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A Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty (581-907)

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China
Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Cambridge University Press
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Ceramic model of musicians seated on a camel, excavated in Xi'an (Chang'an) from a tomb dated 723.  The features of the musicians indicate that they are from Central Asia.  Through the Silk Road, trade with Central Asia was very active in Tang.  Tang's dance, music and sculpture were influenced by her contacts with Central Asia.

……… 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. 

The 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.

The culture of Chang’an and Luoyang was enthusiastically cosmopolitan.  Taizong 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.

Foreign 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 music.  Interior 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.

Prosperity 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.

Neither 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.

Aristocrats 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 provinces.  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.