguān. The reign name ( nián hào) is a title for a period of time not a personal name. Years were recorded by the year number within a reign, so would be the 13th year of the Tang Zhenguan period of Emperor Taizong's reign (627CE+13 = 640CE). [Note that the year uses the special 60 year form of numbers.] Particularly in the Han dynasty the reign name was changed every few years to mark a particular event or campaign. Later on, in the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Emperors used the same name throughout their entire reign.

In the Qing dynasty a convention was adopted that all children of the same generation (brothers, cousins, second cousins etc.) would receive the same first part of the name. So Puyi 溥仪 had a brother Pujie 溥杰 half-brother Puren 溥任 while Puyi's father Zaifeng had brothers Zaitao and Zaichun (The emperor Tongzhi ). This allowed the strict Confucian rules on seniority of generations to be easily determined. The formal Qing dynastic family name was 觉罗 Ai xīn jué luó

yě yún

As well as reign names an Emperor was given a temple name miào hào on his death. This name would posthumously proclaim the Emperor's achievements, and for Li Shimin the name chosen was Taizong tài zōng (meaning great clan or purpose or supreme ancestor) which in his case is the name by which he is best known. It should also be warned that old history books use other romanizations for his name, in Wade Giles his name is spelled T'ai-tsung.

Auspicious names were re-used over the centuries, perhaps chosen to bring an echo of the glories of a successful reign long ago, so there is an Emperor Taizong of the Song as well as the Tang dynasties. There are five Emperors who chose the name Wudi to bask in the achievements of the great Han Emperor Wudi.

With so many names to choose from, it is not surprising that there is no universal rule for referring to Emperors. For Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan we use his given name; for Qing Emperor Qianlong his reign name while for Tang Emperor Taizong we use his temple name.

Tang dynasty, Xian, Sacred Way, tomb, people
Sacred Way to tombs of Tang Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu Zetian, Xi'an

Xuanzong (712-756) also known as Ming Huang brilliant emperor is a popular emperor who rebuilt the splendor of Tang culture. He is famous for an infatuation with his son's wife the beautiful Yang Guifei . The country prospered, the first permanent bridge over the lower Yellow River, the Pujin Bridge was built and the population of China rose to 53 million.

Empress WuZetian, Tang dynasty
Empress Wu (Wu Zetian) Image taken from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. Originally published/produced in China, 18th century. (British Library, Shelfmark Or. 2231) available under a Creative Commons license .

World Center

China remained the dominant Asian power with its capital at Chang'an, the largest city in the World at the time with 2,000,000 inhabitants. A tenth of the city's population were foreigners: Tibetans; Sogdians; Turks; Persians; Arabs and Syrians, it was a very cosmopolitan era. China saw no threat from foreign 'barbarian' states and welcomed their skills and customs. Some contact with the Byzantine Empire is also documented. Supplying the vast city with food was a logistical problem with very difficult transportation by boat up the Yellow and Wei rivers. The grip on southern China strengthened with the inclusion of Fujian province into the Empire. For the first time the empire was administered as a set of ten provinces rather than much smaller districts. The provinces were Longyu (roughly present day Gansu); Guannei (Shaanxi); Henan (Shanxi); Hebei (roughly present day Hebei); Duji (Shandong); Shannan (Henan; Shaanxi; Hubei); Jiannan (Sichuan); Lingnan (Guangxi; Guangdong; Vietnam) and Jiangnan (a vast area subdivided into east and western parts covering much of Anhui; Fujian; Zhejiang; Guizhou; Hunan; Jiangxi; Jiangsu). Guangzhou developed rapidly as a port on the south coast with good roads to the rest of China. The most prized export shifted from silk to porcelain, more suited to transport by boat rather than by land.

Tang dynasty, hen, sculpture
Tang dynasty depiction of a hen

Tang dynasty Culture

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Tang Dynasty

Culturally, the Tang dynasty is seen as another peak in Chinese development. The first printed books in the world were produced. In technology iron chain bridges were built as well as water mills. Control of irrigation became more sophisticated bringing more land into cultivation. Tea was extensively planted and Tang porcelain became highly prized. There was a great literary flowering with many great poets including Li Bai and Du Fu creating timeless classics. An Imperial Academy (‘the Forest of Pens’) promoted literature. In administration the Tang mainly followed the Sui system although the reformed system still relied on grain levies on poor farmers. Nine grades of nobility were created which received a fixed proportion of the income from taxation. The first class princes (wang) were the top grade made up of sons and brothers of the emperor; the next two grades were more distant relatives; the remaining six grades were for eminent officials.

Battle of Talas 751CE

During the Tang dynasty, the empire expanded far to the West along the Silk Route the main artery of Tang trade to touch the Aral Sea . Chinese expansionist dreams were brought to a halt at the Battle of Talas in 751. It was the growth of Islam that fueled the conflict; Abbasid troops met a combined force of Chinese and mercenary Karluk troops. During the battle the Karluk troops changed sides and this was decisive, very few Chinese survived. China lost control of the area which is now Xinjiang and Qinghai provinces, her influence had extended to Pakistan and the Aral Sea. Perhaps most importantly the Arabs captured mercenaries skilled in the manufacture of paper. Paper mills were then built at Samarkand and from there, the secret made its way to Europe and the rest of the world.

Tang dynasty, woman, music
Chinese artwork of lady musicians in a raised-relief, from the Capital Museum in Beijing, dated to the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960CE) Image by gongfu_king available under a Creative Commons license .
625 Empress Wu Zetian born
664 Xuanzang died
685 Emperor Xuanzong born; 690 Empress Wu Zetian became ruler; 699 Wang Wei born; 701 Li Bai born; 705 Empress Wu Zetian no longer ruler
712 Du Fu born; Emperor Xuanzong became ruler
751 Battle of Talas ; 755 An Lushan Rebellion began; 756 An Lushan born; Emperor Xuanzong no longer ruler; 757 An Lushan died; 758 Sacking of Guangzhou ; 759 Wang Wei died; 762 Li Bai died; 763 An Lushan Rebellion ended; 770 Du Fu died; 772 Bai Juyi born
846 Bai Juyi died
868 Printing of Diamond Sutra ; 878 Guangzhou massacre began; 879 Guangzhou massacre ended
907 Five Dynasties began
Tang dynasty key dates
Yang Guifei, tang dynasty
Color woodcut by Yashima Gakutei (Japan, c.1786-1868). Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Image by Gallery available under a Creative Commons License

An Lushan Rebellion

One of the most famous episodes in Chinese history concerns An Lushan, [5 Feb 756 - 29 Jan 757] who managed to bring about the downfall of the Tang dynasty. An Lushan was of Turkish/Sogdian descent and while still illiterate became the slave of a Chinese military officer. He soon learned his letters and became an interpreter and rose to become military governor-General to the fractious border regions.

At this time the Tang had met their first major military defeat at the Battle of Talas in 751. The empire struggled to rule the border regions with high ethnic populations. To enable effective rule in these regions the military were given administrative and financial control, this gave An Lushan great power and influence. He became the protege of Li Linfu, the chief minister and by then grossly obese, he joined the Imperial court at Chang'an.

At court he inveigled his way into affection of Yang Guifei, the emperor's favorite concubine. The great Emperor Xuanzong after achieving much in his early years was besotted with her while in his sixties. Yang Guifei (aka ) was born in Sichuan and became a Daoist priestess just at the time that Imperial court turned from Buddhism to Daoism. She was then picked as a wife by Xuanzong's own son - Li Mao the Prince of Shou before he noticed her and took her for himself. The Huaqing Hot Springs near Xi'an is a place associated with the two lovers.

An Lushan acted as a fool and clown to the delight of the Emperor and his concubine. His powerful rival at court was Yang Guozhong, Yang Guifei's second cousin who had been promoted to first minister. The Emperor and concubine went so far as to make An their adopted son. When Yang Guozhong raised doubts on An's loyalty, An Lushan made a tearful defense before the Emperor that won him his release. Picking his moment An Lushan with the aid of his close friend Shi Siming () launched the An-Shi revolt in 755 from their power-base in the north east (Hebei, Liaoning, Shanxi and around Beijing). The rebel army, 150,000 strong, started out from Jicheng and then quickly and easily moved through Hebei and Shanxi, massacring the population of Kaifeng before moving towards the then capital Chang'an in Shaanxi. They captured the capital and Emperor Xuanzong fled towards Sichuan. An Lushan then proclaimed his new Greater Yan dynasty.

It is wrong to 'personalize' the rebellion too much in terms of a drama among personalities at court. The reality was that Tang control was overstretched and the border regions could only be controlled by devolving power to strong military leaders. Emperor Xuanzong's court in his later years had become corrupt and supine. A shrewd and pragmatic leader like An Lushan had the energy that the court had been lacking. However the rebellion did not create a new strong dynasty. Emperor Xuanzong's fleeing escort mutinied and killed Yang Guozhong and demanded that Yang Guifei should be killed. He had no choice but to see his beloved strangled. The episode is made famous through Bai Juyi's poem ‘A song of Unending Sorrow’ about the eternal tension of old age and youth.

“The Emperor could not save her.
He could only cover her cold face.
And later when he looked back, a yellow dust blown by a cold wind
hid the sight of blood and tears.
Earth endures, heaven endures, sometimes both shall end,
While this unending sorrow continues forever.”

The Great Emperor Xuanzong, a broken man, abdicated in favor of son Suzong (Yang Guifei was his mother). With the aid of loyal generals Guo Ziyi and Li Guangbi, Suzong launched a counter-attack which took a grueling eight years to end the revolt. An Lushan ruled for just one year, he became blind and was assassinated by his own son An Qingxu . Eventually a truce was drawn up between the two sides.

The Tang dynasty never fully recovered from the revolt. The disruption to agriculture and displacement of people caused a break down in administration. Some claim that 36 million died, but this figure reflects the impossibility of carrying out an accurate census across a ravaged country, many fled south. Local warlords were able to build their own areas of control. The episode reveals the fragility of power of the late Tang dynasty.

Decline and Fall of the Tang

After the tumult of the An Lushan rebellion, Xuanzong's son Suzong eventually restored peace, with aid from foreign mercenaries but only to see a new power, the Tibetans, invade and sack Chang'an. In 766 some stability was established under Dezong (Suzong's son) but the centralized power of the early Tang rulers was never reinstated. The majority of the unrest was in northern China; in the Yangzi valley and further south peace was preserved, this period marked the shift to the south of Chinese culture, areas in the north became depopulated with cities left in ruins while in the south new towns and cities were built.

Buddhism was the religion of the Tang emperors; it was a period of carving of huge numbers of Buddhas in such places as Dunhuang, Gansu; the Longmen Caves and the Yungang Grottoes. Towards the end of the dynasty Buddhism had become very powerful and rich, it was then fiercely persecuted (841-846) by Emperor Wuzong and never again achieved the same dominance. Nationalism was resurgent with foreigners: Turks, Jews, Muslims, Parthians dispossessed and some murdered. The state turned back to Confucianism as the ruling doctrine, and central control was lost with local fiefdoms emerging particularly in the north.

Natural disasters took their toll too, a series of droughts in Shandong and Henan led to peasant rebellions. The remnants of Tang administration resorted to high levels of taxation and confiscation of land. At one stage a 'Green shoots tax' was instigated, so farmers had to pay a tax on crops as they germinated long before harvest. Misrule and dominance by court eunuchs, encroachment of Arab armies from the west, and rebellions all led to the breakdown of the empire into smaller 'fiefdoms' . Huang Chao () 's rebellion proved the main cause of the demise of the illustrious dynasty and the birth of a period of strife: Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms.

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Citation information: Chinasage, 'The Illustrious Tang Chinese Dynasty 618 - 907', last updated 13 Oct 2015, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/dynastytang.htm.

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