The Tang dynasty (Chinese: 唐朝) or the Tang Empire was an imperial dynasty of China spanning the 7th to 10th centuries. It was preceded by the Sui dynasty and followed by the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. Historians generally regard the Tang as a high point in Chinese civilization, and a golden age of cosmopolitan culture. Tang territory, acquired through the military campaigns of its early rulers, rivaled that of the Han dynasty. The Tang capital at Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) was the most populous city in the world in its day.
The Lǐ family (李) founded the dynasty, seizing power during the decline and collapse of the Sui Empire. The dynasty was briefly interrupted when Empress Wu Zetian seized the throne, proclaiming the Second Zhou dynasty (690–705) and becoming the only Chinese empress regnant. In two censuses of the 7th and 8th centuries, the Tang records estimated the population by a number of registered households at about 50 million people. Yet, even when the central government was breaking down and unable to compile an accurate census of the population in the 9th century, it is estimated that the population had grown by then to about 80 million people. With its large population base, the dynasty was able to raise professional and conscripted armies of hundreds of thousands of troops to contend with nomadic powers in dominating Inner Asia and the lucrative trade routes along the Silk Road. Various kingdoms and states paid tribute to the Tang court, while the Tang also conquered or subdued several regions which it indirectly controlled through a protectorate system. Besides political hegemony, the Tang also exerted a powerful cultural influence over neighboring East Asian states such as those in Japan and Korea.
The Tang dynasty was largely a period of progress and stability in the first half of the dynasty’s rule until the devastating An Lushan Rebellion (755–763) and the decline of central authority in the latter half of the dynasty. Like the previous Sui dynasty, the Tang dynasty maintained a civil-service system by recruiting scholar-officials through standardized examinations and recommendations to office. The rise of regional military governors known as jiedushi during the 9th century undermined this civil order. Chinese culture flourished and further matured during the Tang era; it is traditionally considered the greatest age for Chinese poetry. Two of China’s most famous poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, belonged to this age, as did many famous painters such as Han Gan, Zhang Xuan, and Zhou Fang. Scholars of this period compiled a rich variety of historical literature, as well as encyclopedias and geographical works. The adoption of the title Tängri Qaghan by the Tang Emperor Taizong in addition to his title as emperor was eastern Asia’s first “simultaneous kingship”.
Many notable innovations occurred under the Tang, including the development of woodblock printing. Buddhism became a major influence in Chinese culture, with native Chinese sects gaining prominence. However, in the 840s the Emperor Wuzong of Tang enacted policies to persecute Buddhism, which subsequently declined in influence. Although the dynasty and central government had gone into decline by the 9th century, art and culture continued to flourish. The weakened central government largely withdrew from managing the economy, but the country’s mercantile affairs stayed intact and commercial trade continued to thrive regardless. However, agrarian rebellions in the latter half of the 9th century resulted in damaging atrocities such as the Guangzhou massacre of 878–879.
End of the Tang dynasty
In addition to natural calamities and jiedushi amassing autonomous control, the Huang Chao Rebellion (874–884) resulted in the sacking of both Chang’an and Luoyang, and took an entire decade to suppress. Although the rebellion was defeated by the Tang, it never recovered from that crucial blow, weakening it for the future military powers to take over. There were also large groups of bandits, in the size of small armies, that ravaged the countryside in the last years of the Tang, who smuggled illicit salt, ambushed merchants and convoys, and even besieged several walled cities.
Zhu Wen, originally a salt smuggler who had served under the rebel Huang Chao, surrendered to Tang forces. By helping to defeat Huang, he was renamed Zhu Quanzhong and granted a series of rapid military promotions to the military governor of Xuanwu Circuit. Zhu later conquered many circuits and became the most powerful warlord. In 903 he controlled the imperial court and forced Emperor Zhaozong of Tang moved the capital to Luoyang, preparing to take the throne himself. In 904 Zhu assassinated Emperor Zhaozong to replace him with the emperor’s young son Emperor Ai of Tang. In 905 Zhu executed 9 brothers of Emperor Ai as well as many officials and Empress Dowager He. In 907 the Tang dynasty was ended when Zhu deposed the Emperor Ai and took the throne for himself (known posthumously as Emperor Taizu of Later Liang). He established the Later Liang, which inaugurated the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. A year later, Zhu, had the deposed Emperor Ai poisoned to death. Read About The Great Wall of China.