Thirteen dynasties forged the foundations of traditional Chinese culture between 2070 BC and 1912 AD. Each of them had its unique imprint and contributed with greater or lesser intensity in various areas to shape the greatness of China’s traditional civilization.
In ancient times, when the concept of “nation” was unknown, the boundaries between kingdoms or governments were defined by differences in culture and beliefs. However, the various dynasties maintained and promoted commonalities among themselves, allowing China to develop into a unified, strong, and enduring culture that became the oldest worldwide.
We will focus on the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), widely regarded as the zenith of Chinese civilization due to its prosperity, peace, stability, and international influence unparalleled in previous and subsequent centuries.
Between the 7th and 10th centuries, Tang China was the most powerful empire in Asia. It also produced some of the most extraordinary emperors in Chinese history. They built prosperity and peace while at the same time managing to transfer China’s power to other parts of the world. As a result, its capital, Chang’an, became the largest and most cosmopolitan city globally.
The overall achievements of the Tang Dynasty remain a model and a source of inspiration for many Chinese today.
General Characteristics of the Tang Dynasty
As with most Chinese dynasties, Tang emerged after a period of chaos during the end of the previous era, in this case, the Sui dynasty (581-618 AD).
According to historical records, in 617 AD, Li Shimin urged his father, Li Yuan, king of Tang, to recruit troops in Taiyuan. In just five years, they crushed all the rebellions throughout the empire.
Li Shimin assumed the throne in 626 and took the name of Emperor Taizong of Tang. Over the years, he became recognized as one of the most extraordinary emperors in Chinese history. Noted for his military mastery, capable of commanding a battlefield thousands of miles away, he was also an excellent poet, writer, and calligrapher.
His power was not based on violence and hatred. Far from that, Tang Taizong was unusually tolerant and receptive to constructive criticism and advice, which led him to establish key strategic alliances that allowed him to carry forward the most peaceful and stable period in Chinese history.
The nobility and the common people lived in harmony and happiness, with very low crime rates and limited corruption.
Historical records describe the period as a time when: “Merchants and traders traveled freely without fear of bandits; prisons remained empty, and people did not feel the need to lock their doors; abundant harvests were frequent, and ten liters of rice cost only three to four qian; travelers going from the capital to Lingbiao or from Shandong to the coast did not need to prepare rations, but could always obtain provisions on the way.”
Despite the dynasty’s military might, Taizong succeeded in annexing minority areas, such as present-day Kazakhstan, to China through political negotiations and without the use of violence.
During the Tang years, hospitality and openness towards foreigners were characteristic, which allowed the introduction of much knowledge and techniques that improved several already developed. At the same time, there was a substantial increase in economic and religious exchanges that enriched the whole of China.
This open-minded policy was generated throughout the whole territory, especially in its capital Chang’an, which acquired cosmopolitan characteristics like no other place.
The period from the reign of Tang Taizong to the rule of his descendant, Emperor Xuanzong, marked 130 years of prosperity.
In 755, General An Lushan and his cohort Shi Siming launched a series of revolts that provoked an upheaval that lasted nearly a decade and cost millions of lives. From that point on, a process of progressive weakening began in the central control of the emperors and the bureaucracy, which eventually resulted in the dynasty’s fall.
Religion and politics
The two main religions existing at that time in China, Buddhism and Taoism, as well as the Confucian scriptures, also experienced their most significant years of prosperity and diffusion.
It is said that when the monk Xuanzang returned from his pilgrimage to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from ancient India, he was received by Tang Taizong himself, who personally led the welcoming party and met him at the Zhuque Bridge along with hundreds of civil and military officials to pay him homage.
At the same time, advances in woodblock writing enabled Buddhist monks to transcribe their scriptures on a massive scale for the first time. They were also highly proactive in disseminating Buddhist stories in Chinese popular culture.
Countless religious monasteries also sprang up, which in many cases became part of everyday life and not only a retreat center for cloistered monks. Several functioned as schools, lodgings for travelers, and spaces for political and even business meetings. In this way, all aspects of life were permeated with spirituality and faith.
Taoism was also accepted during the Tang dynasty, as was Buddhism. Monks and clerics of both religions were invited to join the imperial court. At the same time, the image of the ancient Laozi was exalted by granting him great titles of recognition.
To such an extent was the commitment of politics to religion and spiritual values during the Tang dynasty. As a result, the imperial civil service examinations were modified to focus on Confucian teachings, which had their heyday throughout the empire.
The Tang dynasty also officially recognized several foreign religions. For example, the Assyrian Church of the East, also known as the Nestorian Church or the Eastern Church in China, received recognition from the Tang court.
In 781, the Nestorian Stele, a huge rock carving documenting and honoring a century and a half of Christian presence in China, was created. A Christian monastery was also established in Shaanxi province, where Christian-themed artwork still exists.
Economy and the Silk Road
During the Tang years, China incorporated numerous innovative technologies and production techniques that helped to improve its already advanced production system in many areas.
These advances allowed for significant development in the quality of Chinese products, significantly increasing trade with foreign countries.
In particular, silk production improved substantially. The development of the silk textile industry was linked to a complex organization. Its production processes were standardized and regulated, generating a product of great prestige in the markets.
The Western powers of the time were fascinated by the quality of silk, causing trade with the East and West to increase exponentially during the period.
Thousands of travelers from all over the world, including Christians, Jews, and Muslims, arrived daily in China by traveling the Silk Road to trade. Many even stayed to live after being amazed by the beauty of the place and its incredible culture.
Despite the number of travelers that circulated through the region, the strict border laws of the Tang Dynasty and the number of travel permit controls prevented the development of pirates and looters, unlike what happened in other times when circulating through the border areas was an extremely dangerous activity.
Ports and maritime trade also functioned as a source of wealth for the Tang dynasty. The development of the sector was such that, according to historical records of the period, Chinese maritime presence could often be seen in distant corners such as the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, in Persia, Mesopotamia (navigating the Euphrates River in present-day Iraq), Arabia, Egypt in the Middle East and Aksum (Ethiopia) and Somalia in the Horn of Africa.
Silk was the star of Chinese production, but porcelain, ceramics, and pieces wrought in gold and silver also stood out. These products dazzled merchants, monarchs, and prominent people worldwide, causing Chinese products to reach unimaginable places.
Contributions to Art and Poetry
The Tang dynasty moved away from the feudal-type culture so characteristic of earlier northern dynasties, promoting the staunchly civil Confucian style. The governmental system was supported by a large class of Confucian intellectuals selected through rigorous examinations and civil service recommendations.
Taoism and Buddhism also reigned as central ideologies and played a fundamental role in people’s daily lives. All this was reflected in cultural changes and, of course, in art.
Chinese literature and poetry reached their peak during this period to such an extent that about 50,000 poems written by some 2,200 Tang authors have survived to the present day.
The era inspired famous lyricists such as Du Fu, Wang Wei (also an accomplished painter), Li Bai, often considered the most outstanding Chinese poet in history, and many others.
Skill in composing Chinese poetry became a compulsory study for those wishing to pass the imperial examinations. It also became very common for poetry competitions to be held in various settings and festivities in imperial China.
Fiction and stories were also prevalent during Tang China, one of the most famous being Yuan Zhen’s (779-831) “The Biography of Yingying,” which was widely disseminated in its own time and during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) becoming the basis for plays in Chinese opera.
Painting was not left out of the great artistic display during the period. Western art, through trade and Christian missionaries, greatly influenced painters. It generated an interesting fusion that left its legacy through to today.
Landscapes and natural beauties were reflected with much realism in the artwork of the time.
These works of art do not merely depict the natural world; they also enrich the symbolic and metaphorical by being immersed in divine culture and belief in God.
For example, peony flowers represent wealth and luxury. The lotus grows from the mud symbolizing purity and virtue. The medicinal value of the chrysanthemum makes it a symbol of a life of abundant energy. Apricot blossoms do not wither during harsh winters, so they are staged to show patience and perseverance.
The peacock symbolizes divinity and power in bird paintings, the crane symbolizes longevity, and a couple symbolizes love.
Imperial examinations and merit culture
During previous dynasties, it was very common for emperors to choose their officials and rulers based on the degree of trust they had in them, so they usually ended up being relatives or close friends.
On the other hand, the Tang dynasty broke with this tradition. Instead, it implemented the so-called imperial examinations after Emperor Taizong established that all people working for the Tang dynastic order should be qualified to carry out the functions of the position in question.
Thus two types of examinations were established; The mingjing, “enlightening the classics,” and the jinshi, “presented scholar.” The mingjing sought to test the student’s knowledge of the Confucian classics by testing him on a wide variety of texts.
The jinshi sought to test the applicants’ literary skills by writing essays in the form of answers to questions on matters of government and politics while being required to demonstrate their skills in composing poetry.
Candidates were also judged on their protocol skills, appearance, speech, and calligraphy skill level.
Another interesting point that set the Tang dynasty apart from previous dynasties and Western empires is that the examinations were open to anyone recommended, regardless of the economic status of the family of origin.
The Tang government established public schools to promote general Confucian education throughout the land.
According to legend, after Li Shimin, Prince Qin of the Tang dynasty, left the throne as emperor, the people who worked for him complained that they had served Prince Qin for many years but had never been promoted.
Then Emperor Taizong told them: “An Emperor must lead and rule without selfishness. We work for the people. We have to consider how the people will benefit when we establish administrations, and therefore we must choose capable and virtuous people to run the offices. How can we promote our subordinates without taking into account whether they are capable and meet the requirements?” Those who had complained were moved by Emperor Taizong’s words and continued to serve him by doing their best.
Such virtue on the part of a political leader can have no other effect than to have his officials, and then the people respond in kind. It is undoubtedly because of this kind of attitude that China achieved its maximum splendor in practically all social, political, and cultural aspects during the Tang Dynasty.
The end of the dynasty was not as the CCP tells it.
China has enjoyed some 5000 years of glorious civilization, with moments of greater and lesser unity and better or worse levels of wealth, but always governed by upright values, aiming at the constant improvement of the empire, its people, and its culture.
However, not all Chinese today are aware of the historical truth of their country. Under the dictatorial rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), historical education in mainland China has become a set of Marxist theories about the views it is interested in emphasizing, leading young Chinese to draw erroneous conclusions that Chinese history boils down to a simple set of peasant rebellions.
The CCP has persisted in imposing the idea that the dynasties were “feudal in character” and that the rich and noble class, royal family members, officials, landlords, etc., have constantly oppressed the poor peasants. Thereby peasants were forced to continually rebel against power until a new dynasty was formed.
This is the typical Marxist reductionist analysis of history in general. But unfortunately, the CCP has done nothing other than repeat this basic format in arguing that this process is the main engine of China’s historical development.
This simplistic argument from history has been used by communism in general and by the CCP, in particular, to argue for their most terrible outrages on legitimate governments on which they imposed their dictatorships in the supposed representation of the impoverished peasants and industrial workers.
The period from the reign of Tang Taizong to the rule of his descendant, Emperor Xuanzong, marked 130 years considered the period of greatest prosperity in Chinese cultural civilization.
This golden age could not last forever. But most students in China in their indoctrination process are taught that the soldier Huang Chao rebelled on behalf of the poor and organized an army of his own and brought about the fall of the Tang dynasty.
However, classical history details that Huang Chao never established a unified dynasty. Instead, he formed a government of pirates and assassins, who plundered everywhere and only managed to stay in the capital Chang’an for about three years.
Records indicate that Emperor Zhaozong, already weakened and deceived by some corrupt ministers, lost dynastic power after being betrayed by the regional governor Zhu Wen.
Consequently, it can be affirmed that human corruption ultimately led to the fall of the dynasty and not a peasant revolt provoked by the “exploitation of the rich,” as the CCP pretends to impose.