The Tang Dynasty is generally held to be one of the chief Golden Ages of Chinese history, and marks the beginning of Imperial China as a truly influential political model and cultural center for all of East Asia. It was the high point of Buddhism in China, and was the period, coinciding with the late Asuka, Nara, and early Heian periods of Japanese history, when Buddhism was introduced to Japan. Numerous elements of Japanese Imperial government, including architectural styles, the layout of Imperial capitals, and governmental structures and legal codes (e.g. the Taika Reform of 645), were based upon Tang Dynasty models.
While the Han Dynasty is referenced in Japanese terms such as kanji ("Chinese characters," literally "Han characters"), it is the Tang Dynasty which represents China or Chinese culture in many other terms, including Tôjinmachi ("Chinatown"), Tôsen ("Chinese ships" or "Asian ships"), and karamono ("imported goods" or "fancy foreign products").
The Tang Imperial family, related to that of the preceding Sui Dynasty through a maternal link, was partially of non-Han (i.e. nomadic steppe pastoralist) descent, and so was looked down upon to some extent by aristocratic Han Chinese families of northeastern China. However, the Tang also claimed descent from the founding Daoist master Laozi in order to shore up its claims of legitimacy (albeit with limited or falsified evidence). In terms of political culture, the Tang marks the beginning of an important shift away from more focused ritual attention to Imperial ancestors, towards Imperial rites aimed more inclusively at the well-being of the state, and its people, as a whole. Further, the idea of the people as a metaphorical family, with the emperor as their father, was re-emphasized and made more prominent.
The Tang built upon political structures established by the Sui, developing further standards which would serve as standard models not only for later Chinese dynasties, but for Korean and Japanese states as well. These included the establishment of six ministries which formed the central administration of the Imperial state: a Ministry of Rites, one of Personnel, one of Revenue, one of War, one of Justice, and one of Public Works. Further, the network of granaries and schools was expanded, and the Sui legal code adapted to form a series of primary laws, meant to be maintained indefinitely as a fundamental law of the state, not unlike a constitution, and a series of secondary laws, which could be changed as conditions necessitated.
The Tang Empire covered a larger expanse of territory than any previous dynasty, extending into modern-day Vietnam in the south, and as far as the oasis towns of Turfan and Dunhuang in the northwest. Some of these areas would not again be controlled by China until the Qing Dynasty. The Tang ruled this vast territory populated by perhaps as many as 60 million people from its capital at Chang'an, employing a government administration of only 17,000 officials and 50,000 clerks. Many counties, inhabited by as many as 25-30,000 people, were administered by only a single magistrate and a staff of roughly 5-15 assistants and clerks. Prior to the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), the Court maintained extensive registries of families throughout the provinces, performing frequent demographic and land surveys, information which was used for taxation purposes, and to redistribute land in the so-called equal-field system. The Court never managed, however, after the Rebellion, to regain the same level of power or control over the provinces, and many of its administrative programs fell apart.
By the mid-9th century, the Tang was much weakened and divided, and plagued by bandits and other groups competing for power. Perhaps the most significant rebellion of this period was the Huang Chao Rebellion, led initially by Wang Xianzhi and later by Huang Chao, who captured Guangzhou in 879, and Chang'an the following year; his seizure of Chang'an is said to have been particularly bloody. With the help of the Shatuo Turks, the dynasty survived and limped along, until its final collapse in 907.
Emperors of the Tang
- Emperor Gaozu of Tang (618-626)
- Emperor Taizong of Tang (626-649)
- Emperor Gaozong of Tang (650-683)
- Emperor Zhongzong of Tang (683-684)
- Emperor Ruizong of Tang (684-690)
- Empress Wu of the Zhou Dynasty (690-705)
- Emperor Zhongzong of Tang (second reign, 705-710)
- Emperor Shang of Tang (710)
- Emperor Ruizong of Tang (second reign, 710-712)
- Emperor Xuanzong (712-756)
- Emperor Suzong (756-762)
- Emperor Daizong of Tang (762-780)
- Emperor Dezong of Tang (780-805)
- Emperor Shunzong (805)
- Emperor Xianzong (805-820)
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period
- Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000).
- Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 101-126.
- Using the alternate kara reading for the character otherwise read as Tô (Tang).
- Hansen, 214.
- Gallery labels, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.
- Schirokauer, 124.
- Not to be confused with the Zhou Dynasty, c. 1046–256 BCE.