Retrospect
Journal.

EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY'S HISTORY, CLASSICS AND ARCHAEOLOGY MAGAZINE

An Lushan and the Fall of China’s Golden Age 

The An Lushan Rebellion marked a watershed in Tang history, a disruption of what was considered one of China’s greatest empires of the pre-modern period. Prior to the rebellion, the Tang enjoyed over a century of prosperity, reaping the benefits of North and South China’s reunification under the earlier Sui dynasty. Economic growth massively expanded with the construction of a new Grand Canal that linked the two ends of China together, while the creation of two new cosmopolitan capitals, Chang’an and Luoyang, encouraged cross-cultural interactions with tributary states in Central Asia, alongside Japan and Korea. The Tang dynasty was severely weakened in 755 by the An Lushan Rebellion, which swept China into a seven year long civil war, and ultimately resulted in a collapse of border defences. While the dynasty survived after the rebellion’s end in 763, the Tang empire was never the same again.  

The Tang dynasty began with the victorious rebellion of Li Yuan over the Sui Dynasty, becoming the Emperor Gaozu. His son Li Shimin ascended the throne as Emperor Taizong after forcing his father to abdicate and murdering his two brothers. Despite this violent start, his rule proved to be a successful one. In 630, Chinese efforts against the Eastern Turkic Khaganate over the occupation of Ordos and southwestern Mongolia won Taizong the title of Great Khan and created opportunities for Chinese-Turkish expeditions into the silk route cities between 640 and 650. With the eastern Turkish threat extinguished, the emperor focused on the westward expansion of China, relying on the military skills of the former Northern Zhou state to make China the dominant power in Asia. Within China, the emperor began a period of standardising and codifying institutions of political control as a means of establishing a sophisticated bureaucracy. Central control was asserted over local government; the Tang’s code of law was unified by incorporating both northern and southern legal traditions, and the court aristocracy was adjusted to represent regional difference proportionally. Most famously, Taizong implemented an examination system for civil servants to ensure that those appointed would be aligned with Confucian morals. This system also helped to standardise any differences between elites from different regions and integrated them with one another. Other notable emperors of the dynasty include Wu Zetian, who was the first and only female emperor, and Xuanzong, who ruled at the peak of cultural affluence from 712 to 756. 

Tang is most famously a period of culture flourishing, and this can be attributed to its cosmopolitan capitals, and improvement in domestic communications as a result of the Grand Canal’s construction between 605 and 609. The canal had initially linked the eastern capital of Luoyang to the Yangzi valley, but was later extended to Hangzhou in the south, and further north of Beijing, accounting for almost 1,200 miles of extended canal. Water transportation blossomed, as the canal became the artery of the interflow of commodities between the north and south, and with it, the shipbuilding industry also grew – some merchant ships were so big that they were described as having ‘even gardens and hundreds of operators on it.’ Beyond interregional trade, the Tang’s two capitals brought pilgrims, merchants and envoys from the rest of Asia, who brought with them goods including jewels and textiles, but also new ideas. For example, the introduction of new instruments and tunes from India, Iran and Central Asia transformed the nature of Chinese music. The popularisation of the Buddhist religion from India also happened in the Tang: different sects began to rise among the elites such as the Chan school, Buddhist monasteries were established and served a multitude of roles, while stories of Buddhist origin began to spread among the common people, resulting in the creation of a holy ghost festival. Other cultural practices rose in popularity: Calligraphy became a fine art practice of social eminence and was a means of expressing one’s feelings; poetry thrived under Emperor Xuanzong’s academy for poets, in which renown writer Li Bai served and wrote poems of the beautiful imperial parks; woodblock printing enabled Buddhist monks to mass-produce religious texts and hence permeate Tang culture; and love stories of young literati being seduced by courtesans became widespread and certainly shaped Tang understandings of male-female relations. Thus, the Tang period embraced different cultures and cultural expression, both from within the nation and outside of China proper. In fact, the Tang dynasty’s cultural excellence was so impressive that it was copied by rulers in Japan and Korea as a framework for strong political centres. However, just decades after its peak, the Tang was damaged by an unexpected force.  

An Lushan was the commander of the north-eastern frontier of emperor Xuanzong’s forces. He enjoyed being a favourite of the emperor, who frequently appointed him to high-ranking offices and went as far as to dub him a prince. However, in 755 An feared he had fallen out of the emperor’s favour. Xuanzong became increasingly occupied with his concubine and lover, Yang Guifei, and promoted many of her family members to high positions of government. One of these members was Yang Guifei’s cousin, Chief Minister Yang, who was allegedly plotting to remove An from power. An, plagued with paranoia and desperate to sustain his power, rose in revolt against the emperor. He seized the Grand Canal with 150,000 troops and subsequently cut off its supplies from the imperial court. Ten days later, An successfully seized Luoyang, which triggered imperial forces to leave their positions at the Yellow River in order to confront An’s army. With the Yellow River’s defence lost, An was able to seize Chang’an, which left the emperor with no other option but to flee, and letting his heir to abdicate. Though An died soon after due to an illness, the rebellion plunged China into three years of civil war. The Tang managed to recover its capitals, and suppress An’s successors by 763, however by this stage, the effects of the rebellion proved devastating.  

An Lushan’s actions had demonstrated the Tang’s military weaknesses, and the Tibetans took advantage. In 763, they invaded east Canton on the Pearl River, where they maintained control for five years. Seven years later, they temporarily seized Chang’an, forcing the court to flee once more, and continued to attack the capital even after this, forcing the Tang government to declare martial law on four separate occasions. During this time, the throne was forced to call upon the help of the Uighur Turks in return for an opportunity to gain a powerful position within Chang’an for many decades thereafter. This resulted in many instances of violence, as the Uighurs killed thousands of people and set buildings ablaze. Beyond the precocious relations the Tang had with the Tibetans and Uighurs, the rebellion caused internal problems, as authority became increasingly decentralised. The governors of autonomous provinces defied the central government by appointing their own supporters as officials and even levied illegal taxes. The imperial court had little military power to stop this from happening. The economy also plummeted following An Lushan’s seizure of the Grand Canal, and this had lasting effects. The court began to charge for titles of nobles, bureaucrats, and government posts in an effort to raise funds, the traditional taxation and land systems broke down, and the central government had to increasingly rely on the salt monopoly to drive economic growth. The rebellion further brought an age of great ruin in northern China, where armies destroyed places of culture including libraries and art, as well as abducting entertainers.  

While the Tang dynasty was briefly stabilised by Emperor Xianzong in 805, it became evident that it had reached its full dynastic cycle. What the Tang resembled by 860 was nothing like its golden age prior to the rebellion. Cross-cultural relations had been disrupted by the constant rebellions, and paranoia on behalf of the emperors who were desperate to maintain control. Perhaps the decline in Tang culture can be best explained in the instance of the rebel leader Huang Chao, who ordered the deaths of 3,000 poets in the 870s upon reading a poem that criticised his regime – the age of poetry vanished. Fortunately, the age of literature and arts was renewed by the Tang dynasty’s successor, the Song, particularly developments in architecture and porcelain. While the An Lushan Rebellion stifled the cultural developments of the Tang dynasty, there is no doubt that there was a golden age of culture before 755, characterised by cosmopolitan cities, foreign influence, and a rise in the arts. 

Written by Kat Jivkova

Bibliography:  

Benn, Charles D. China’s Golden Age : Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty / Charles Benn. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China / Patricia Buckley Ebrey. Second edition. Cambridge, [England: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 

Fu, Chonglan., and Wenming. Cao. Introduction to the Urban History of China by Chonglan Fu, Wenming Cao. 1st ed. 2019. Singapore: Springer Singapore, 2019. 

HISTORY. ‘Tang Dynasty.’ [Online]. [Accessed on 15 November]. 

https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-china/tang-dynasty

Hung, Hing Ming. Li Shi Min, Founding the Tang Dynasty: Strategies That Made China the Greatest Empire in Asia. New York: Algora Publishing, 2013. 

Skaff, Jonathan Karam. “Barbarians at the Gates? The Tang Frontier Military and the An Lushan Rebellion.” War & society 18, no. 2 (2000): 23–35. 

Written by Kat Jivkova

Bibliography:  

Benn, Charles D. China’s Golden Age : Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty / Charles Benn. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China / Patricia Buckley Ebrey. Second edition. Cambridge, [England: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 

Fu, Chonglan., and Wenming. Cao. Introduction to the Urban History of China by Chonglan Fu, Wenming Cao. 1st ed. 2019. Singapore: Springer Singapore, 2019. 

HISTORY. ‘Tang Dynasty.’ [Online]. [Accessed on 15 November]. 

https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-china/tang-dynasty

Hung, Hing Ming. Li Shi Min, Founding the Tang Dynasty: Strategies That Made China the Greatest Empire in Asia. New York: Algora Publishing, 2013. 

Skaff, Jonathan Karam. “Barbarians at the Gates? The Tang Frontier Military and the An Lushan Rebellion.” War & society 18, no. 2 (2000): 23–35. 

  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: