Tang Dynasty China

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Historical outline of the Tang dynasty

Chinese government under the Tang dynasty

Social and economic trends

Religion and thought

Literature and art under the early Tang

China and her neighbours under the Tang

Historical outline of the Tang dynasty

The Foundation of the Tang dynasty

China had been reunited by the Sui dynasty in 589 CE,  after centuries of division. However, the second emperor of the Sui dynasty, emperor Yang, seems to have been a megalomaniac. His grandiose schemes caused misery for millions of peasants forced to labour on his grand public works and fight in his unsuccessful – and very costly – wars.

The emperor Gaozu

Rebellions started to break out in different parts of the country from 613 CE. One of the Sui’s leading generals, Li Yuan, duke of Tang, announced that the Sui had lost the “Mandate of Heaven” to rule, and renounced his allegiance to the dynasty. He defeated many other rebels, or suborned them to his cause, and gained control of northern China. Emperor Wang of Sui fled south, where he was assassinated in 618. Shortly afterwards, Li Yuan proclaimed a new dynasty, the Tang, and took the throne name Gaozu.

He cut back on the more ambitious projects of the Sui, to ease the burden of labour and military service on the peasants. At the same time he kept in place the policies inherited from the Sui designed to benefit the poor, such as the “equal-fields” system and the “ever-normal” granaries.

In 626, Gaozu abdicated in favour of his brilliant son, the emperor Taizong.

The emperor Taizong

The second Tang emperor, Taizong (reigned 626-49), was one of the most famous figures in Chinese history. He had played a prominent role in the rebellions against the Sui (in fact, later tradition would credit him with being the instigator and leader of the rebellion), and after the Sui had been ousted he had jointly ruled the empire with his father.

As emperor, he governed the empire with vigour and justice, conscientiously seeking the advice of his ministers. Under him the empire greatly expanded its borders, with the Turks of central Asia as far as Afghanistan being subdued. Taizong also brought Tibet to acknowledge Tang overlordship. However, like his Sui predecessors, he failed to subdue the Koreans.

The empress Wu

Taizong’s son, the emperor Gaozong (reigned 649-83) fell under the spell of a concubine, the Lady Wu. She soon became the power behind the throne, ruling first in the name of her husband, then of her two sons in succession. Finally she assumed the throne in her own right (the only woman in Chinese history to do so) and ruled until she was forced to abdicate in 705.

Determined to have complete control over government, she dealt ruthlessly with senior officials who opposed her. She employed informers as a weapon against them, and she presided over what amounted to a reign of terror at court. She would be vilified by later Chinese historians, who abhorred the idea of a woman ruling China, but she was clearly a very capable woman. Under her, China’s borders were further expanded, reaching as far as western central Asia (the Oxus and Jaxartes regions). She also succeeded, more by diplomacy than war, in bringing Korea into tributary status with China.

Internally, she promoted highly educated men of humble origins to important posts, and broadened the scope of the examination system. Though the majority of senior officials remained members of the landowning aristocracy, standards of administration remained at as high a level under her rule as they would ever by during the Tang period.

The emperor Xuanzong

After empress Wu’s abdication there were several years of in-fighting between members of the imperial family, but in 712 another capable ruler came to the throne, the emperor Xuanzong (reigned 712-762).

Abroad, Xuanzong’s reign saw Tang armies move as far west as they would ever go. However, they met defeat at the hands of an Arab army on the Talas river (751). One important outcome of this battle, little noticed at the time but of great significance for the future of the Middle East and Europe, seems to have been that some Chinese soldiers captured by the Arabs passed on the techniques of paper-making, which had been developed in China more than 600 years before, to their new Arab masters. From them, this very important technology would spread to Europe.

At home, Xuanzong presided over perhaps the most intellectually brilliant court in Chinese history. Some of the most famous of China’s poets were at work there (for more, see below). Xuanzong also established the famous Han Lin Academy in 754, an institution in which the best scholars of the day met at court and were available to for consultation by the government when required, for example on the correct drafting of state documents. This institution would play an important part on later Chinese history.


In his later years Xuanzong fell deeply in love with a beautiful concubine, the Lady Yang. Soon her relatives dominated the court. Standards of government slipped. Provincial governors began to exercise an unprecedented degree of authority over local affairs, and the defences of the empire were neglected. A tribal chieftain in the mountainous region of south-west China declared his independence and founded the Nanzhao kingdom. Military power increasingly passed into the hands of powerful frontier commanders.

In 755, one of these commanders, a favourite of the Lady Yang, revolted. This general, a Turk named An Lushan, marched on the capital and captured it, forcing the court to flee. The emperor was forced to have his concubine executed, and he himself had to abdicate.

It took until 762 for the rebellion to be put down – long years of bitter fighting over a large part of northern China. Chinese forces in central Asia were hurriedly recalled to deal with the crisis, and the Tang empire lost all its control of that vast region. Several other rebellions broke out in different parts of the country. Frontier commanders and provincial governors loyal to the Tang regime were given wide-ranging powers to deal with these threats.

Eventually the rebellions were defeated, and order of a sort returned to China. The Tang court was restored to the capital, but only with the aid of Turkish allies, to whom they were then of course beholden. By then the regions of central Asia conquered by the earlier Sui and Tang emperors had all been lost, and many provinces within China, especially in the north, had become virtually self-governing satrapies.

A weakened dynasty

The central Asian territories remained beyond Tang rule, and although the central government was eventually able to assert a greater degree of authority over some provinces which it had lost during the An Lushan rebellion, it never regained the tight control over the whole of China it had had under the early tang.

Major incursions from beyond the Tang borders by Tibetan and northern tribesmen were a recurrent problem. The Tang government dealt with these largely by employing other “barbarian” tribesmen against them, under their own leaders.

Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the standards of Tang administration declined. A weakened court could not prevent corruption and incompetence from spreading throughout the civil service. These had their inevitable effect when, from the late 9th century onwards, large-scale peasant unrest broke out.

The end of the Tang

Peasant rebellions started breaking out in the second half of the 9th century and one which broke out in 875 would last for seven years, affect the east, centre and south of the country, and in 881 seize the capital, Chang’an, itself. The Tang court again had to flee, and again it could only return with the aid of Turkish allies. From now on the emperors were mere pawns in the hands of rival warlords and foreign invaders. By 900 the dynasty was being propped up by a northern warlord called Zhu Wen (who had in fact come to power as one of the leaders of the great peasant rebellion of 875-82).

In 907 Zhu Wen deposed the last Tang emperor and mounted the throne himself. This was the signal for rival warlords in central and southern China to declare their independence, and the Tang empire simply broke up as the by-now self-governing provinces becoming independent kingdoms. A large part of northern China, however, was occupied by a northern people called the Khitan, who established the Lao kingdom.

Chinese government under the Tang dynasty

The early Tang inherited from the Sui a well-functioning imperial bureaucracy which bound the provinces tightly to the centre, and which, thanks to the Sui’s re-instatement of the examination system, was increasingly staffed by officials of good education and high ability.

The early Tang emperors are noted for the respect they gave the advice given by their ministers. At the very heart of government a cabinet-style of decision-making prevailed, with emperor and ministers sitting down together and thrashing out solutions to the myriad problems which came before them for consideration.

Scholars think that the reason for this was that the Tang emperors came from the same social background as most of their ministers – the northern landowning aristocracy. They shared the same values, culture and way of life – and many of the same family connections.

The situation was not so benign under the later Tang emperors. The cabinet-style government of the early Tang was never properly restored. A series of weak emperors preferred to surround themselves with the palace eunuchs who attended to their personal needs within the their private chambers (the “Inner Court”). These eunuchs became very influential, and came to dominate the imperial court.

Recruitment and promotion of officials

The rudimentary examination system inherited from the Sui was expanded under the Tang. Men putting themselves forward for an official career were now not just from the great landowning families but from lesser landowners – the “gentry” – as well.  Candidates were first screened at county level, and then at prefectural level, before being sent to the capital for the annual examinations.

Those sitting the examinations at the capital came to considerably outnumber successful examinees. However, even those who sat the exams and did not pass could return to their home regions with their prestige enhanced, and able to take up unofficial (but often paid) local government duties, or work as tutors or school teachers.

Successful candidates who obtained a degree were now qualified for official posts. As there were only about 25 such men each year under the early Tang, this was nowhere near enough to fill all the civil service vacancies to be filled. The majority of posts were filled by sons of senior officials, who automatically qualified for an official career, plus lower-ranking officials who were eligible for promotion.

Once appointed, every official was evaluated by his superior on an annual basis. Dossiers were kept on their performance at the ministry of personnel. A consistently good performing official could expect to rise steadily through the civil service. However, under the earlier Tang good family background still counted for much, and the old aristocratic landowning families kept their preponderance in high office. The empress Wu favoured men from outside this charmed circle, but did not break their hold altogether, and they made a comeback after she was gone.

Just as under the Han, the Tang civil service included a department called the Censorate. The job of this office was to ensure that government functioned as intended. When the censors uncovered incompetence or corruption, they had the right to submit their reports directly to the throne.

The civil service proved to be remarkably resilient under the later Tang. In much less benign circumstances, it continued to function very much as it had done before. The examination system, for example, continued to expand. From the 25 degree holders produced annually under the early Tang the number ballooned to about 100 per year. This meant that perhaps half of all officials were “scholar-officials” of this type. Such was the increase in numbers of young men studying for the examinations that a major reason for the development of block printing at this time is credited to the demand for text books. Whether true or not, the publishing of text books was certainly an early use of this technology.

Provincial government

The early Tang inherited the system of provincial government from the Sui, and applied very little change to it. The lowest level of regular government was the county, and above them the prefect. There were some 358 prefectures in China. There was no tier of provincial division between prefectures and central government in the early Tang.

In 711, to make government more efficient, the prefectures were grouped under the supervision of 10 regional commissioners. As time went by, these commissioners gained more and more authority over their regions, and at some point even gained control of the military forces within their territories.

During the chaos of An Lushan’s rebellion and the years that followed, these regional commissioners acquired enormous authority, becoming all-powerful regional governors (see below, defence system). Some succeeded in converting their office into a hereditary rulership of their province, and others even stopped forwarding taxes to the capital. Gradually, however, the central government was able to bring them under a measure of central authority again, though it was never able to control the provinces in the way the early Tang had done.

The defence system

The militia system inherited from the Sui gave the early Tang a well-trained army of soldier-farmers and acted as an effective reserve for the prestigious Northern Army, the standing field army which functioned as an imperial guard and formed the core of major campaign forces.

From the late 7th century onwards, however, the militia proved less and less popular to join, and conscription had to be imposed, causing much ill-feeling. Increasingly, the poorest men in society were induced to sign up as long-term professional soldiers, and sent to serve as frontier troops.

The militia also proved more and more expensive as a way of manning the frontier garrisons. As a result, during the 8th century frontier units came to be largely filled by tribesmen from beyond the frontier. The old militia garrisons of farmer-soldiers were increasingly used only for for local policing duties.

As we noted above, during the first half of the 8th century regional commissioners gained more and more power over the frontiers. With the complete eclipse of central government in the years of An Lushan’s rebellion (755-61), especially in the north, commanders and governors loyal to the Tang were required to raise their own armies in order to restore order. From now on, provincial military forces were effectively the mercenary armies of these commanders. When the central government had to raise an army for a specific campaign, it had to negotiate with these figures for use of their troops. The court also employed “friendly” tribal groups as mercenaries, under their own leaders.

Social and economic trends under the Tang

The early Tang

The early Tang period was a time of prosperity for the people of China. The Tang emperors cut back on the more ambitious projects of their Sui predecessors, so as the ease the burden of labour and military service on the peasants. At the same time they kept in place measures designed to improve the condition of the peasantry. These included the “equal-fields” system, which gave all peasants a large enough share of land to be able to sustain themselves properly on, and the “ever-normal” granaries kept grain prices fair even in times of poor harvest. These helped to keep the mass of the population contented for a long time.

The peace and prosperity of the period is reflected in a sharp growth in population. In the mid-8th century, a census showed that China had a population of nearly 53 million. This was significantly up on the population in Sui times (46 million people), though still down on that for the Han period (at c. 60 million).

The growth in population was not an entirely good thing for the peasantry. The “equal-fields” system began to show signs of strain. In the most densely populated areas there was not enough available land to go round for all families to get a proper allocation. This situation was made worse because large tracts of land were taken out of the system to be given to court favourites or, more commonly, Buddhist temples and monasteries. Nevertheless early Tang times generally saw a contented peasantry and what peasant unrest there was was rare and localized.


The Tang inherited a transport network which had been much improved by the Sui. The newly-constructed Grand Canal lay as its centrepiece but it including many other important canals and an upgraded road system. These all helped the Chinese economy to flourish under the Tang.

Both regional and international trade reached new heights. The conquests of the Tang empire pushed its territory far into central Asia, as we have seen, and as a result the famous trade route across the centre of Asia known as the Silk Road flourished as never before. It brought Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and Christians to China, and communities of foreign merchants appeared in many cities throughout China. The southern ports of Canton also hosted communities of foreign traders, from South Asia, India and Arabia.

The expansion of trade is reflected in the rise in the number and size of towns and cities by mid-Tang times. Whereas the Han empire had had 12 or so cities above 50,000 inhabitants, in a census taken just before the An Lushan rebellion the Tang empire had 26 cities with over half a million inhabitants. Three cities, Chang’an,  Louyang and Ta-ming, had a million or more each.

Chang’an, the capital of the Tang empire, was undoubtedly the largest city in the world at that time, with over two million inhabitants. It must surely have been the most cosmopolitan as well, with ambassadors, merchants, monks, students and entertainers coming from central Asia, Japan, Korea, South East Asia and India. An entire quarter of the city was given over to foreigners, with Jews, Persians, Arabs and even a scattering of Europeans clustered round their own synagogues, mosques and churches – alongside the hundreds of Buddhist temples the city boasted.

The Tang government did much to foster commerce, above all by keeping the canal and road systems in good repair. However, the government tightly regulated markets and trade, which acted as a restraint on the expansion of the commercial sector. It also maintained huge workshops of its own, employing thousands of skilled craftsmen to fulfil the needs of the court, the officials and the army. This obviously restricted the private sector by excluding it from some of the most lucrative parts of the economy.

Social and economic changes under the late Tang

The period of the late Tang dynasty was a time of great change. In fact, seen in the longer perspective, it saw the beginnings of a transition of Chinese society, economy and culture which would last at least to the end of Song times in the late 13th century. This would see a more commercial, more urban, more educated, more technologically advanced but in some ways a more conservative and inward-looking China emerge.

Demographic changes

The An Lushan rebellion led to loss of life on a massive scale in northern China. The catastrophe saw many cities, including the capital, Chang’an and the auxiliary capital, Louyang, left in ruins and emptied of their people. Trade was terribly disrupted, and shrank dramatically in this region. Large swathes of countryside were devastated. A new wave of mass migration took place as people fled the violence for more peaceful locations in southern China.

The An Lushan rebellion thus reinforced a long term demographic trend already evident in China. In Han times the south had been a thinly-peopled frontier region, but during the centuries of division there had occurred large-scale migrations from the turbulent north. In these years of the An Lushan rebellion such was the scale of the demographic change that by the time order had been restored, China’s population, which before had been split two thirds to one third in favour of the north, was more or less equally divided between north and south.

Peasants and landowners

At the time of the An Lushan rebellion the “equal-fields” system ceased to operate in the north. In fact, as it relied upon a vigorous oversight by the government, it fell into sharp decline throughout China as a whole.  In 780, the government openly recognized this state of affairs by giving up any pretence of maintaining the system.

The peasants were now the owners of the plots they farmed, able to buy and sell land as they wished. Some prospered, but many, lacking financial reserves, soon got into financial difficulties, and had to sell their plots to become tenants to neighbouring landowners. Some landowners used their local power to encroach on peasants’ plots, and officials did little to stop them.

One group of landowners, however, never again reached the heights they had enjoyed before. This was the class of great aristocrats of northern China, from which the Tang family had originally sprung and which had dominated China socially and politically up to the mid-8th century. The members of this group were seriously weakened by the An Lushan rebellion and the associated anarchy, which hit the Yellow River region (where their estates were mostly concentrated) particularly hard. As a result, many of these families were impoverished, or eliminated altogether. Although the northern aristocracy as a class did not disappear at this time, it was permanently weakened.

Economic expansion in the south

The south was not hit nearly as hard by the great rebellion as the north. Orderly government continued here, with central government not losing its control to nearly the same degree. Its economy soon recovered. This paved the way for the economic centre of gravity in China shifted decisively southwards under the late Tang. The commercial cities of the region became much larger and more prosperous than they had been before. Large communities of foreign merchants became established in them. At the same time, Chinese merchants became more active in overseas trade, establishing communities throughout south east Asia. Some began developing direct trading links with India and the Middle East, and even perhaps as far as East Africa.

At the same time, interregional trade within China expanded in late Tang times. The Grand Canal seems to have come into its own at this time, and towns and cities along its course flourished as never before.

Many of the regulations on commercial activities in force under the early Tang were abandoned by the weaker late Tang regime. This had the effect of freeing trade from many official restrictions and allowing it to flourish more. Some industries remained under government control, however, notably tea, salt and porcelain. The control of salt, in particular, was a major source of revenue for the government.

Technological advances of the later Tang period

The later Tang period was one of significant technological advance in China, with a number of innovations first being recorded (and probably first occurring) at this time.

Wood block printing came into use in around 868. Scholars think that it was originally developed by Buddhist monks to print prayers. Later, the court used printing to make Confucian texts more widely available, to meet the demand from those studying for the official examinations.

An innovation connected to the development of printing was the introduction of paper money. The growth of interregional trade under the late Tang (see below, Additional notes, society and economics) had created the problem of carrying large quantities of metal cash around, which was heavy and expensive to do. Some merchants therefore took to setting up banking facilities and issuing deposit certificates which could be exchanged for cash. The government eventually started issuing deposit certificates of its own, which it printed. These soon became items for exchange in their own right, and began circulating as a form of money.

Gunpowder was invented in this period by a Daoist alchemist. It would, however, used only in fireworks for the next two hundred years or so.

Another technical advance with great promise for the future was the development of true porcelain ceramics. China had a long history of making fine pottery, but the breakthrough to manufacturing translucent porcelain would allow a major industry to thrive, producing porcelain for both export and for sale within China.

Religion and thought under the Tang

Buddhism increased its hold on all levels of Chinese society under the early Tang – indeed it was at this time that this religion reached its peak of influence in China, particularly amongst the ruling classes.

During Taizong’s reign, a famous Buddhist traveller, Xuanzang, went on a mission to India, from whence (17 years later) he brought back many Buddhist texts (as well as relics and statues). He spent the rest of his life in an monastery translating them into Chinese. His were he most accurate translations up to that date, and. along with his commentaries, raised the Chinese understanding of Buddhist teaching considerably.

Buddhist monasteries continued to grow in wealth during this period. Nevertheless, Confucianism remained the official ideology of the imperial government, as it had under the Sui; and Confucian texts remained the primary subject for study for official exam candidates.

Little by little, however, forces began moving against the religion, which became apparent in later Tang times. Most importantly, the vast wealth controlled by Buddhist monasteries became too tempting a target for a cash-strapped government in this period. Buddhism was persecuted on a national scale in the years from 841 to 845. The vast majority of monasteries throughout China were closed, their monks and nuns (a quarter of a million of them) returned to ordinary life, and their lands returned to the tax registers.

Buddhist public institutions never recovered from this attack. However, Buddhism had gained too firm a hold on the hearts and minds of the Chinese people at large. It remained a popular religion in the towns and villages of China right down to the 20th century.

Perhaps linked to the decline of institutional Buddhism, the late Tang period saw the first stirrings of a revival of Confucianism. It had never lost its place as the state ideology, but as a source of spirituality or intellectual interest it had long been dormant. In this period some scholars began to insist that the Confucian teachings were the true basis for Chinese civilization, and began to reformulate its teachings. This movement reached its peak under the Song dynasty.

Literature and Art under the early Tang

The emperor Xuanzong presided over perhaps the most intellectually brilliant court in Chinese history. A group of poets known as the “Eight Immortals”, who recited poetry together over cups of wine, and amongst whose numbers were two of the most famous poets in Chinese literature, Li Yuan and Tu Fu, enjoyed the patronage of this cultivated emperor. It is likely, also, that the famous drama “The Pear Tree” was written at the imperial court at this time.

Many other poets flourished in China, making the Tang dynasty a glorious period for Chinese literature. In calligraphy, too, the Tang period was a time of pioneering achievement, with the skilful use of brush and ink becoming an art form.

China and her neighbours under the Tang

The early Tang period saw China push out her borders further than they had ever been, and exerting unparalleled influence over her neighbours. The An Lushan rebellion of the mid-8th century destroyed this influence and shrunk her borders back to the core areas of China.

The early Tang period

Central Asia

In the 6th century the Turks, up till that time minor players in the turbulent world of the steppe nomads, had become the leading power, with other tribes in a vast area from the Pacific to the Caspian Sea acknowledging their overlordship. It was an unstable realm (if such it can be called), and in 581 it had spilt into two halves, east and west.

The Eastern Turks had at first allied themselves with the Sui. But soon they began raiding Chinese territory in a (successful) bid to extort trade privileges and lavish gifts. Under the emperor Taizong, however, a combination of brilliant diplomacy (sowing division amongst the Turks) and intense military pressure overthrew the Turkish khagan and brought the Turks under Tang rule. The Turkish chieftains took Chinese bureaucratic titles, and Taizong himself was elected their khagan. Fighting side by side with Chinese troops they helped the Tang conquer deep into central Asia.

Given the nature of steppe politics, however, this was a situation which could not last. In the early 8th century the Eastern Turks renounced their allegiance to the Tang and resumed raiding. Shortly after this, however, in the 740s, their power was overthrown by the Uighurs.


Tibet had become a unified kingdom in the early 7th century. Buddhism had entered the kingdom from India long before this, but it was only under Chinese influence in early Tang times (the Tang sent a princess to marry the Tibetan king, and she was accompnaied by a Buddhist mission) that it became firmly established.

From the mid-7th century, Sino-Tibetan relations were characterized by repeated outbreaks of hostilities, with Tibetan forces raiding the border areas of the Tang empire. The Tibetans became a serious threat to Tang control of central Asia, and they were obliged to mount several large-scale campaigns against them. By 755 a spectacular Chinese victory had made for peace between the two countries.

Korea and Japan

The Tang period was the one in which Chinese civilization had a more overt impact on the civilizations on its neighbours than at any other time in its history. However, as we shall see, China’s influence was by no means limited to that period; it was persistent and continuous from ancient times right up to modern times.

By Tang times, both Korea and Japan had developed literate civilizations, with scripts were based on Chinese characters. Buddhism had also been introduced by this time, coming from China to Korea in the 4th century CE and from Korea to Japan in the mid-6th century CE. A host of other technologies had also passed from China to these two countries over the centuries – crops (both societies had economies based on wet rice growing), irrigation techniques, metallurgy, paper-making and a host of other innovations.

First under the Sui, and much more so under the Tang, both Korea (which the Tang helped unify under the kingdom of Silla) and Japan took deliberate steps to model their governmental structures along Chinese lines. The unification of China under a single government awed these much smaller nations, and convinced them that China was the source of all high culture. They sent numerous embassies to the Tang court (in Korea’s case, 48 between 703 and 738 CE), and Korean and Japanese students, monks and other visitors were a constant presence in the capital, while communities of their merchants were to be found in Chinese ports. Both countries imported Tang bureaucratic institutions wholesale into their own societies, complete with a Confucian-based examination system. Both adopted Confucianism as their state ideology. Japan even put into practice the equal-fields system.

China’s southwest

The area of present-day northern Vietnam came under Sui and Tang rule. The same was true of the southwest of China, today’s province of Yunnan, but this was largely inhabited by indigenous peoples, and the Tang left them under their own chiefs. By this time Buddhism had become the dominant religion here, coming in from Burma.

In early Tang times one of these chieftains had been allowed to come to dominate the others; his kingdom, Nanzhao, was a client state of the Tang. Or so they supposed. In the late 740s Nanzhao started raiding Chinese territory in eastern Yunnan. In 751 a Tang army was sent to bring this pesky kingdom to heal. The Chinese army was soundly defeated. The Tang court was preparing a more robust response when events engulfed it.

The late Tang period

Central Asia

The Uighurs, who in the 740s had overthrown the Eastern Turks and replaced them as the leading tribal group on the central Asian steppes, proved to be consistent allies of the Tang; it was largely through their aid that the An Lushan rebellion was put down. They extorted a high price, however: they demanded very high payments of silk in exchange for the horses they sold the Chinese. In fact, this indirectly benefitted China. In selling the silk on in the Middle East and the Byzantine empire, the Uighurs earned sufficient funds to enable their khaghan to buy the loyalty of subordinate chiefs. He even set up the rudiments of a literate bureaucracy (who used a distinctive Uighur script developed at this time).

The nature of steppe society meant that no power could be dominant for long (at least not before the Mongols) and the Uighur empire fell apart in the 840s. This left the Tang in a weakened position, and it was not long before they were in their death throws as well.


The An Lushan rebellion meant that the Tang could not benefit from their great victory over the Tibetans in 755, and the latter took the opportunity to occupy a large area of north east China, and sacked the Tang capital of Chang’an in 763. They eventually withdrew from Chinese territory, but were to repeat their raids on and off into the 9th century. However, in the 840s the kingdom of Tibet fell apart, nullifying Tibetan power ever after.

The Southwest

The An Lushan rebellion meant that the Tang were never able to bring Nanzhao to heal, and confirmed it as an independent kingdom. This kingdom would continue to expand its borders at Chinese expense. At the same time, though, the ruling class of Nanzhao would become more and more Sinified in their culture.

Korea and Japan

With the weakening of Tang power, the influence of Chinese civilization began to weaken in both Korea and Japan.

In both countries, a powerful landowning aristocracy asserted more control over their societies at the expanse of royal government. The competitive examinations, which the aristocracy saw as a threat to their hold on government, were discontinued, and Confucianism, which they had never really taken to their hearts, lost its place as official ideology of state.

In Korea, bureaucratic government would remain a feature of successive regimes ever after, even if usually dominated by the aristocracy; and both Confucianism and Buddhism would remain important elements within Korean culture, with Buddhism predominating (unlike in China).

In Japan, centralized, bureaucratic government would disappear, unable to cope with the demands of the mountainous terrain and the local power bases that that encouraged. In due course Japanese society would fragment amongst a host of aristocratic fiefs. Confucianism would always retain a strong influence within Japanese culture, however, and Buddhism, mingling with local belief systems and practices, would go on to form an important element within the Japanese national religion, Shintoism.

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