During the latter stages of the era of division, the fragmentation of Inner China came to an end and then reversed itself, as a series of would-be successors to the Han dynasty assembled larger and larger chunks of territory and vied with one another for supremacy. At last, in 581, a dynasty that called itself the Sui stood alone.
But this dynasty, the first to unite all of Inner China in more than 350 years, wound up resembling the Qin more than the Han; it ruled with a brutal hand that owed more to Legalism than Confucianism, thereby ensuring that it would be short-lived. Legend has it that Emperor Yang, the second monarch of the Sui, was told by a soothsayer in 615 that he would be deposed by a man with the surname of Li — a name as common as “Smith” is in modern English. He promptly set about murdering a vast swath of his populace, but he failed to reach with sufficient speed Li Yuan, an aristocrat who bore the title of Duke of Tang in honor of a state that no longer existed and commanded a large garrison of soldiers in the Northern city of Taiyuan. Li Yuan marched on the Sui capital of Luoyang, did to the current emperor what the soothsayer had predicted, and took his place in 618, moving the capital to Chang’an in the process. Thus began the Tang dynasty. Li Yuan made clear his intention to usher in a glorious new age for China by renaming himself Emperor Gaozu, the same name that had been chosen by the founder of the Han dynasty eight centuries earlier.
This latest Emperor Gaozu may have been the Tang founder, but the real architect of the dynasty was his son and successor, Emperor Taizong (“Godlike Monarch”). His rise was as depressingly pedestrian as it was violent, betraying little hint of the great statesman he would later become: first he killed his brothers to pave his path to power, then in 626 forced his father at sword point to abdicate in his favor. But afterward, it was as if a switch had been flipped somewhere inside his soul. “Suddenly he grew tired of war,” writes Will Durant, “and gave himself to the ways of peace.” Over the next 23 years, he laid the foundation for the long period of orderly prosperity that would follow his reign. One year before he died, he wrote a book of advice for his successors, which detailed a governing philosophy rooted in all the best aspects of Confucianism, with a large side helping of hard-won empirical wisdom.
Differentiation of the ranks and duties of officials is a means of improving customs. A wise emperor, therefore, knows how to choose the right person for the right task. He is like a skillful carpenter who knows to use straight timber to make shafts, curved timber to make wheels, long timber to make beams, and short timber to make posts. Wood of all shapes and sizes is thus fully utilized. The emperor should make use of personnel in the same way, using the wise for their resourcefulness, the ignorant for their strength, the brave for their daring, and the timid for their prudence. As a good carpenter does not discard any timber, so a wise emperor does not discard any Gentleman. A mistake should not lead the emperor to ignore a Gentleman’s virtues, nor should a flaw overshadow his merits.
Government affairs should be departmentalized to make the best use of officials’ abilities. A tripod large enough for an ox should not be used to cook a chicken, nor should a raccoon good only at catching rats be ordered to fight against huge beasts. Those with low intelligence or capability should not be entrusted with heavy responsibilities. If the right person is given the right task or responsibility, the empire can be governed with ease. This is the proper way of utilizing people. Whether the emperor gets hold of the right person for the right task determines whether his empire will be well governed.
The emperor, living in the palace, is blocked from direct access to information. For fear that faults might be left untold or defects unattended, he must set up various devices to elicit loyal suggestions and listen attentively to sincere advice. If what is said is right, he must not reject it even though it is offered by a low servant. On the other hand, if what is said is wrong, he must not accept it even though it is given by a high official. He should not find fault with the rhetoric of a comment that makes sense, nor cavil at the wording of a suggestion worth adopting. If he acts these ways, the loyal will be devoted and the wise will fully employ their resourcefulness. Government officials will not keep any secrets from the emperor and the emperor, through his close ties to them, can thus gain access to the world.
A foolish emperor, in comparison, rebuffs remonstrations and punishes the critics. As a result, high officials do not give any advice lest they lose their salary and low officials do not make any comment lest they lose their lives. Being extremely tyrannical and dissipated, he blocks himself from any access to information…
Much of Emperor Taizong’s philosophy of practical egalitarianism was institutionalized via an imperial examination system, an innovation of the Tang that would persist in China until the dawn of the twentieth century. Absolutely any man could enter the government by doing well at a series of rigorous written and oral tests, focused on the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism. A candidate who made it through this intellectual gauntlet was considered by definition a Gentleman, eminently worthy of serving the emperor, his prospects going forward limited only by his own abilities and energy. Although the system emphasized rote learning too heavily to produce a surfeit of original geniuses, it did foster a high degree of basic governmental competence and ethicality, which is more important to a stable, long-standing society than are a few brilliant statesmen here and there.
There is an abundance of Tang fables telling of just deserts that were meted out to those who forgot that merit and good-heartedness ought to trump breeding and wealth in the respect people accorded to one another. For example, one deals with a young man named Xiao Yingshi, who has just passed his government examination and, like a newly minted lawyer of another age, is in the process of applying for his first job. One day he is sitting at table in an inn when a fierce storm blows up outside. A rather disheveled-looking old man rushes in to take shelter. He tries to make friendly conversation with Xiao Yingshi, but the younger man dismisses him rudely, considering him unworthy of his attention. The next day, Xiao Yingshi receives a letter from the old man; it turns out that he is the very official who was assigned to consider his application for a prestigious government post. “I regret that I am not related to you in any way,” he writes. “Otherwise I would like to give you some good ‘family discipline.’ Your arrogance and poor manners are such that it is perhaps better for you to remain a student.” One cannot help but muster a certain respect for any society that revels in such a worthy comeuppance.
The examination system and the egalitarian tendency it demonstrated were aided and abetted by the second of the Four Great Inventions, which constituted a logical way of building upon the invention of paper during the Han dynasty: the technology of printing. Already by the seventh century, the Chinese had become the first people in the world to devise a way to mass-produce books without the need for a scribe to laboriously copy them out in freehand. We call it the woodblock-printing method today. Each page of the text to be printed was carved into a wooden block as a reverse relief. Then the block was coated with ink and pressed onto a blank sheet of paper to leave behind an image of itself. To be sure, the process of carving an entire book into many blocks of wood was labor-intensive in itself — not to mention demanding of enormous skill on the part of the carvers — but once it was done the blocks could be used again and again to churn out paper copy after paper copy. The technique was especially well-suited for a literary society like that of China, which highly prized a relatively small number of works that were deemed worthy of exhaustive study, to the extent that any educated man was expected to have read at least some of them enough times to have memorized them in their entirety. (Then again, did the number of books favored by China’s scholars remain small because of the difficulties of printing new ones? The cause and effect here are, as in so many cases, not cut and dried.)
The Tang dynasty didn’t just match the Han; it exceeded its illustrious predecessor in almost every particular. At their zenith, the Tang emperors ruled a territory almost twice as large as Inner China itself. Foreign trade flourished along with all other forms of cultural exchange; the Tang emperors had little interest in building walls. Chinese historians of the traditional stripe look back on this period with awe, painting it as a resurgence of native Chinese culture after the centuries of depredation Northern Inner China had suffered at the hands of the steppe dwellers. In reality, bloodlines had become hopelessly muddled during the long interregnum; Emperor Gaozu and his descendants almost certainly had plenty of non-Han Chinese blood running through their veins. Thus the triumph of the Tang dynasty is better seen as a victory for multiculturalism, as well as a tribute to the peculiar Chinese genius for cultural assimilation. But regardless, a triumphant period this definitely was.
In many ways, the Tang era stands as one of the great anomalies of Chinese history, even though its government bore many surface structural and philosophical similarities to what had come before with the Han and what would come again with later dynasties. Under the rule of the Tang dynasty more than any other, this normally inward-looking society peered outward. Although the Tang emperors gave plenty of lip service to Confucianism and did implement many of its best practices, they were not really orthodox Confucianists. Their reigns were too muscular to fit that label. Rather than paying tribute to foreigners to prevent war, they were more likely to demand that the foreigners pay tribute to them to prevent a Chinese attack.
Julia Lovell goes so far as to call Tang China “an antipodean fantasy world” in the context of the country’s history, a time when all of the usual trends were turned upside down and/or inside out. It was during the Tang period, for example, that this thoroughly patriarchal culture accepted its one and only female ruler to date. Empress Wu Zetian grabbed full control of the government for herself in 690 after the death of her husband, an emperor named Gaozong. While she didn’t manage to turn China into a matriarchal culture, she did govern assertively during her fifteen years in power, and seemed to take a certain perverse delight in putting the shoe of dynastic duty on the other gender’s foot while she was about it. For instance, she sent her male rather than her female relations away to marry into the ruling families of foreign kingdoms.
Perhaps because of her influence, Tang China in general seems to have granted women more freedom than the China of other periods. This was in fact the last era before the crippling form of female mutilation known as foot binding — surely one of the least appetizing aspects of imperial Chinese culture — became commonplace. Women were allowed to ride horses, to hunt, and to play polo, could own property and remarry if their husbands should die before them.
The Tang era was also a great literary age, still as famous among the Chinese today for that quality as the time of Shakespeare is in English-speaking lands. The society as a whole was well-nigh obsessed with poetry. Being a passable poet was considered another essential prerequisite for being considered a Gentleman, such that tests of one’s ability to versify were included in the government’s examination process. A truly gifted poet was a rock star in Tang China, exempt from the usual rules of behavior.
This fact is amply attested to by the life story of China’s canonical greatest poet of all, its nearest equivalent to Shakespeare. Li Bai, who lived from 701 to 762, is another of those exemplars of what Lin Yutang once called the “concentrated roguish philosophy of life,” a figure beloved by the Chinese people despite or because of his marked deviance from Confucianism’s idea of morality. He spent his life more or less constantly drunk, wandering from town to town, spinning his verse to anyone who would pay him a few pennies for it and reveling with the women he met along the way like a Chinese Dionysus.
Life in the world is but a big dream,
I will not spoil it by any labor or care.
So saying, I was drunk all the day,
Lying helpless at the porch in front of my door.
He is said to have died one beautiful summer night when, being on this occasion even more off his face than usual, he leaped into a river in an attempt to embrace the moon’s reflection there. A contemporary of his named Du Fu, another member of a group of poets who called themselves “The Six Idlers of the Bamboo Grove” — the name tells you everything you need to know about them — immortalized him thusly:
As for Li Bai, give him a jugful,
He will write one hundred poems.
He dozes in a wine shop
On a city street of Chang’an;
And though his sovereign calls,
He will not board the imperial barge.
“Please, your majesty,” says he,
“I am a god of wine.”
Li Bai and the others of his ilk can serve as a useful corrective to all of our talk of governments and philosophies and wars and emperors, a reminder that the larger part of all of our lives is made up of universal joys and sorrows that transcend the pedantic vagaries of history. Like Shakespeare, Li Bai is great because his verse captures the whole of life’s rich pageant. He understands the adolescent joys of new love:
Wine of the grapes,
Goblets of gold —
And a pretty maid of Wu —
She comes on pony-back; she is fifteen.
Blue-painted eyebrows —
Shoes of pink brocade —
Inarticulate speech —
But she sings bewitchingly well.
So, feasting at the table,
Inlaid with tortoise shell,
She gets drunk in my lap.
Ah, child, what caresses,
Behind lily-broidered curtains!
And he understands the adult sorrows of lost love:
Fair one, when you were here, I filled the house with flowers.
Fair one, now you are gone — only an empty couch is left.
On the couch the embroidered quilt is rolled up; I cannot sleep.
It is three years since you went. The perfume you left behind haunts me still.
The perfume strays about me forever; but where are you, beloved?
I sigh — the yellow leaves fall from the branch;
I weep — the dew twinkles white on the green mosses.
Tang China peaked during the early years of Emperor Xuanzong (“Brilliant Monarch”), whose lengthy reign spanned from 712 until 756. Will Durant paints an evocative portrait of this time of strength, unity, vitality, and wealth, during which Inner China’s population swelled to close to 80 million and the capital of Chang’an alone may have contained 1 million people; these numbers were large enough to make the two of them respectively the most populous land and city in the whole world.
[China exported] her surplus of rice, corn, silk, and spices, and spent her profits on unparalleled luxury. Her lakes were filled with carved and painted pleasure boats; her rivers and canals were picturesque with commerce, and from her harbors ships sailed to distant ports on the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Never before had China known such wealth; never had she enjoyed such abundant food, such comfortable houses, such exquisite clothing. While silk was selling in Europe for its weight in gold, it was a routine article of dress for half the population of the larger cities of China, and fur coats were more frequent in eighth-century Chang’an than in twentieth-century New York. One village near the capital had silk factories employing 100,000 men. “What hospitality!” exclaimed Li Bai. “What squandering of money! Red jade cups and rare dainty foods on tables inlaid with green gems!” Statues were carved out of rubies, and pretentious corpses were buried on beds of pearl. The great race was suddenly enamored of beauty, and lavished honors on those who could create it.
At the center of Emperor Xuanzong’s palace complex was an exotic menagerie of rhinoceroses, mongooses, ostriches, and parrots, collected as trade or tribute from the many foreign lands which felt the influence of China. Hundreds of horses were stabled there as well, the most magnificent examples of their species that could be found anywhere in the lands touched by China. Their saddle cloths were finely embroidered, their tack interwoven with gold and silver, their manes and tails braided through with jewelry of pearl and jade. They were trained to dance to “The Upturned Cup,” a good-time drinking song with several dozen verses, as they stood upon a three-tiered podium that was cleverly designed to make them look like they were floating in midair. Such was just one of the many spectacles of Tang China.
This China was a shockingly cosmopolitan place in comparison with most of the ones that would come later. Restaurants serving foreign cuisine of every description clogged the streets of the capital, and the boutiques were stuffed with foreign fashions. Musicians on street corners played strange music from remote climes, while merchants sold wines that had been bottled 1000 miles (1600 kilometers) away. Stalls operated by Persians, Turks, Uyghurs, Indians, Koreans, and Arabs filled the bazaars. Zoroastrian temples and even a few Christian churches stood in Chang’an, the latter marking China’s first significant reckoning with the Abrahamic religions of the West. At this time, the emperor was happy to treat Christianity with bemused tolerance, as just one more imported curiosity to be gawked at.
But Tang China had its share of native wonders as well. Chinese silk was more sumptuous than ever, and the homes of even those of relatively modest means were decorated with beautiful bone-white porcelain trinkets of every description. Porcelain itself was a fairly recent invention, being the ancient Chinese art of pottery taken to its acme. The material, hard and yet semi-translucent, was like nothing else in the world; small wonder that the Europeans of centuries later would go absolutely crazy for the stuff, would squander whole fortunes trying to figure out how on earth it was made.
Even as the Tang emperors’ armies ventured forth to conquer more territory than the Han had ever dreamed of, their land’s soft power was still more formidable. The younger but rapidly evolving cultures all around China, in places like Japan, Korea, and Tibet, couldn’t help but respond to the gravitational pull of this sun in the middle of their universe. The Chinese treated them all with graceful condescension, building accommodations and proto-universities in Chang’an to give the best and brightest among the other inhabitants of East Asia a chance to learn, then take that knowledge back to their own lands. Thus many of these lands around China came to base their own written languages on the Chinese glyphs, and most of them came to revere Confucius just as much as the Chinese themselves did. Confucian values have continued to profoundly influence all of the peoples of East Asia to this day.
In comparison with this part of the world, the post-classical West was a sad specimen indeed. China’s Silk Road trade with the Byzantine Empire and with Europe dwindled to a trickle or less; it was hard to sell luxury goods to people without the money to pay for them. Whatever the West had once known about China — which had never been all that much — it largely forgot now, and the lands far to the east again became a subject for myth and feverishly mistaken speculation among Europeans. Meanwhile the Chinese spared nary a thought for Europe. Why should they? There were, after all, more interesting and vibrant places all around them. During this period at least, China’s traditional convictions about the innate superiority of its culture were somewhat justified. The locus of human civilization had shifted indubitably eastward — permanently, as far as anyone could know.
The only civilization that actually was able to rival China on the world stage was one that had only recently sprung up on the Arab Peninsula and spread swiftly outward from there, driven by the messianic impulse of the new religion of Islam. These Muslim caliphates were pushing eastward into Central Asia at the same time that China was expanding westward. By the reign of Emperor Xuanzong, the vanguards of the world’s two superpowers had begun to bump into one another, and tensions were growing.
In 751, a coalition of Muslim Arabs and Turks decided to put an end to what they saw as Chinese encroachments into their territory. They assembled an army, which met a Chinese force near the Talas River, in the modern nation of Kyrgyzstan. There followed the only battle in all of history between a Muslim empire and China — also the most westerly battle ever fought by a Chinese army. Our only remotely detailed report of it comes from the Chinese side, and is quite probably self-flattering. According to this account, the two armies fought one another to a bloody standstill for two full days, until a Turkish tribe that had agreed to join with the Chinese suddenly turned traitor and attacked their compatriots. After that, the Battle of Talas turned into a “crushing defeat” for the Chinese, as even their historians are forced to acknowledge in the end.
But it seems that the Muslims never seriously tried to pursue their advantage, nor did the Chinese seek revenge. These two imposing civilizations instead tacitly agreed to accept the current limits of their spheres of influence. The whole episode stands as one of those hidden fault lines in history. Had China won at Talas and kept pushing determinedly westward, the world as we know it today would look considerably different to say the least. Ditto, for that matter, if the Muslims had elected to keep pushing eastward after their victory.
As it was, the Battle of Talas may have had one other important repercussion. It is said that the Muslims captured many Chinese prisoners there, and learned from them how to make paper. Archaeology does seem to bear this claim out: our first evidence of paper in the Muslim world dates from the second half of the eighth century. (Paper wouldn’t reach Europe until almost five centuries later — another measure of just how isolated and backward that region of the world was for the best part of a millennium after the fall of Rome.)
The turning point for the Tang dynasty, when its increase turned into decline, came soon after the Battle of Talas — in fact, when Emperor Xuanzong was still on the throne. The undoubtedly distorted traditional Chinese account blames it all on a woman, something that tends to happen quite a lot in Chinese historiography. The story goes that, after serving as a veritable model emperor during the first decades of his reign, Xuanzong became besotted with a concubine and fell into dissipation, neglecting all of his official duties. This created an opening for a steppe dweller turned courtier named An Lushan to say that Xuanzong had lost the Mandate of Heaven and to declare himself emperor in 755. The civil war that followed cost millions of lives according to the traditional histories, but their claims about the degree of carnage are so extreme that it seems they almost have to be exaggerated. At any rate, An Lushan managed to conquer Chang’an itself and to hold it for several years, until in 762 Xuanzong retook the capital at last, thereby ending the war with a restoration of the imperial status quo. He died soon after, reportedly still filled with shame for the folly that had brought so much suffering upon his people.
The Tang dynasty persisted for another century and a half after Xuanzong’s death, making a pretty good show of prosperity and opulence over much of that time, but the old dynamism and cosmopolitanism never fully returned. Complacency turned into corruption, corruption into deterioration, as the steppe peoples reclaimed most of the Tang empire outside Inner China. The Chinese gradually turned inward again; Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and even in many places Buddhism were banned amidst a generalized crackdown on foreign influences of all stripes. Civil strife and then civil war returned to Inner China as the Tang emperors slowly lost their grip on the reins of power. In 881, another rebel army occupied Chang’an, razing it to the ground this time. The emperor’s armies eventually reconquered the city, but there was no will or money to rebuild it. The ruins of Chang’an, whose fame as the “million-man city” had been the stuff of myth-making all over Asia, were left for the farmers and foresters to reclaim, and the Tang court moved to Luoyang for its dispiriting final years.
It was from there that the last Tang emperor was forced to abdicate in 907 by a petty warlord whose own pretensions to be the next Son of Heaven were taken seriously by no one outside his family circle. Instead of a new dynasty, chaos and conflict became the order of the day once again, during a period that Confucianist scholars would later lament as being among the most violent, lawless, and utterly unprincipled in the history of China.
On the brighter side, this latest interregnum in imperial rule would prove blessedly short on the scale of China’s improbably lengthy history. Just half a century later, a new dynasty would arise, bringing with it a new age of peace and order.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)