“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 5)

Great Changes: The Tang-Song Transition (First Half)

From one extreme to the other – this chapter of my book is so long I’ve actually split it into two and this post is about the first half. This covers the Sui and Tang dynasties of China (and the immediate aftermath of the Tang), and about 400 years from 581AD to 960AD.

Orientation Dates: The first Archbishop of Canterbury took office in 597AD. Offa was king of Mercia (one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain) form 757AD to 796AD. The first recorded Viking attack on England was in 793AD. Charlemagne (the first Holy Roman Emperor) lived from 742AD to 814AD. Alfred the Great ruled Wessex (another Anglo-Saxon kingdom) from 871AD to 899AD. Aethelstan (grandson of Alfred the Great) was the first king of the whole of England, and he died in 939AD.

So around the time that the various Anglo Saxon kingdoms were dealing with the Vikings (and with each other), and that the Holy Roman Empire was being established in Europe, the Chinese were enjoying a period of (mostly) unity and a cultural golden age.

The Sui Dynasty

The Sui Dynasty consists of only two emperors – the first unified China again after the fragmentation of the previous centuries, and the second (his son) allowed it to disintegrate again until he was usurped by the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty.

Sui Wendi took the throne of the Northern Zhou Dynasty in 581AD, and immediately began to fulfil his ambition of re-unifying China. In 589AD he succeeded with this by deposing the last ruler of the Eastern Jin Dynasty in the south. His second son Yang Guang was involved in this victory and became the top administrator of the southern part of the re-unified country. He wasn’t the heir apparent, but in 604AD he became the Emperor Sui Yangdi after his father died in suspicious circumstances. He ruled until 618AD when a palace coup amid widespread uprisings lead to his death & the end of the Sui Dynasty.

Wendi founded his capital city of Chang’an to the southwest of the previous capital city in the region – for feng shui reasons. These principles also underlay the layout of the city, where the temples and other ritual buildings were, where the palaces were, where the residential districts were etc. Chang’an was the capital city throughout most of the next 400 years. Not to be outdone Yangdi founded his own capital city further to the east of China called Luoyang – this was a secondary capital during most of the period.

During the Sui Dynasty a lot of authority was centralised, to reduce the risk of rebellion by outlying provinces. Yangdi continued his father’s domestic policy in this respect, but was a lot less frugal and engaged in lavish programmes of public works. These relied on corvée labour (which was a part of the tax system that Wendi had set up), and the abuse of this is part of what lead to the collapse of the Sui dynasty. As well as his new capital one of the big building projects that Yangdi embarked on was the Grand Canal of China. This was a network of four canals that stretched 1,465 miles, linking the north & south of the country (towards the eastern coast).

Wendi’s foreign policy and military campaigns were fairly single minded – focussed on unifying China, he mostly made sure that the Turkic Qaghanates to the north & north-east of China couldn’t interfere with his plan. One exception to this was Wendi’s attempted conquest of Koguryô (which is in modern day Korea). Wendi failed & Yangdi launched three campaigns to try & achieve this goal but also failed. The first of these (in 612) involved an army of 1.13 million men – the population of China at the time was 46 million. The scale of these armies added to the forced labour for the building works took a toll on the economy of the country (and on the society) and is another part of what lead to Yangdi’s downfall. The Tang eventually succeeded in conquering Koguryô.

The Tang Dynasty

The first emperor of the Tang dynasty had been a garrison commander under Sui Yangdi, controlling a region of northern China within striking distance of both Chang’an and Luoyang. When Yangdi’s rule started to falter Li Yuan and his two sons captured Chang’an. At first Li Yuan was content to be the power behind the throne – deposing Yangdi and putting his young grandson on the throne as a puppet ruler. But shortly afterwards he took power himself and ruled as Emperor Gaozu, the first of the Tang Dynasty. He had to fight several campaigns to re-unify a disintegrating China, which he succeeded in doing in 624AD.

The biggest difference between the Sui Dynasty policies & Emperor Gaozu’s policies were the way he handled the army. As he’d come to the throne by exploiting the power his army post gave him he took steps to make sure this wouldn’t happen again. He split up the existing 12 armies into over 600 smaller units of 800-1200 soldiers, who were under central command and whose postings were frequently rotated. This prevented personal loyalties to generals or areas building up.

Tang Dynasty Jug
Tang Dynasty Pot

Other than that Gaozu generally continued the policies of the Sui – including basing his new legal and administrative codes on the Sui code, and continuing their Equal Fields system of land distribution. This was a form of centralised control over land ownership (and so limited the size of estates that could be built up). The basic idea was that an annual census was taken, and then land allocated equally to each male taxpayer – a complicated system for a pre-modern society, but despite the doubts of many historians documents have been found showing that it did happen.

Gaozu’s reign ended after he attempted to restrict the power of the Buddhist & Daoist clerics – after ordering a severe reduction in the number of monasteries permitted in the capital he was briskly deposed by his second son, Li Shimin, probably with the support of the Buddhist clergy. Li Shimin is better known as Tang Taizong, and his 23 year reign was known as “Excellent Governance of True Vision” and was a golden age for the Tang Dynasty. Because he’d come to power by violence he was keen to show that he valued Confucian ethics, and founded schools and colleges as well as strengthening the examination system for appointing members of the bureaucracy. But he also had a martial side and conquered various of the Turkish peoples – as well as styling himself in the traditional Confucian fashion as Son of Heaven he also was called the Heavenly Khan. During his reign China was extended out along the Silk Road to the west, the map shows Chinese territory sticking out like a finger to modern-day Kyrgyzstan. But he too failed to conquer Koguryô.

After Taizong’s death in 649AD one of his younger sons (Gaozong) succeeded him, but he was often unwell during his reign. He’d taken one of Taizong’s minor concubines into his own harem and after she’d borne him some sons he elevated her to the status of Empress Wu. She played an active role in government due to his illness, and after the heir apparent died in 676 Gaozong even offered to abdicate to Wu. She refused the offer, but it seems she regretted that fairly quickly after his death in 683. Their son who inherited (Emperor Zhongzong) turned out to be “inept and frivolous” so she deposed him in 684, putting his brother (Emperor Ruizong) on the throne with herself acting as regent. Eventually in 690 she declared herself Emperor – the first and only female Chinese Emperor. From what the book says she doesn’t seem a particularly nice woman, but then if she had been nice she wouldn’t’ve got to be Emperor. She does seem to’ve been an effective ruler, both domestically and in foreign relations & military affairs. She was keen to promote Buddhism over Confucianism, which is probably due to the fact that Confucianism regards women as having a place and that place is definitely not in charge. She was eventually forced to retire by a palace coup in 705 at the age of 80, and died soon after.

After Wu retired her deposed sons took the throne again (sequentially, not simultaneously), so her dynasty didn’t outlast herself and the Tang resumed. Her grandson Tang Xuanzong’s reign was for its first 3 decades one of the two high points of the Tang dynasty – referred to as the “Splendid Age of Original Opening”. And after that he presided over the beginning of the end for the Tang. He forgot the lessons of the start of the Tang dynasty & allowed permanent military commanders to be garrisoned at critical places on the frontier. And these commanders weren’t necessarily Chinese themselves, often they were descended from the Turkic & other tribes that they were now in charge of subduing. The Emperor also became somewhat detached from the realities of his empire – distracted in particular by one of his concubines, Yang Guifei. These circumstances combined to let one of the generals, An Lushan, gain enough power to successfully rebel in 755AD. This is the period that Guy Gavriel Kay’s book “Under Heaven” was based on (I read it a while ago for calico_reaction‘s book club). Oddly for a book that I was a bit ambivalent about at the time it keeps coming back to mind – maybe I should get it back out of the library again some time.

The Tang dynasty did recover (mostly) from the rebellion, but they were not as powerful as they had been before. They lost control over various parts of their territory – such as the Silk Road oases which were conquered by the Tibetans (who actually got as far as Chang’an and sacked it in 763AD). The Equal-Fields system collapsed, and regional landlords became more powerful. Military commanders in the outlying regions also became more autonomous. A lot of the rural poor were dispossessed of their land and livelihood, so banditry became more common. Bandits even sacked the secondary capital of Luoyang in 880AD. The dynasty finally collapsed completely in 907AD.

One of the significant cultural developments during the Tang period was the invention of printing. The first known printed text from China is dated to 868AD – a copy of a Buddhist scripture called the Diamond Sutra. This was discovered in 1907 and remains the oldest known printed book. Judging by the quality of the printing this wasn’t a new technology, so the Chinese must’ve developed printing sometime before this.

The Five Dynasties

The immediate aftermath of the Tang dynasty was a fifty year period of disunity & relative chaos. China disintegrated again into multiple independent regions – this period is thus called the Five Dynasties & Ten Kingdoms. In the north of the country this was the final outcome of the increasing militarisation of the area from before the An Lushan rebellion, and five different dynasties ruled various bits at various times. And in the south civilian rule continued, but the land was fragmented into ten separate kingdoms. The country was then re-united by the Song dynasty & 960AD – and that’s where the second half of this chapter of the book will start.

Tangents to follow up on: The Empress Wu. Tibetan history – clearly a key player in the silk road region in the late 9th Century. The history of the Silk Road itself. Mongolia/the Turks. And Korean history.