The Tang Dynasty began in 618CE and ended in 907CE. It was a period of political stability and economic strength, which in turn led to important cultural and artistic developments. The Tang Dynasty is often considered to be the high-point of Chinese civilization. However, the Tang court lost much of its power during the 9th century, and finally collapsed in 907CE. This was followed by several decades of political unrest called the “Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period”.
A large part of the reason why the Tang Dynasty was so stable and strong was because of the dynasty that ruled before it: The Sui Dynasty. Although the Sui Dynasty lasted less than 4 decades (581-618CE), it unified a country that had been torn apart by approximately 400 years of warfare and political disunity. The Sui Dynasty re-unified China, centralized government, standardized coinage, expanded the Great Wall of China, and extended the Great Canal – all of which strengthened the economic and political situation in China.
Although the Sui Dynasty did not last long, the Tang Dynasty continued much of Sui’s efforts and created a highly organized government the likes of which the world had never seen. During the early Tang dynasty, China’s territory expanded because of military campaigns, and communication and trade advanced thanks in part to the Grand Canal China’s silk road economic belt.
The capital during the Tang Dynasty was the city of Chang’an (today called Xi’an). Chang’an was a cosmopolitan city with influences and residents from central Asia, India, Iran, and beyond. The cosmopolitan flavor of China’s capital city reflects the fact that the Tang Dynasty had expanded China’s influence to far away places. Distant nations such as Kashmir and Japan came under the political and cultural influence of Tang China, and the famous trading route — The Silk Road — reached its zenith. This meant that international trade flourished, and the Chinese economy became strong.
The period between 710 and 755CE was the most brilliant period of the Tang Dynasty. The imperial examinations — which aimed to allow only the most talented people into the Chinese government – became more effective during Tang China; Chinese administration reached its maturity; land distribution (which taxes were collected properly) become highly efficient; and the army was strong and well-organized.
The Tang Dynasty was also the only time a woman emperor officially ruled China; Empress Wu Zetian interrupted the Tang Dynasty to form her own short-lived Zhou Dynasty in 690CE. Wu Zetian’s becoming emperor of China would not have been possible if it had not been for the power and influence of the Buddhist Church during the Tang Dynasty. This shows us how important the Buddhist religion was during this period, as it was able to influence the court in such a serious way.
The decline of Tang
For all its power and might, the Tang dynasty began to decline in the second half of its rule. The land distribution and taxation system weakened, and the power of army leaders grew out of control. While large armies were created to protect Tang China and help spread its influence to other nations, it eventually posed a threat to the central government. This led to the very deadly An Shi Rebellion of 755-763CE. The rebellion affected the Tang government so much that it was never able to fully recover its power. This marked a turning point in China’s history, influencing China’s external relations, polices, and economic situation. Namely, it led to a decline in central authority, a decline in trade, and to more military rebellions.