The Tang dynasty was characterized by a unified China with a strong central government and efficient communication routes. Economy and culture was flourishing, and my historians see Tang as one of the most brilliant epochs of Chinese history.

tangA very important character of this era was Li Shih-min (598-649 AD), the Prine of Qin who became Emperor Tai-tsung in 629 and reigned the empire until his death in 649. Even though he was the second emperor of the Tang dynasty, he is widely regarded as its co-founder for his role in encouraging his father Li Yuan to rebel against the Sui dynasty in 617.

Emperor Tai-tsung is generally described as an open-minded and intelligent man. His homeland lay along the Chinese-Turkish frontier, making him keenly familiar with the problem posed by raiding Turks. As an emperor, he brought both the Turks and the oasis settlements of the Gobi desert into his sphere of influence. In 630, the nomadic Eastern Turks who had been pressing southward from Mongolia were crushed by the Tang army. Now, many northwest tribes in Central Asia sent envoys to the Tang court, asking for the Emperors protection. Based on their own political system, they confered Emperor Tai-tsung with the title Heavenly Khan, or Khan of Khans. A political-military alliance emerged that included parts of both Eastern, Central and Southern Asia.

Eventually, Emperor Tai-tsung came to directly rule an area larger than that of the Han dynasty.

Trade routes during the Tang dynasty

Emperor Tai-tsung promoted international trade and encouraged it by bettering the trade routes to Persia and India, and his legacy lived on ever after his death in 649. The Tang dynasty had several reasons to put pressure on the Western Turks, and keeping raiders away from the trade routes was one of them.

In 657, the Tang army pressed the Western Turks westward, and in 660-668 the dynasty brought both Manchuria and most of Korea under Tang control. The Tang also conquered a region that we today know as Xingjian. A well-known route of the Silk Road ran through it, so controlling it was important for Emperor Tai-tsung’s son and successor Emperor Gaozong.

Eventually, Emperor Gaozong controlled nine different kingdoms located in and around Samarkand, Tashkent and Merv, plus another 16 kingdoms in Kashmir, Afghanistan and Iran. The Tang court dispatched military governors to these various areas, as far west as Teheran.

The Tan/g dynasty also helped guard the Silk Road by creating garrison posts, such as the ones in Kucha and Tokmak.

Metropolitan Ch’ang during the Tan dynasty

The Tang dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907, was characterized by economic growth and population growth within China. Between th 630s and the year 755, the population trippled to include circa 9 million families and 53 million people.

tang lionPartly, the population growth was fueled by migration to China along the Silk Road, especially to the city Ch’ang-an which grew into one of the largest and wealthies cities in the world. Around the 8th century, when Europe was going through the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and many cities in the former empire were abandonned or largely diminished in size, Ch’ang in the Eastern World flourished and went through a period of immense growth. If we include the suburbs, Ch’ang was home to approximately 2 million people at this time.

Ch’ang was open to visitors and migrants from other parts of the world, and we can see how both Chinese art and Chinese lifestyle in the city is impacted by influences from other cultures. In addition to merchants and artisans, the city appealed to relgious missionaries and pilgrims from India and Central Asia. Entertainers from abroad also made the city their home, for shorter or longer periods of time. During the 8th century, harpers and dancers from Central Asia were enormously popular both in Ch’ang and in several other Chinese cities, and we can see how traditional Turk folksongs inspired Chinese poetry. Even today, the Chinese names for many musical instruments have their roots in words borrowed from other languages during this era of cultural exchange.

In the 9th century, books about the exotic Far West became popular in China, including Ch’ang, and the stories were both read and retold. Even if you couldn’t read yourself, you could go and listen to one of the many storytellers in Ch’ang who made a living bringin these stories to life for their audiences. Storytellers could be found everywhere in the city; from the streets to the imperial court. Much later, some of the stories would evolve into classic plays performed on Chinese stages.

Chinese art & foreign influence

Contact with foreign lands had a major impact on Chinese art, partly becaue of inspiration from the outside world and partly because Chinese artists started producing items that would be appealing to the foreign markets.

When we look at surviving figurines from the Tang dynasty, it is striking how many of them that have foreign faces. Many Chinese artists created figurines depicting the gods, prophets and saints of foreign cultures.

For the Chinese, some of the most striking features of the western foreigners were the big noses and bearded faces, and this is depicted in the art of the Tang dynasty.

On of the Tang dynasty artists that we know the name of is Visa Irasanga, who migrated to China in the 7th century. He was a native of the Kingdom of Khotan, an Iranic Saka Buddhist kingdom located on the branch of the Silk Road that ran along the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin. In the mid-7th century, Visa Irasanga – or Yu-Chic I-seng as he called himself in China – worked at the Chinese court, where he introduced a paiting style of Iranian origin that would come to have a profound impact on Chinese Buddhist art.

Exotic imports

During the Tang Dynasty, caravans travelling the Silk Road brought all sorts of exotic products to China, and exotic goods also arrived by ship from places such as India, Indoniesia, Korea, and Japan. Some products were of course very expensive and only available to the absolute top-layer of Chinese society, but there were also imported goods that permeated most of the social classes, especially if you lived in or near one of the big trading hubs in China.

“Ever since the Western horsemen began raising smut and dust,
Fur and fleece, rank and rancid, have filled Hsien and Lo.
Women make themselves Western matrons by the study of Western makeup;
Entertainers present Western tunes, in their devotion to Western music.”

– Yuan Chen, Tang dynasty poet

tang dynastyA few examples of imports during the Tang dynasty:

  • Glass goblets from Byzantium (East Rome)
  • Horses from Karashar and Kucha
  • Crystals and agate from Samarkand
  • Medicine and Buddhist scriptures from India
  • Jade from Khotan
  • Cotton from Turfan

A few examples of exports:

  • Silk cloth
  • Tea
  • Ceramics
  • Paper

Horses

One of the most notable imports to China during the Tang dynasty is high-quality horses from the West. For a long time, 50 million feet of silk was handed to Turkic tribes over each year in exchange for horses, chiefly for the Tang cavalry.

Horses are a status symbol in Tang, and feature heavily in Tang art.

The six steeds of Emperor Tai-tsung attains a kind of legendary status in Chinese folklore after being integral to so many of his significant military triumphs.

One of the Tang emperors is known to have kept circa 40,000 horses in his stable, chiefly to be used for war and for games such as horse polo.

Exotic food

During the Tang dynasty, the Chinese developed a taste for foreign ingredients and foreign dishes.

The Silk Road brought many exotic ingredients to China, such as peas, garlic, spinach, and mustard – none of which were grown in China.

The arts of making sugar from sugar cane and wine from grapes were imported from India.

Fore a while, foreign cakes became highly fashionable, especially a steamed variety decorated with sesame seeds. These cakes were typically not made by the Chinese themselves but by immigrants residing in China.

Foreign fashion

Foreign clothing and foreigh hairstyles were especially trendy during the 8th century.

In Ch’ang-an and Loyang, Turkish and East Iranian styles were highly sought after.

Wearing a Iranian leopard skin hat while on horseback was the height of fashion for men, and many women also wore foreign hats – or Uighur chignons – when riding horses.

Prince Li, the son of Emperor Tai-tsung, even erected a Turkish camp on the palace grounds where he dressed, spoke and generally lived like a Turk.

Foreign religions

The Tang emperors took pride in being open-minded when it came to religion and show an interest in many different faiths and belief systems.

Examples of religions practised in China during the Tang dynasty:

  • Buddhism
  • Taoism
  • Nestorian Christianity, chiefly followed by Syrian immigrants. A Nestorian church was built in 638.
  • Zoroastrianism / Mazdayasna. The temple in Ch’ang-an was rebuilt in 631.
  • Manichaeism
  • Islam, chiefly followed by Persian and Arab traders

Buddhism enjoyed a wide following in China during the Tang dynasty, with Chinese monks travelling to India to study Buddhism there and bring back sacred texts that would be translated into Chinese. China was also visited by many Buddhist pilgrims from India and Central Asia. The close connection to India also brought in new ideas in fields such as health care, astronomy and mathemathics.

A great learning center called The National Academy flourished during the Tang dynasty. At this academy, students could study Buddhism, Confusianism, litterature, art, and architecture. Many of the students came from other countries, such as Japan, Tibet and the Korean penninsula. Some of the foreign students assimilated into Chinese life, took on Chinese names and worked at the Chinese court after passing the civil service examinations. The emperor employed many foreign-born civil cervants.

Horse polo

Among the Chinese nobility and rich military men, horse polo became a popular sport during the Tang dynasty. It had been introduced to China from Persia in the early 7th century. It was an expensive sport to play since you needed a good horse and special equipment fashioned by expert craftsmen.

Foreign visitors and migrants during the Tang dynasty

As mentioned above, large numbers of foreigners came to China during the Tang dynasty. How long they stayed would of course vary. Some came to trade, made a profit, and then return home. Others came to study or work for a few years; and then there were also those who settled down for a decade or more.

A majority of the foreigners that came to northern China hailed from Central Asia or even further to the west or north. Turks, Uighurs, Tocharians, Indian, Sogdians, Arabs, Persians, and Jews were all fairly common in northern China during this dynasty. In southern China, a majority of the foreigners were instead Chams, Khmers, Javanese, or Singhalese, although Indians, Arabs and Persians were common here to. The Chams came from Champa, located in what we today know as central and southern Vietnam.

The Iranian population in China must have been important, because the Tang government had a special Office of the Sarthavak devoted to them. In Chinese, Sarthavak means caravan leader, so it was probably the Iranian’s strong ties to the lucrative trade with the Far West that made them so important to the Tangs.

Segregated quarters

Within the Chinese cities that had sizeable foreign-born populations, segregated quarters developed. From each of these quarters, the city government would select an influential man who would become the quarter chief and handle communications between the quarter and the governmental authorities.

If foreigner committed a crime against another foreigner from the same land, the customary law of their land was applied even though the crime took place on Chinese soil. If a foreigner commited a crime against a foreigner from another land, or against a Chinese, Chinese law prevailed.

Integration

Many foreigners adopted Chinese life-style habits and it was quite common to also adopt a Chinese name.

Intermarriage was permitted and a common occurance, but a foreign man marrying a Chinese woman was prohibited by Chinese law to take her back to his home coutry. The law did not prevent Chinese women from travelling to foreign lands to marry a foreigner there, and as noted above there was quite a few marriages taking place in this fashion to streghten the alliances between the Tang dynasty and foreign peoples who were loyal to the Tangs.

In 779, a law was passed requiring Uighurs (but no other foreigners) living in Ch’ang to wear their own native clothing and forbade them from passing themselves off as Chinese in any way. They were also prohibied from marrying a Chinese.

The 800s

In the 800s, Chinese resentment against the foreigners were growing strong, and in 836 a law was passed that only allowed professional dealings betweent the Chinese and the foreigners. Thus, friendship, love and other forms of camaraderie were outlawed.

In 845, all religions considered foreign to Chinese culture were persecuted.

Major Events of Tang in Central Asia

Time Events
566 Birth of Li Yuan, future Emperor Gaozu, first emperor of the Tang dynasty
598 Birth of Li Shimin, future Emperor Tai-tsung, second emperor of the Tang dynasty
618 The Tang dynasty is founded and Li Yuan becomes its first emperor; Emperor Gaozu
626 Li Shimin ascends the throne, becoming Emperor Tai-tsung, second emperor of the Tang dynasty
626 Eastern Turks from Outer Mongolia crosses the Gobi led by Hsieh-li Kaghan.

After failing to conquer the Tang dynasty capital, they ask for peace with the new emperor.

629-644 The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuan Zang makes a pilgrimage to India, travelling the Silk Road, and brings back a lot of information to China about Buddhism and the lands the travelled through.
630-682 During this period, the Khanate of the Easter Turks is subject to China.
632 Khotan surrenders to Tang.
635 The son of Khotan starts serving in Tang’s imperial guard.
640 Turfan revolts. The revolt is crushed by the Tang army.
643 The Tang Emperor sends an ambassador to Emperor Harcha in India.
644 The Tang army conqueres Karashar, under the command of General Kuo Ksiao-ke.
646-648 Kusha and Karashar rise against Tang, but are defeated.
649 Li Zhi ascends the throne, becoming Emperor Gaozong, the third emperor of Tang. He rules until his death in 683, although due to his poor health, much of the governance is in the hands of his wife Empress Wu from 665.
665 The Western Turks rebells.
670 Several kingdoms in the Tarim Basin are taken over by Tibet, including “The Four Garrisons”, i.e. Khotan, Kashgar, Karashar, and Kucha.

 

683 Death of Emperor Gaozong. Empress Wu becomes Empress regnant Wu Zetian. She rules during the short Zhou dynasty (684-705) that interupts the Tang dynasty.

 

In 692, she wins back the Four Garrisons of the Tarim Basin.

705 The Tang dynasty returns, as Li Xian becomes Emperor Zhongzong of Tang. He is the son of Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu, and he reigns from 705 to 710.
706 Under the leadership of Kultegin, Turks from Mongolia wins a great victory against the Tang army at Ning-hsia.

 

709 The Arabs imposes suzerainty on the kings of Bukhara and Samarkand.
713 After a few years of power struggles and instability at the Tang court in 710-713, Li Longji becomes Emperor Xuanzong, the 7th emperor of Tang. He reigns until 756 – the longest reign of the Tang dynasty.
714 By 714, Arab invadors have reached as far as Ferghana.
714 The Tang army defeats the Western Turks at Tokmak.
715 The Tang army drives the Arab forces out of Ferghana.
716 Bekchor, ruler of the Mongolian Turks, is killed. His head is sent to the Tang court.
736-744 The Tang army is busy fighting Turkish rebellions in the Ili Valley.
743-744 The Mongolian Turks are overthrown by Uigurs Turks, who become reliable allies of the Tang dynasty.
747 Gilgit, an important stop along the Silk Road, becomes a Chinese protectorate. Gilgit is strategically located near the confluence of the Gilgit River and Hunza River, in what we today know as Pakistan.
748 The Tang army, under general Kuo Tzu-i, helps Tokharestan fight off Tibetian forces.
751 A great defeat for the Tang army, led by general Kuo Tzu-i, takes place on the banks of the Talas. United Turkish and Arab forces wins the battle and destroys the Chinese forces. This battle would come to have a huge impact on the future development of Central Asia, and promote Islam over Buddhism in the region.
756 An Lu-shan revolts and occupies Ch’ang-an.
756 Li Heng becomes Emperor Suzong of Tang. He reigns 756-762.

 

He is the son of Emperor Xuanzong, and ascends the throne after his father’s flight to Sichuan during the An Lushan Rebellion. He is declared emperor by the Tang army in Lingwu, while An Lu-shan is still holding Ch’ang-an.

 

757 Emperor Suzong, aided by the Uigurs, restors Ch’ang-an and Loyang.
762 A rebellion takes control of Loyang. The ruler of the Uigurs leads his cavalry from Mongolia to Loyang, saving the Tangs from the rebellion.

 

762-840 Several Tang princesses marry men at the Uigur court, strengtening the alliance.

 

 

840 The Uigurs are overthrown by the Kirghiz Turks.