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China: An Introduction to the Tang Dynasty (618–906)

Camel, approx. 690–750

Camel, approx. 690–750. China, Shaanxi or Henan province. Tang dynasty (618–906). Glazed earthenware. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S95.

Scholars often refer to the Tang (618–906) and Song (960–1279) dynasties as the "medieval" period of China. The civilizations of the Tang (618–906)  and Song (960–1279) dynasties of China were among the most advanced civilizations in the world at the time. Discoveries in the realms of science, art, philosophy, and technology—combined with a curiosity about the world around them—provided the men and women of this period with a worldview and level of sophistication that in many ways were unrivaled until much later times, even in China itself.

The Tang Dynasty (618–906) 
When the rulers of the Tang dynasty (618–906) unified China in the early seventh century, the energies and wealth of the nation proved strong enough not only to ensure internal peace for the first time in centuries, but also to expand the Chinese realm to include large portions of neighboring lands such as Korea, Vietnam, northeast, central, and southeast Asia. The Tang became a great empire, the most powerful and influential of its time any place in the world. Flourishing trade and communication transformed China into the cultural center of an international age. Tang cities such as the capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an), the eastern terminus of the great Silk Road, were global hubs of banking and trade as well as of religious, scholarly, and artistic life. Their inhabitants, from all parts of China and as far away as India and Persia, were urbane and sophisticated. Tang society was liberal and largely tolerant of foreign views and ideas; in fact the royal family of Tang, surnamed Li, was of non-Han Chinese origin (perhaps originally from a Turkish-speaking area of Central Asia), and leaders of government were drawn from many parts of the region. Government was powerful, but not oppressive; education was encouraged, with the accomplished and learned well rewarded. Great wealth was accumulated by a few, but the Tang rulers saw that lands were redistributed, and all had some measure of opportunity for material advancement. This was also a time when many women attained higher status at court, and a greater degree of freedom in society.

This dynamic, affluent, liberal, and culturally diverse environment produced a great efflorescence of culture unparalleled in Chinese history. Buddhism, originally imported from India, thrived to such an extent that China itself became a major center of Buddhist learning, attracting students and pilgrims from other countries. In East Asia, Chinese, rather than Sanskrit, became the language of Chinese Buddhist texts that served to transmit Chinese culture, ideas, and philosophy abroad. Significantly, Buddhist influence also resulted in the compilation of huge encyclopedias of knowledge during the Tang, preserving much earlier Chinese cultural material for posterity, and inspiring advances in mathematics and the applied sciences such as engineering and medicine. The Tang was also an age of great figure painters, whose religious frescoes filled caves along the Silk Road through central Asia, and covered the walls of royal tombs. New styles of ceramics, bold and colorful with variegated glazes, embraced Indian, Persian, and Greek forms.

Above all poetry flourished during the Tang, and indeed the Chinese think of Tang poetry as the greatest of all literary achievements. Tang poets like Du Fu, Li Bo, Wang Wei, and Bo Juyi created works of art that powerfully explored the relationships between sounds, images, and philosophy. Tang poets aimed to capture the fleeting and profound, influencing Chinese writers until the present day. Together with the surviving examples of painting and sculpture, Tang poetry manifests a Chinese inner vision and view of the world and cosmos in a way that more abstract scholarly works did not; these creative works express what might otherwise remain theoretical or ethereal into palpable, understandable, and immediate terms.

The most magnificent urban center in the world at the time, the capital of Tang China, Chang’an (literally “Everlasting Peace”), was a walled city built in alignment with the stars to symbolize its role as the world in miniature. The city witnessed the most splendid cultural achievements during the eighth century. As home to the most accomplished artists and thinkers of the day, it played much the same role as Florence did in fifteenth-century Europe. Just as it was witness to the height of Tang culture in the eighth century, it also was destined to be the focal point of the dynasty’s decline: when a rogue general decided to rebel in 756, not only was the emperor sent tem- porarily into exile, but the artists, poets, and priests of the city also fled. Although the political structure of the Tang remained in place for another 150 years (until 907), the city and state, with resources scattered, were weakened. Pretenders to the throne began to emerge, warlords began to consolidate authority, and nomadic peoples on the northern and western borders of the country also competed for political power. But it was a gentle decline: overall the three hundred years of the Tang were marked by impressive advances in all aspects of art, science, and philosophy.

By the early tenth century, the Tang ruling house fell, and a period of chaos ensued. China was divided into at least fifteen different independent political regimes, and peoples on the border areas set up their own states. The cultural glory of Tang was eclipsed, surviving only among tiny warring states. However in the year 960, another unified empire arose, the Song.

 

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