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The Tang Dynasty: Educating to Disempower, Diminish, and Distract

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From the Early to Late Tang Dynasty, whether it was Emperor Taizong or Empress Wu reigning, efforts were made to create a strong, central government that weakened opportunity for the interests of wealthy individuals and families and had censors and cabinet heads report directly to the emperor / empress. In fact, with the rise of centralization, the demand for government servants increased, causing the system to break free from only seeking well-off citizens and, instead, also seeking men of low-class for the opportunity. This opened the need for education investment and created an examination system to access more eligible scholars. Though the military system drafted a huge peasant infantry, developed and applied new technologies, and supplied farms of cavalry, the diversion of academia weakened the development of military control in China. The Tang Dynasty used education as a political tool to advise heirs to limit militarial investment, promote low-level civil servants instead of soldiers, and encourage mothers to raise their children in a scholarly manner in order to disempower the military aristocracy, truly centralizing the Chinese government.

First of all, in ‘Emperor Taizong on Effective Government,’ the second Tang emperor writes advice on governing for his heir, saying, ‘A warlike country, however huge and safe it may be, will end up declining and endangering its populace’. Though military force cannot be entirely eliminated, he mentions that it should not be used all of the time . Instead, Emperor Taizong emphasizes the importance of academia: ‘Nothing is better than literature to spread manners and guide customs; nothing is better than schooling to propagate regulations and educate people’ (Buckley 91). Because he is writing this for his heir, this is a leadership mentality Emperor Taizong hopes for his successors to inherit and embody generation after generation. As he idealizes to no longer prioritize military expansion, he creates room for the heir to find the importance in educating the scholarly citizen to enforce law, especially considering that the Tang Lawcode was just established in this era and Taizong urges for it to persist in the future . By advocating for study and ritual halls to be built, books of various schools of thought to be read, and the six arts to be carefully studied, we begin to drift from military power being on the emperor’s agenda and the agenda of emperors to come. In the Tang society, Emperor Taizong wanted a more intellectually-based society, and because he wanted a centralized government and military advancement would then be a foreign affair, it was time to weaken the military force with the distraction of academia. Here, education was used as a political tool to advise heirs to no longer have military advancement as a priority by the time of their reign.

Secondly, in “The Examination System,” representing the Late Tang Dynasty under Empress Wu’s reign, we learn of the prestigious examination that an expanded pool of candidates, including gentry class, took in order to be selected for distinguished posts in the government. If an individual were to pass the top exam, the whole family would earn tremendous honor, which resulted to the increase of candidates aspiring for a seat in office, including the way they lived their lives. Because 400,000 students took provincial exams, 10,000 students took top-level capital exams, and only 500 students were selected for jobs in the central government, these men ‘now had to devote more effort and energy to preparing for the examination by studying the classics and practicing literary composition. (Buckley 98)’ As demonstrated, this is an incredibly selective examination. Regardless, this text encourages those of lower class to pursue it anyway. Xiao Yingshi, an individual who passed the test, turned a blind eye to an old man and a page boy in need of a place to stay, not realizing that the old man is one of the councilmen of China. Minzhong, who was pressured to turn his back on his friend He Baji in order for a seat in the council, decided to save his friendship rather destroying it for greed. This, in turn, resulted to the both of them being offered positions for their loyalty to one another and their good dignity. Though Zhan Bi was deemed lowly compared to his cousin Peng Kan, through time, he was able to pass the examination as well… “When Zhan Bi the exams did pass, Peng Kan fell off his ass. (Buckey 99)” All of these examples demonstrate the ability for the poor to rise as long as they study hard and embody good character.

As we learned in Emperor Taizong’s advice for his heir, “Teach people military arts when they are free from farming” (Buckley 91). Though it does not directly address education and instead mentions farming, a profession that is not necessarily crucial for economic growth – China mainly imported music, instruments, porcelain, and pants, we can conclude that the urgency to train their men for the military is not held to as high standard as other activities in their life. Because most of their men devoted themselves to prepare for the rigor of the examination, education was used as a political tool to divert the focus of the men’s lives away from military training. Thus, the examination system contributed to sidetracking military development.

Lastly, in “The Mother of Mencius,’ The Book of Songs often accounts Mencius’ mother as someone who ‘knew the right influences for her son’ and someone who ‘understood the way of motherhood’ (Buckley 96). When Mencius left school without a valid explanation, she scolded him saying, “The superior person studies to establish a reputation and gain wide knowledge.’ She added, “If a woman neglects her work or a man gives up the cultivation of his character, they may end up as common thieves if not slaves!” (Buckley 97). Mothers who prioritized and pressured academics onto their children were sought to be the ideal standard, according to the Book of Songs, insinuating other mothers of the Tang Dynasty to do the same. As for the children, they were put in an ultimatum to might as well be a lowly thief if they were not working towards being a respectable man. With a more studious upbringing, these children may grow up more prepared to take the examination to become a scholar later on in life and bring their family honor. To further show these motherly academic values in retrospect to the military, before Mencius and his mother settled down by a school house, they lived near a cemetery. Growing up, he played burial rituals and built tombs and grave mounds as if he took death and all things related quite lightly and enjoyable. If this were for the military, he would have grown up to be an emotionally and a mentally strong individual who would not have suffered when encountering the loss of others. Because education was used as a political tool for mothers to raise their children in a particular way that purely valued academics, those kids grew up with little to no military-like experience, causing the unreadiness to develop military troops in later years with many mothers and their sons to come.

On the contrary, despite education’s restrictions on military development, the Tang dynasty was known to be the most threatening army of all societies at the time. After all, the military system drafted a huge peasant infantry effective for defense, developed and applied new technologies like the crossbow and metal armor, and established huge government-run farms to supply cavalry effective for attack (Prof. Janet Smarr, “Tang,” February 2019). Some may even argue that it is the combination of education and military power that allowed for the Tang Dynasty military to grow as strong as it did, for ‘neither military nor culture can the country do without’ (Buckley 91). However, we must root back to Empress Wu who ruled at the time and aimed for a centralized government, preferring peace to war. Because of her concentrated efforts on internal development with the established class of gentry scholars as a political tool of diversion, the dynasty grew academically and even economically with the prosperity of Chinese literature production, though foreign trade was discontinued. In addition, she executed hundreds of aristocrats who opposed her, ensuring that the examination system was emphasized and that men strived only for the scholarly ladder. Due to her men cultivating a lack of experience in foreign affairs, the Tang Dynasty suffered when the An Lu-Shan Rebellion took place in which a Sogdian-Turkish individual attempted to overthrow the dynasty (Prof. Janet Smarr, “An Lu-Shan Rebellion,” February 2019). Because it got out of control, the Tang Dynasty relied on assistance from Tibertans and Uighurs, which caused the Tang Dynasty to lose control of trade routes and horse farms. If education and military influences were working together, foreign affairs should not have been as damaging as it did if they were prepared. However, because education was used as a deviation from military investment, the Tang Dynasty fell.

In conclusion, the Tang Dynasty used education as a political tool to disempower the military, resulting in the decline of the dynasty. By advising heirs to prioritize education and other activities, Emperor Taizong ensured that, for decades to come, the military investment would be limited. By promoting low-level civil servants, Empress Wu used her examination system and gentry scholars to draw away military focus and instead preoccupy the men with academics. By encouraging mothers to raise their children in a scholarly manner like Mencius’s, mothers of the Tang Dynasty were pressured to train their kids to follow jinshi careerpaths and not that of soldiers. To conclude that the development of education within the dynasty was used to depower the military means that the significance lies in the better understanding of the Tang Dynasty decline, the better understanding of ancient China as a whole, and even the better understanding of other societies who grew academically but were still destroyed when foreign nations came into contact. While today we tend to believe education as one’s opportunity to climb the social ladder, the Tang Dynasty believed it to be an opportunity to weaken the military. And weaken the military, it did.

Works Cited

  1. Smarr, Janet. “Tang,” MMW 12 “Classical and Medieval Tradition.” University of California San Diego, 13 February 2019. Lecture.
  2. Smarr, Janet. “Emp Wu,” MMW 12 “Classical and Medieval Tradition.” University of California San Diego, 15 February 2019. Lecture.
  3. Smarr, Janet. “An Lu-Shan Rebellion,” MMW 12 “Classical and Medieval Tradition.” University of California San Diego, 20 February 2019. Lecture.
  4. Buckley, Patricia. Emperor Taizong on Effective Government (648). Smarr, Course Reader, pp. 91.
  5. Buckley, Patricia. The Examination System. Smarr, Course Reader, pp. 98-99.
  6. Buckley, Patricia. The Mother of Mencius. Smarr, Course Reader, pp. 91.

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