A Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty (581-907)
More than any other epoch in Chinese history before the twentieth
century, Chinese in early and mid Tang had self-confidence to be
open to the new and different.
Perhaps because a universal religion and foreign origin
gave China links to all the other countries of Asia east of
Persia, perhaps because the elite included many families of
non-Chinese descent, perhaps because China had the military might
to garrison the Silk Road and keep it open for trade, Chinese in
this period were more than happy to gather about them the best of
what the rest of their world had to offer.
magnificent capital at Chang’an exerted a powerfully attractive
force on the outside world. Like
earlier capital cities in the north, Chang’an was a planned city
laid out on a square grid, but it was constructed on a much larger
scale than any previous capital. Its outer walls, made of pounded earth about ten to fifteen
feet thick and thirty-five feet tall, extended over five miles
north to south and nearly six miles east to west.
The palace was in the north, so the emperor could, in a
sense, face south towards his subjects, whose homes were in the
108 wards, each enclosed by a wall.
Certain blocks were set aside for markets, open at
specified hours each day. The
great southern gate of the city opened out to an extremely board
avenue about 500 feet wide. Foreign
envoys seeking to see the emperor all travelled along this
thoroughfare directly to the palace.
This and other main avenues were bordered by ditches
planted with trees. When
the city was first built in Sui, officials and nobles were offered
incentives to build residences and temples in the city, and many
southern aristocrats were forced to move there after their capital
was conquered in 589. But
incentives and coercion were not needed for long; by the early
Tang leading members of society sought to live in Chang’an or
the secondary capital at Luoyang, also rebuilt in the Sui period.
culture of Chang’an and Luoyang was enthusiastically
was fascinated by the monk Xuanzang (602-64) who returned to China
in 645 to tell about his fifteen years travelling across Central
Asia and India. Knowledge
of the outside world was also stimulated by the presence of
envoys, merchants, and pilgrims who came from the tributary states
in Central Asia as well as from neighboring countries like Japan,
Korea, and Tibet. Goods
from these distant regions - horses, jewels, musical instruments,
and textiles - were sources of endless fascination to both the
court and the capital elite.
Foreign fashions in hair and clothing were often copied,
and foreign amusement like the game of polo became favorite
pastimes of the well-to-do. The
caravans that came from Central Asia were so appreciated that
pottery representations of camels and their non-Han grooms were
among the objects people commonly placed in tombs.
Foreign religions, including Islam, Judaism, Manichaeism,
Zoroastrianism and Nestorian Christianity were practiced among the
thousands of foreign merchants resident there, though none of
these religions spread into the Chinese population the way
Buddhism had centuries earlier.
influence had longer-term impact in the arts.
Silver-smithing was perfected, with cups, plates, ewers,
and other small objects showing the influence of Persian
designs and techniques. The
introduction of new instruments and new tunes from India, Iran,
and Central Asia brought about a major transformation of Chinese
furnishings were also transformed, as the practice of sitting on
mats on the floor gradually gave way to the foreign practice of
sitting on stools and chairs.
undoubtedly aided the cultural vitality of the Tang period.
The reunification of the country, the opening of the Grand
Canal linking north and south, and the expansion of international
trade via the Central Asian Silk Route and the higher-volume sea
routes all stimulated the economy.
Economic development of the south was particularly
impressive, aided by convenient water transportation along rivers
and streams. River
traffic had grown so heavy that storms at Yangzhou in 721 and 751
were said to have led to the destruction of over 1,000 boats each
time. Tea, native to
the south, was no longer looked on as a medicinal herb, useful
primarily to those trying to stay awake, but had come to be drunk
all over the country, making it a major item intrade. The southern port cities of Canton, Quanzhou, and Fuzhou grew
in size as maritime trade along the coast and throughout Southeast
Asia expanded greatly, much of it in the hands of Arab merchants. By 742, when A census was taken, the proportion of the
registered population living in the south had increased from only
a quarter in the early seventh century to nearly a half.
economic growth nor the development of thriving commercial cities
brought about radical change in the composition of the social or
political elite. Tang
China was still an aristocratic society. In elite circles, genealogies continued to be much discussed
and eminent forebears were looked on as a source of pride and
admiration; The most prestigious families still largely married
among themselves, giving coherence and visibility to the highest
stratum of the elite. Early in the Tang dynasty the emperors sporadically made
offers to undermine the prestige of aristocratic pedigree and to
assert that high office carries more honour than eminent
ancestors. Once the families closest to the throne had become socially
accepted as aristocratic families, however, the emperors largely
gave up trying to challenge the aristocratic pretensions.
and other educated men in Tang times engaged in a wide range of
arts and learning. Confucian
scholarship of many sorts flourished, especially the writings of
histories and commentaries to the classics.
In this period education in Confucian texts and commitment
to Confucian principles of government service was not looked on as
incompatible with faith in Buddhism or Daoism, and many men were
learned in the texts of more than one tradition.
The arts also attracted scholars, many of whom were
esteemed for their calligraphy.
Almost all educated men wrote an occasional poem, and
poetic composition was tested on the most prestigious of the civil
service examinations, the jinshi,
or ‘presented scholar’ exam.
Perhaps that contributed to the art of poetry, for the Tang
produced many of China’s greatest poets, including Wang Wei, Li
Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, and Li Shangyin. Over 48,900 poems by 2,200 Tang poets have survived.
The parting of friends was a common theme of these poems,
perhaps because officials were frequently transferred to the
immense distances of the empire, the dangers of travel, and the
difficulty of keeping in touch once separated evidently made every
parting seem momentous. Poets
also frequented entertainment quarters of the cities where they
could call on female musicians.
In the late Tang period, courtesans played an important
part in popularizing a new verse form by singing the lyrics
written by famous men and by composing lyrics themselves.
The high point of Tang culture came in the first half of the eighth century during the reign of Xuanzong (r.712-56), a grandson of Empress Wu whose court became the focal point of high culture. Xuanzong conducted state ceremonies on a grand scale and authorized a major codification of state ritual. Buddhist and Daoist clerics were also welcome at his court. Xuanzong invited teachers of the newly introduced Tantric school of Buddhism, in 726 calling on the Javanese monk Vajrabodhi to perform Tantric rites to avert drought and in 742 holding the incense burner while the Ceylonese Amoghavajra recited mystical incantations to aid the victory of Tang forces. To liven up the poetry written at his court and amuse him on his outings with palace ladies, Xuanzong established a new academy for poets. The poet Li Bai served in this academy for a few years, writing light sensual poems celebrating the beauty of the imperial parks and the ladies in them. Xuanzong also enjoyed music and horses and even kept a troupe of dancing horses. Han Gan, a great horse painter, served at his court.