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The Tang Dynasty – The Golden Age of Chinese Civilization

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The last emperor of the Sui Dynasty, Yangdi, imposed many hardships on his citizens which led to a rebellion among his own people. He fled to the Grand Canal and lived a life of luxury. One of the generals tracked him down and killed him. Upon hearing the news back in Chang An, Li Yuan declared himself as the “Imperial Founder” and First Emperor of the Tang Dynasty. This marked the beginning of the golden age of China.

Since the previous empire was taken over, the Tang Dynasty naturally inherited all of the lands that were conquered by the Sui Dynasty. The new dynasty lies on the eastern coast of China, allowing overseas trade and new ideas to flood in. Rivers such as the Yellow River running through this area, which gave way for agriculture to develop. There was also the Silk Road that allowed China to trade with the western nations.

To piece together the broken glass of China that Yangdi crushed, the imperial founder set up six ministries to run personnel, army, justice, finance, public works, and rites. In addition to that, he divided the land equally among everyone, decreased taxes and improved the examination systems. This contrasts what the Sui emperor did, as he also welcomed foreigners along with their ideas, resulting in a successful, prosperous and diverse society.

The second emperor, Taizong was a very successful ruler who used a unique form of government that helped stabilize the empire. Employed advisors give their ruler the best advice they can provide and their most honest opinions rather than words that he would like to hear. The emperor would also take this advice into account when making decisions. This made the empire more powerful because the emperor’s actions would be beneficial to the whole empire rather than just to himself. The emperor divided the empire into regions that are very similar to the states and cities used today. The largest of the regions were called circuits and were ran by commissioners. Circuits were divided into prefectures ran by prefects, and then subdivided into districts ran by magistrates. Each of these contains a system of checks and balances to prevent the abuse of power. A secretariat wrote the laws, chancellery examined these laws, state of department carried out these laws, censorate investigated, and the supreme court conducted trials to review the laws. This whole system makes sure that no one is abusing their power and corrupting the government. It’s also very similar to the system of government the United States uses today with the executive, judicial and legislative branches. In addition, the Tang experimented with a system of government known as indirect rule. It basically meant that some groups can govern themselves, but the overall authority still remains with the Tang. Traditional tribal leaders who held government positions were allowed to govern their own people, having the independence to some degree, but were still ruled on Tang’s behalf. It’s a very effective way of governing the empire because there is still freedom, meaning that citizens are less likely to rebel due to oppression. This is also comparable to the senators since they represent each state and the mayors since they represent each town. To main a diplomatic relationship with allies, marriage was often used as the glue that bound them together. When the Turks invaded China, Taizong allied with the northerners to defeat the invaders. Ever since then, Chinese princesses were sent to the north to marry their leaders to secure the diplomatic relationship between the two. Having a princess sent to the allied nation signified how much one nation values the relationship, meaning that the diplomatic relationship will be much stronger and last longer. Having a healthy diplomatic relationship is very crucial to maintaining a powerful empire. With this new system of government and policies, Taizong was successfully able to stabilize China and maintain its peak.

The world famous, one and only Empress Wu’s reign also coincided with the golden age of Tang. Wu Zetian actually started out as the concubine of the second emperor, Taizong. When Taizong died, Gaozong inherited the throne and crowned Wu as the Empress. When Gaozong died, Wu Zetian declared herself as emperor, and thus, became known as the only woman emperor of imperial Chinese history. She defied Confucius teaching and the oppositions of her ministers since all believed that women were inferior. During her rule, women were given more rights than they ever had before. They were educated and allowed to be financially independent. Even divorce was permitted. Women were given a lot more freedom so Wu herself earned many loyal supporters from this action alone. She also promoted Buddhism and in fact, making it the state religion as opposed to Daoism. She used religion as a ladder to increase her social position, which definitely worked as she was able to maintain her position and gained even more supporters. In addition to that, she reduced taxes and allowed the peasants to keep a larger share of their crops to themselves. With this, she won the heart of peasants and had their undying loyalty as they prospered under her reign. She also established harmonious relations with the bordering states who were always seen as trouble. The Empress handled relations very well, avoiding conflicts with neighboring states that can possibly lead to war and cause the downfall of the empire. Even with all the controversy and oppositions, Empress Wu held her place and was actually able to prove herself worthy and prolong the golden age of China.

The Tang had also directly influenced Korea and left a lasting impact on the nation. When Korea first developed, it was broken down into three sections, and the Shilla was one of the three. The Tang dynasty supported and helped the Shilla conquer its neighbors and maintained absolute rule in Korea. In return, they paid tribute to China. Due to the close relationships between the two nations, China had shaped the Korean society. Confucian principles served as a basis for their government, and civil service exams were also used. The Tang Legal Code was adopted as well. Buddhism was introduced, and so was the Chinese written language. From the late seventh century all the way up to the late fourteenth century, the Koreans used the Chinese language. From then on, Korea started to depart from Chinese culture. However, even today, there is still evidence of Chinese culture in Korean society. For example, Buddhism is still practiced in Korea. Adding onto that, Korean family names such as Lee actually derived from the Chinese surname “Li”.

An important factor that led to the Tang Dynasty golden age of literature was the invention of woodblock printing. Because of this invention, hundreds, and maybe even thousands of copies were printed. A book would require several blocks, but these carved pieces can be stored for years at a time. Authorities also used the woodblocks for signatures, as they would have their custom made. When their stamp is indicated on a document, it meant that the emperor or someone holding an important position in government had permitted the document. This invention is still widely used today. Doctors have medical stamps to authorize that they have done the checkups the students needed for school. Legal papers also require these stamps in order to prove its authenticity, which is similar to how the Tang Dynasty used it.

Another great accomplishment of the Tang Dynasty is, of course, their literature. With the invention of woodblock printing, the age of written records boomed. Tang scholars were mostly known for their poems that were created mostly based on a man’s connection with nature. Historian Roberts himself claimed, “The poetry written during that reign was later regarded as a model which all Chinese poets might try to emulate, but could never hope to surpass. An eighteenth- century anthology, The Three Hundred Tang Poems, has become a treasure of poems familiar to all educated Chinese.” These poems often contain an important moral that elders would tell their younger ones. Not only that, students in China today still learn and memorize the poems of the Tang by heart, since they contain a great educational value.

Bibliography

  1. Hantke, J. (2009, Spring). N. Harry Rothschild. Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor. World History Bulletin, 25(1), 35. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A250579439/GPS?u=nysl_me_nyc72_bh&sid=GPS&xid=7b1e5a18
  2. Jenson-Elliott, C. L. (2015). Ancient Chinese Dynasties. San Diego, CA: ReferencePoint Press.
  3. Mah, A. Y. (2011). China: Land of Dragons and Emperors. New York: Ember.
  4. Wu Zetian’s road to power. (2000, Apr 10). China Daily Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/257775967?accountid=35119         

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