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Tang Dynasty


The Tang dynasty was one of China's most prosperous and culturally rich periods. Under the rule of the second Tang emperor, Taizong, the economy flourished and the empire experienced an era of stability. Moreover, he was considered an enlightened ruler for his open style of governing.

Not long after Emperor Taizong, Wu Zetian became the only female empress in China's history. She's remembered as a harsh but capable ruler who attracted people of talent to her court.

The Tang dynasty reached its peak under the stewardship of Emperor Xuanzong. His rule heralded a long period of expansion, prosperity and stability, but towards his later years, the dynasty declined and before long regional military commanders seized the opportunity to rebel. The greatest peril the dynasty faced was the devastating rebellion of An Lushan, originating from Sogdian, who was the adopted son of Xuanzong's favourite concubine, Yang Guifei.

Many of the emperor's closest advisors blamed Yang Guifei, who was nicknamed "the Fat Concubine," for the decline of the empire. The emperor was so enamored by her charms that he ignored state affairs and spent his time frolicking with her instead. Coming from a poor family, Yang Guifei took this opportunity to enrich herself and her family. Eventually the emperor's officials forced the emperor to order her to commit suicide while fleeing from An Lushan. After this episode, Xuanzong fell into a deep depression and abdicated the throne. Tang poet Bai Juyi immortalized this fatal love story in his poem "Song of Everlasting Sorrow".

The imperial examination system became highly developed under the Tang. While in theory anyone, even a poor peasant, could take part in the examinations, but only those rich enough to afford the years of study could advance through the highly competitive system. Poetry also achieved remarkable heights of artistry during the Tang dynasty. Many of China's most talented poets, such as Li Bai, Du Fu and Bai Juyi hail from this era.

The Tang dynasty was the largest power in Asia, extending towards Central Asia with its cultural reach playing a key role in the development of Korea and Japan. Numerous envoys and students from foreign countries frequently visited Tang dynasty China. Different ethnic groups were inhabited at the boundary of the dynasty, allowing for frequent cultural exchanges, making the Tang dynasty the most cosmopolitan and open of all China's dynasties.

The Tang legal code and Chinese characters were some of China's most important exports to Korea and Japan. Thousands of students from both countries came to China to study and Chinese teachers travelled abroad to spread their wisdom. Buddhism continued to spread throughout China where it became Sinicised, furthering its popularity. An eclectic milieu of religions were brought into China; Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, Judaism and Islam. Technology also travelled along the Silk Road, Arab traders spread papermaking techniques. Wood block printing was invented during the Tang dynasty, with the Diamond Sutra, printed in 868, being the earliest example of a book made using this technique. In late Tang battles, weapons employing gunpowder were used.

As the Tang dynasty reeled from An Lushan's rebellion, which lasted for over eight years, increased power was given to military officials to deal with the rebels, but in turn they began to acquire power and carve out kingdoms of their own. In AD 907, the Tang dynasty was overthrown. The dynastic cycle once again began a new phase. The period following the collapse of the Tang was a time of devastation and turbulence. It was during this period of upheaval that China's economic centre shifted from the Chinese heartland of the Yellow River valley in the north, to the south. This economic migration south, coupled with frequent invasions from the north would create a cultural and psychological divide in the Chinese psyche based along the Yangtze River.