The Tang Dynasty are closely associated with the Sui Dynasty, and are often discussed as the same dynasty. Their dynasty lasted from 618-907 A.D. Much of their power was made possible through the canals built by the Sui. These canals allowed for communications to all parts of the empire. Also, the granaries the Sui built alongside the canals helped the Tang to transport goods from the south to the north. This especially was important in the transfer of rice to the north in times of famine. These canals were important in the economic development of the T’ang empire.
The Tang Dynasty expanded on the administrative system that dated from the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. and earlier. The administration was comprised of four main departments: a Department of State Affairs, an Imperial Chancellory, an Imperial Grand Secretariat, and a Council of State. Judicially, the Tang also made many advances. They first compiled the Tang Code in 624 A.D. This is the first complete Chinese code that still exists. It consists of a continuous scale of penalties that are applied based on both the crime and the degree of relation between the criminal and the offended person. The degree was based on the amount of time that would be spent in mourning if the person died. The T’ang Code had more than five hundred articles divided into twelve sections.
The land distribution program of the Tang was an important part of both their agricultural reform and their economic growth. The Tang implemented a program where they gave life plots to the peasant families. This was supposed to be an equal distribution of the land. The Tang wanted to ensure that the families had enough land to both support themselves and to pay taxes. Taxes were based therefore, not on how much land one had, but on the number of people in the family. Each person was responsible for certain taxes. This system of taxation by person rather than by land also implies an incredibly accurate census system. Archaeological finds of census records have proved this to be the case. This system probably worked better in the north where wheat was grown than in the south; land was not so easy to divide and more labor was required for rice cultivation.
The production of rice rapidly increased during this period. As rice growing became more profitable, population centers began to shift from the Wei valley and the central plain towards the lower Yangtze basin. Techniques such as planting out seedlings rapidly increased yield. Early ripening varieties and a systematic selection of varieties helped to increase yield. Three important tools were developed to aid in rice cultivation: the chain with paddles which allow water to be transferred among levels, the harrow, and the rice field plough.
The armies of this time consisted of both the aristocrats and the peasants. The aristocrats were used in the north and were very important in fighting the nomads, because they were the only people who had horses and were accomplished cavalrymen. Horses were incredibly important, and grew in numbers steadily until there were 700,000 horses on record. The horse was the only way to fight the nomads. The peasants on the other hand, were used mainly in the south, where they occupied forts, were used for public works and served as the infantry.
As the Tang grew stronger, they sought to extend their borders and push back the groups who made incursions into their territories. The Tang eventually expanded their empire to include a large area of central Asia all the way into Iran, Manchuria and almost the whole Korean peninsula, and into the Ili valley. The Tang became the greatest power in Asia.
The Tang Dynasty has the distinction of having had the only female empress. A concubine of the Tang Taizong and Tang Gaozong, named Wu Zhao reigned as emperor. She removed the legitimate heir in 690 A.D. and took the throne under the name Emperor Wu Zetian. Her reign is actually a disruption of the Tang dynasty, as she called her dynasty the Zhou. This dynasty lasted for 15 years. She was able to gain power largely as a result of the hidden support of the Buddhist church. They called her a reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Maitreya, a Buddhist savior. She was also powerful as a result of earlier having been influential in placing her relatives in important administrative positions. The peasants especially suffered under her reign as they were heavily taxed and required to pay dues. While the peasants were being devastated, the favorites of the empress and the monasteries enriched themselves and enlarged their states.
Wu Zhao's rule was followed by a Tang restoration and golden age which lasted from 710-755 A.D. Finances were again put in order, along with a restoration of the administration and political life. Reliable censuses were once again taken, and the armies were restored. Poetry became very popular, and while few new forms of poetry were developed, the existing forms of poetry were brought to perfection. At the end of the Tang Dynasty, free verse poetry began to be created. These poems were sung, and often strung together in a continuous series. This is the first step toward developing opera, especially as these poems were often sung as accompaniment to theatrical productions. One of the most common places for these poems to be heard were in the tea houses. The popularity of tea was steadily growing during this period. This is partly evidenced by including tea in one of the state monopolies (793 A.D.) when the state needed to increase its revenue. Other items that were monopolized were salt and alcohol. Of the three monopolies, the salt monopoly was the most profitable.
Unfortunately, the reorganization of the armies also resulted in increased autonomy and power for the military leaders, which eventually led to the destruction of the Tang. The general An Lushan, in 755 A.D. defeated Luoyang and Changan. He died in 757 A.D., but the rebellion was continued under the leadership of Shi Siming.
This rebellion was followed by a retreat from all of the areas that had
been gained and added to the Chinese empire. Internal struggles were similar to those of the Han era, when the eunuchs and the literati began to struggle for power. There was not enough revenue for the state, as taxes were no longer coming in, yet the state armies had to be maintained which was costly. Part of the reason that there were no taxes was that most of the tax revenue was retained by governors who used it to maintain their own armies. The type of tax also changed as the equal land system ended and taxes were again based on people, not on land. Also, trade with other countries steadily diminished.
As in previous periods, the warfare and internal struggles for power made life for the peasants very difficult. A sequence of peasant uprisings beginning in 860 A.D. led to the demise of the Tang Dynasty. The most successful of these uprisings was led by Wang Xianzhi and Huang Chao in 874 A.D. The two led an army of peasants that captured eastern China. The government then issued orders to arm the rest of the country against the rebels; however, this proved to be a misguided order as the newly armed peasants joined rather than fought the rebels. Wang was beheaded, but Huang Chao continued conquering China and eventually made himself emperor of a dynasty he called the Daqi dynasty. This was the first peasant uprising that had ever succeeded. The remaining members of the old government appealed to foreigners for help in overthrowing Huang Chao, and in 885 A.D. the Tang emperor returned to his capital; however, he had lost all power, and war again ensued as others tried to gain control of the empire. This led to a period of division known as the Five Dynasties.
List of Emperors of the Tang Dynasty
Period of Reign
Range of Years
Zhōng Zōng (dismissed by Empress Dowager Wu)
Lǐ Xiǎn or
Ruì Zōng (dismissed by Empress Dowager Wu)
Zhou Dynasty (690 AD – 705 AD) (Continuation of Tang Dynasty)
Zhōng Zōng (second reign)
Lǐ Xiǎn or
Dàhé or Tàihé
Aī Dì or Zhāoxuān Dì