According to historian Mark Edward Lewis:
- Most Chinese regard the Tang dynasty (618-907) as the high point of Imperial China, both politically and culturally. The empire reached its greatest size prior to the Manchu Qing Dynasty, becoming the center of and East Asian world linked by religion, script, and many economic and political institutions. Moreover, Tang writers produce the finest poetry in China’s great lyric tradition.
The Tang dynasty was founded by Emperor Gaozu on 18 June 618. It was a golden age of Chinese civilization and considered to be the most prosperous period of China with significant developments in culture, art, literature, particularly poetry, and technology. Buddhism became the predominant religion for the common people. Chang’an (modern Xi’an), the national capital, was the largest city in the world during its time.
The second emperor, Taizong, is widely regarded as one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history, who had laid the foundation for the dynasty to flourish for centuries beyond his reign. Combined military conquests and diplomatic maneuvers were implemented to eliminate threats from nomadic tribes, extend the border, and submit neighboring states into a tributary system. Military victories in the Tarim Basin kept the Silk Road open, connecting Chang’an to Central Asia and areas far to the west. In the south, lucrative maritime trade routes began from port cities such as Guangzhou. There was extensive trade with distant foreign countries, and many foreign merchants settled in China, encouraging a cosmopolitan culture. The Tang culture and social systems were observed and imitated by neighboring countries, most notably, Japan. Internally the Grand Canal linked the political heartland in Chang’an to the agricultural and economic centers in the eastern and southern parts of the empire.
Underlying the prosperity of the early Tang dynasty was a strong centralized bureaucracy with efficient policies. The government was organized as “Three Departments and Six Ministries” to separately draft, review, and implement policies. These departments were run by royal family members as well as scholar officials who were selected by imperial examinations. These practices, which matured in the Tang dynasty, were continued by the later dynasties, with some modifications.
Under the Tang “equal-field system” all land was owned by the Emperor and granted to people according to household size. Men granted land were conscripted for military service for a fixed period each year, a military policy known as the “Fubing system”. These policies stimulated a rapid growth in productivity and a significant army without much burden on the state treasury. By the dynasty’s midpoint, however, standing armies had replaced conscription, and land was continuously falling into the hands of private owners.
The dynasty continued to flourish under the rule of Empress Wu Zetian, the only empress regnant in Chinese history, and reached its zenith during the long reign of Emperor Xuanzong, who oversaw an empire that stretched from the Pacific to the Aral Sea with at least 50 million people. There were vibrant artistic and cultural creations, including works of the greatest Chinese poets, Li Bai, and Du Fu.
At the zenith of prosperity of the empire, the An Lushan Rebellion from 755 to 763 was a watershed event that devastated the population and drastically weakened the central imperial government. Upon suppression of the rebellion, regional military governors, known as Jiedushi, gained increasingly autonomous status. With loss of revenue from land tax, the central imperial government relied heavily on salt monopoly. Externally, former submissive states raided the empire and the vast border territories were irreversibly lost for subsequent centuries. Nevertheless, civil society recovered and thrived amidst the weakened imperial bureaucracy.
In late Tang period, there were ineffective and corrupt rulers and officials in the imperial court allowing regional warlords to trigger widespread revolts. The most catastrophic was the Huang Chao Rebellion, from 874 to 884, which affected the entire empire for a decade. The sack of the southern port Guangzhou in 879 was followed by the massacre of most of its inhabitants, along with the large foreign merchant enclaves. By 881, both capitals, Luoyang and Chang’an, fell successively. The reliance on ethnic Han and Turkic warlords in suppressing the rebellion increased their power and influence. Consequently, the fall of the dynasty following Zhu Wen’s usurpation led to an era of fragmentation.