Qiushi Journal

The Flourishing Period of the Tang Dynasty

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal

Updated:2012-07-04 14:28

Print Comment text size: T | T

The Flourishing Period of the Tang Dynasty refers to the period of history spanning from the Zhenguan Era (627-649) to the Tianbao Era (742-756) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). This was the heyday of the Tang Dynasty as well as one of the most prosperous periods in China’s feudal history. It was a period of unprecedented economic and social prosperity in which people were high-spirited, open-minded, and willing to try new things. It is important that we look back over this period of history, as this will help to boost our sense of national pride and give us the confidence we need to create new and even greater glory for the Chinese nation.

This is a mural depicting intellectuals dining in the outskirts of Chang’an during the Tang Dynasty. As a “companion piece” to the six screen murals of noble ladies in the Tang Dynasty, the picture depicts the lives of people in Chang’an during the flourishing period of the Tang Dynasty. / Xinhua

A golden age in Chinese history

The Tang Dynasty was founded in the year 618 by Li Yuan following the defeat of the Sui Dynasty. The throne was subsequently passed to Li Shimin, his son, who was known as the Prince of Qin. Seeing how over-extravagance and neglect for the people had led to the demise of the Sui, Li Shimin, that is Emperor Taizong, remained vigilant in times of peace and exerted himself in an effort to make the country prosperous. To do this, he desisted from military activities and encouraged the development of culture and education. Politically, he appointed people according to their merit, and was willing to listen to the counsel of his subjects. He also developed the legal system and reduced the number of officials in the central government from over 2,000 to around 600. Economically, Li Shimin continued the practice of land equalization that had been implemented since the Northern Wei Dynasty. He reduced the conscription of forced labor, levied light taxes, built irrigation works, and developed production. He also cut back on extravagant spending and encouraged frugality. Diplomatically, Li Shimin maintained friendly relations with the surrounding minority nationalities and countries. The turmoil at the end of the Sui Dynasty had led to a drastic drop in the population and an ongoing economic depression, but Li Shimin was able to quickly turn this dire situation around. By the fourth year of the Zhenguan Era (630 AD), China had already ushered in an unprecedented wave of prosperity: prices were low, horses and cattle could be seen everywhere, food was widely available, and communities were so safe that people could leave their doors open at night without fear of being burgled. In fact, in that year, only 29 people were sentenced to death throughout the entire country. Historians refer to this period as the “Golden Years of Zhenguan.”

After assuming the throne, Emperor Gaozong continued to promote the policies that had been enacted during the early Zhenguan Era, bringing about the further development of the economy and society. Praised for continuing in the spirit of the Zhenguan Era, this was a period in which the might of the Tang Dynasty surpassed that of Emperor Taizong’s reign. However, Emperor Gaozong was plagued by poor health, and political power gradually fell into the hands of the sagacious Empress Wu. After the death of Emperor Gaozong, Wu Zetian deposed her sons, Emperor Zhongzong and Emperor Ruizong, and assumed de facto control of state affairs from behind a screen. In the year 690, Wu Zetian founded a new dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty, and formally declared herself empress. With this, Wu Zetian became the only empress in Chinese history.

Wu Zetian founded the Palace Examination and took to it personally to select talent for the administration of the state. She also established military examinations to recruit elite soldiers and made use of the various talents of her followers by putting them in positions of power in disregard of conventions. She raised the social status of women, pursued an agriculture-oriented policy, and encouraged military garrisons in frontier areas to open up wasteland and grow food grains to support themselves while defending the frontiers. She recovered four military strongholds in northwest China and in doing so maintained smooth passage along the Silk Road. She also attached great significance to culture and strengthened economic and cultural exchanges with foreign countries. In the decades of her rule, considerable progress was made in the social and economic development of the country. The population, which is an important indicator of productivity in agricultural societies, increased sharply from 3.80 million households during the reigns of Taizong and Gaozong to 6.15 million households during the period in which Wu Zetian held power. The growth of national strength and the talent cultivated in this period helped to lay down solid foundations for the prosperity of the Kaiyuan and Tianbao eras that followed. Wu Zetian has been praised as an outstanding political figure of the feudal age who served as a bridging point between the prosperity of the Zhenguan and Kaiyuan eras.

Showing great talent from an early age, Li Longji, the Prince of Linzi, assumed the throne and put an end to nearly eight years of political turmoil that followed Wu Zetian’s abdication. Under the counsel of famous Prime Ministers Yao Chong and Song Jing, Li Longji took resolute action to abolish corrupt practices and cleanse the imperial court. He banned the use of pearls, jade, and brocade in the court, and prohibited officials from paying tributes to the emperor. He replaced the garrison militia system with an enlisting system, attached importance to agriculture, reduced taxation for residents of fiefdoms, prohibited the annexation of land, settled refugees, and devoted great efforts to the cultivation of wasteland and the construction of irrigation works. Economic and cultural exchanges with foreign countries thrived during this period. The population continued to surge, with the number of registered households rising to 9.069 million. All-round prosperity was seen in agriculture, handicrafts, commerce and culture. Studies have indicated that during the Tianbao Era, the amount of grain per capita was as much as 350 kg. During this period it was also commonplace for people to be educated and well-mannered. In fact, even small children were expected to be able to read and write, and it was seen as an embarrassment if they could not. Glorious achievements were made in poetry, calligraphy, painting, sculpture, music, and dance. The Tang Dynasty ushered in its heyday as people around the country celebrated peace and prosperity with song and dance. The capital city, Chang’an, was a bustling international metropolis with a population of more than one million. The poet Wang Wei wrote: “the coats of many countries bow to the Crown.” More than just a period of great prosperity in Chinese history, at its peak, the Tang Dynasty was the richest and most powerful empire in the world. Standing at the forefront of civilization, the Tang Dynasty became the place where everyone wanted to be. In the past, the Chinese people were known to foreigners as the “people of Tang.” To this day, Chinese settlements around the world, commonly known as “Chinatown,” are referred to in Chinese as “the streets where the Tang people live.” This bears testament to the influence that the Tang Dynasty had at its pinnacle.

Prosperity amidst openness and tolerance

1. Openness and integration. An important policy of the rulers of the Tang Dynasty was to open the country to the outside world, maintain friendly relations with all countries, and seek peaceful coexistence and common development. The court established dedicated organizations, such as the Hong Lu Si (Bureau of State Ceremonies), for the handling of foreign affairs. These organizations provided foreign envoys to China with assistance in regard to dining, interpretation, medical treatment, and bereavement, and even granted them gifts and official titles. Other visitors to the Tang Dynasty were given assistance by the court and local officials. Countless numbers of foreign envoys, students, religious believers, artists, scientists, traders, and travelers braved boundless deserts and turbulent waters to reach the Tang Empire, bringing with them exotic goods and diverse cultures.

These exotic foreign cultures were deeply adored by the people of the Tang Dynasty. There is a passage in the Old History of the Tang Dynasty: History of Vehicles and Garments that reads: “Starting from the Kaiyuan Era, the court advocated western (regions to the west of China and Central Asia) music for official rites and served western cuisine to high-ranking officials at official banquets. Young men and women vied to dress like the peoples of western regions.” Pancakes sold by merchants from outlying western regions were especially popular during the Tang Dynasty. These pancakes, which tended to be baked, steamed or fried, came in a wide number of varieties, some flaky and delicious, others piping hot. Women from western regions who “looked like flowers and smiled like the spring breeze” served customers with Sanle Syrup, the famous Persian wine, and entertained them with exotic dances for very good business. Poets, such as Li Bai, took great joy in sampling wine whilst enjoying these dances, and these occasions inspired them to write many striking poems. The most popular dances from western regions during this period were the Whirling Dance, which was known for its dazzling spinning movements, the Soaring Dance, which was characterized by its graceful leaps, and the Zhezhi Dance, which was elegant and uplifting. The poets Wang Wei and Cen Shen showed a great interest in music from Korea and India. There were 10 official kinds of music during this period, four of which were from abroad. These included music from Korea, India and the Central Asian countries of Samarkand and Bukhara. Apparel from regions west of the Tang Dynasty, characterized by high caps, lapels, narrow fronts and sleeves, striped trousers and soft brocade boots, was fashionable among people of both sexes. From the murals in tombs and tricolor pottery figurines to poems and documentary records, which still exist today, there are large amounts of unearthed cultural relics and literary data to serve as evidence. Animals brought into China from abroad, such as dogs, horses, elephants, rhinoceros, leopards, eagles and parrots, were also very popular with people during the golden years of the Tang Dynasty. Foreign spices, such as eaglewood, were treasured by the upper classes. People used spices to fumigate clothes, to wash, to remove mouth odor, and to cleanse the air. Spices were also used in pasting walls in housing construction, and for amusement. Precious stones from abroad, such as agate, were used by emperors, nobles and aristocrats as rewards and as decorations for garments and furniture. Imported goods such as rock sugar and amethyst were used by Emperor Xuanzong and his officials to preserve their health and prolong life. We can see that goods from all corners of the world were present in almost all aspects of social life during the flourishing period of the Tang Dynasty. These goods significantly enriched the material and spiritual lives of people at that time, especially people from the upper classes, and exerted a profound impact on their way of thinking and way of life.

2. Harmonious coexistence. Foreign merchants ran jewelry shops, eateries, taverns, and offered high-interest loans in metropolises such as Chang’an, Luoyang, Guangzhou, Yangzhou, and Chengdu. Foreign students either engaged in study at the Directorate of Imperial Academy, the highest educational institution in the capital, or took part in special examinations for foreigners, which allowed them to take office in the country. Foreign artists performed music and dance in the imperial court, or wandered the country performing place by place. Religious believers translated Sanskrit Buddhist sutras, visited sacred places, and sought teachers. Some spread the teachings of Buddhism, while others spread Islam or Manichaeism. Travelers from afar marveled at China’s stunning landscapes and unique culture, documenting what they saw and experienced during their travels. Some foreigners used their military skills to become generals, some used their special knowledge and skills to become members of the Imperial Academy, and others sold their services privately. These foreign visitors built houses, bought land, married local women (but were not allowed to take them out of the country), and raised families in China. Many stayed for decades, and some even stayed for the rest of their lives. They lived among the people of the Tang Dynasty, with whom they associated closely and lived in harmony. As early as the Zhenguan Era, there was a saying that went: “the foreigners wear the hats of the Han, and the Han wear the hats of the foreigners.” (New Words of the Tang Dynasty: Following Well-Intentioned Advice) Japanese people who arrived in China lived together alongside the people of the Tang Dynasty. Living in close proximity over the long term allowed them to establish deep friendships. In A Complete Collection of the Tang Dynasty Poems, there are numerous poems that depict the people of the Tang Dynasty associating with students and monks from Japan, Korea and India. In the diaries and novels of the Tang Dynasty, there are stories about foreigners entrusting their riches and children to people of the Tang Dynasty as they lay on their deathbed, and the people being entrusted not harboring ill intentions, but doing their utmost to fulfill the last wishes of those that had sought their help. The flourishing period of the Tang Dynasty was a time in which the Chinese people enjoyed friendly and harmonious relations with people of all countries, and particularly those of Asian countries.

3. Exploration and innovation. Living in a time of great prosperity, the people of the Tang Dynasty demonstrated a strong enterprising spirit, and this was particularly the case with young students. They longed to serve in important positions under wise rulers, where they could give play to their talents in the administration of state affairs and contribute to the peace and prosperity of the country. They were high-spirited, vigorous, and made unremitting efforts to improve themselves. Some people strived for success in the imperial examinations, hoping to enter a life of officialdom. Of those that were unsuccessful in the examinations, some continued to study well into their later years, never giving up despite repeated failure, and never regretting their devotion to study even though it meant they remained commoners when they died. Some people, on the other hand, entered into military service, braving the harsh sandstorms and heavy snowstorms of the frontier territories. Though they faced death in battle, their only hope was that their sacrifice would bring honor to their families and keep their homeland safe. Put simply, the entire social atmosphere at that time was bursting with high spirits and vigor.

In addition to having lofty ideals, the people of the Tang Dynasty also demonstrated a practical spirit of hard work and innovation. The achievements that were made during this golden age were indeed splendid. The painter Wu Daozi, who created a landscape of the 1,500 km Jialing River in a stroke of his brush, reinvented Chinese landscape painting and came to be known as the “Sage Painter.” Yang Huizhi, who was a pupil of the same teacher, realized that as a painter his talent was far inferior to that of Wu Daozi. Not resigned to coming second, he turned to sculpting, and eventually became a leading authority in the art of sculpture. The landscape paintings of Wang Wei, the horses painted by Han Gan, the female figures painted by Zhang Xuan, the “celestial words” of Li Bai, “the epics” penned by Du Fu, the idylls of Meng Haoran, the romantic and unique poems on the frontier fortress by Cen Shen, the regular script of Chinese calligraphy by Yan Zhenqing, the seal characters by Li Yangbing, the explosive cursive script of Zhang Xu, the cursive script of Huai Su, the songs of Li Guinian, and the flute melodies of Li Mu—these were all unique schools that did not simply follow in the footsteps of their predecessors. These people, the shining stars of a golden age, were able to scale new summits in the development of culture because they dared to think independently and because they pursued originality instead of blindly following convention and constraining themselves to what had been done in the past. It was this spirit that enabled them to add glorious splendor to the broad and profound culture of the Tang Dynasty.

4. Composure in the face of life and death. Though many people were traditional in the sense that they believed in the immortal spirit and stressed elaborate funerals, there were also many people with materialist views who accepted the laws of nature and advocated simple funerals. They believed that all living things must eventually die and that all prosperous things must eventually fall into decline. Regarding this as a natural law and a fact of life, they did not believe that it was possible for miracle medicines to bring the dead back to life and allow people to live forever. Jia Demao, a scholar, realizing that his days were numbered, admonished his son, saying: “the qi of the living is gathered together, but the qi of the dead is dispersed. Everything that comes together must eventually come apart.” Other people held the view that all people were equal in the face of death, regardless of whether they were rich and noble or poor and lowly, and this was something the heavens could not interfere with. On the basis of these views, people during this period were calm in the face of life and death. They did not see funeral arrangements as a taboo subject. Instead, they approached this matter in a casual fashion, choosing their own burial ground, building their own tombs, making their own coffins, and personally scribing their own tomb inscriptions. Some even moved into their tomb chambers in their final days. These people were relatively objective about life and death. They were accepting of their fate, and did not believe that the spirit would remain immortal after death and continue to live in another world. For this reason, they would tell their family members not to decorate their tombs with utensils, jewelry, and other lifetime possessions, much as those who enjoyed elaborate funerals did. As they saw it, this would be to invite tomb robbers, who would loot their tombs and discard their corpses in the wilderness.

The elegant demeanor of women

Relatively speaking, females were less fettered by the feudal ethical code during this glorious period of openness and prosperity. Tending to be relatively open-minded and enjoying greater freedom than they had done before, females were much more self-confident and assertive in this period. Having moved on from the early stages of the Tang Dynasty, during which they were required to cover their bodies completely and wear facial nets, females took to the stage in beautiful outfits and bunched up hair during the flourishing period of the Tang Dynasty. Female poets, musicians, dancers, calligraphers, and talent emerged in large numbers, leaving behind them a glorious chapter in the history of Chinese women. We may say that the flourishing civilization of the Tang Dynasty was created as much by women as it was by men.

Politically, after Wu Zetian passed away, it became commonplace for women to participate in politics. Empress Wei, Princess Anle, and Princess Taiping all aspired to follow in the footsteps of Wu Zetian by becoming empress. A greatly talented woman named Shangguan Wan’er was also involved in these affairs, demonstrating the graceful bearing of an immensely gifted woman despite her eventual failure to seize power. Economically, it was traditional in rural families in ancient China for men to work as farmers and women to weave textiles. In addition to needlework, women were also involved in commercial activities such as the running of shops and small businesses. The younger sister of Liu Jieyu, one of Emperor Xuanzong’s concubines, invented the jiaxie dyeing method. Culturally, women joined men in pastimes such as chess, tug-of-war, balls games, hunting, cockfighting, ball throwing, watching plays, celebrating the July 7th Festival, comparing flowers and plants, watching dragon boat races, and writing poems. During spring outings, women would even use red skirts as makeshift tents as they appreciated flowers and enjoyed picnics. Madame Gongsun’s sword dance wowed audiences from near and far with its unparalleled vigor, while Madame Wang left people astonished with the incredible skill of her pole-balancing act.

By and large, the women of this period were still constrained by traditional views on marriage, such as stressing on family status, giving betrothal gifts, predestined marriages and arranged marriages. However, in spite of this, a number of women began to question these traditional constraints and aspire towards greater freedom in their choice of partner. These attitudes were sometimes met with the understanding and support of males. For instance, when Li Linfu (683-752), the Prime Minister, was visited by young nobles, he would ask his daughters to observe them from behind the window and pick their ideal husband. In the short stories and novels of the Tang Dynasty, there were moving stories of young women that braved all manner of hardships, sometimes even laid down their lives, in pursuit of their true love.

The women of the Tang Dynasty wore elegant dresses with very rich cultural connotations. They coiled their hair into dozens of kinds of knots, including high knots, which were decorated with hairpins, combs, hair clasps, and flowers. For makeup, they would dust the face with a light yellow powder, paint the eyebrows black, apply lipstick, and wear flowers. They also wore earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings. There were also women who were so sure of their own beauty that they did not wear makeup or dress extravagantly. A famous example is Lady Guoguo, the third elder sister of Yang Yuhuan, the beloved concubine of Emperor Xuanzong, who chose not to wear makeup when having audience with the emperor in order to show off her natural beauty. Female costume in this period was usually a combination of a short upper garment, a draped shoulder piece made from cloth, and a skirt. These skirts came in all manner of colors and styles, with the “pomegranate skirt” being the most popular. Yang Yuhuan was particularly fond of yellow skirts. More eye-catching still were garments which, similar to those worn by Western women today, exposed the cleavage between the breasts and gracefully displayed the unique beauty of the female form in public. For example, the poem Meeting a Neighboring Woman reads: “The sun was high up. A neighboring woman approached smiling. She slowly tightened her skirt of thin silk, exposing the upper half of her breasts.” The rich diversity and progressiveness of female makeup and costume during the flourishing period of the Tang Dynasty was a reflection of the developed economy and the prosperity of that period, and also a symbol that the people of the Tang Dynasty had elegant and graceful taste, that they were healthy physically as well as spiritually, that they cherished life, and that they were optimistic and forward-looking.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.3, 2012)

Author: Research Fellow of the Institute of History, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Back to Top