Founding of the Tang Dynasty Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A newly reunified China became the most powerful state in East Asia. Its material wealth allowed first for an explosion of culture and later a flourishing of Buddhism.

Summary of Event

When the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-200 c.e.) collapsed, China slipped into 350 years of political and social chaos. This period of instability eventually ended when the Sui Dynasty Sui Dynasty (581-618) came to power and set China back on the road toward political unity. The new emperor, Wendi Wendi (Sui emperor) , set in motion a series of public works projects; among the most notable was the construction of the Grand Canal Grand Canal (China) . To create this waterway, Wendi’s civil engineers essentially connected a series of preexisting canals that would form a 1,200-mile (1,930-kilometer) corridor linking the economies of northern and southern China. [kw]Founding of the Tang Dynasty (618) [kw]Tang Dynasty, Founding of the (618) Tang Dynasty China;618: Founding of the Tang Dynasty[0300] Government and politics;618: Founding of the Tang Dynasty[0300] Cultural and intellectual history;618: Founding of the Tang Dynasty[0300] Wendi Li Yuan Xuanzang Huang Chao

The Sui also launched a series of military expeditions against China’s mainland neighbors and eventually invaded the Korean Korea;Chinese invasion of peninsula. The initial success of these campaigns was short-lived, and a series of tactical reverses, especially in Korea, resulted in the deaths of thousands of soldiers. These military failures, coupled with years of high taxes and forced labor related to the emperor’s public works projects, led to rebellion and to the eventual defeat of Sui forces.

One of the leaders of the rebellion, Li Yuan Li Yuan (Tang emperor) , capitalized on the destruction of the Sui Dynasty and declared that the mandate of heaven (heavenly approval of rule) had passed into his hands, and he established a new dynasty known as the Tang (T’ang; 618-907). This new government would usher in an era of Chinese dominance in East Asia.

Like most of the Tang emperors, Li Yuan, who is known as Gaozu (Kao-tsu), created a political philosophy that was a blend of Confucianism and Legalism. This philosophical synthesis actually mirrored the personal characteristics of Gaozu and his successors. The emperor was more than willing to execute anyone who posed a potential political threat, and this “Legalist” attitude enabled him to structure a stable political environment. Once power was assured, Gaozu installed a Confucian system that created a governmental bureaucracy based on the merit of competitive civil service exams. These actions created an environment of peace and prosperity that formed the foundation of China’s next golden age.

One of the Tang Dynasty’s greatest developments was the restructuring of the Chinese economy. In the agricultural sector, the government introduced the equal-field system that allocated land according to the needs of the individual Chinese family. The impact of the system was twofold. It guaranteed that every Chinese household would be working on rich fertile land; this ensured that the people’s labor would be rewarded with bountiful harvests and economic security for their families. Most important, the equal-field system prevented the accumulation of large tracts of land by wealthy aristocrats that was the root cause of the peasant rebellions during the Han Dynasty. Agriculture;China

The productive potential of the equal-field system was unleashed at the same time that the government introduced a new, fast-ripening strain of rice into the Chinese agricultural sector. This new species allowed for multiple harvests that significantly increased the supply of food, which in turn had an important impact on Chinese demography. The population of China increased from 45 million to 115 million between 600 and 1200. This agricultural security and increased population affected the Tang Dynasty in two important ways. The number of peasants needed to produce rice was reduced, and this in turn allowed many Chinese to specialize in certain cash crops that accelerated the commercialization of Chinese agriculture.





Regions began to specialize in certain fruits and vegetables, and the same expanded transportation network that distributed these luxury crops throughout the empire also supplied these same regions with rice. This set the stage for the world’s first integrated national economic system.

Increased population also led to the growth in urbanization. In numbers unprecedented in Chinese history, people moved into cities across the empire. Initially, this expansion took place in cities along major transportation routes and in centers of governmental authority. Most historians today believe Chang’an (now Xi’an), the capital of the Tang Empire, had the largest concentration of people on the face of the earth at the time. Demographers estimate some two million people lived within the confines of the city.

In conjunction with this vast agricultural explosion, China also experienced significant growth in its industrial sector. The dynasty’s metallurgic industry grew significantly during this period. Strong, inexpensive iron provided the agricultural sector with highly efficient farm implements and supplied the military with the latest advances in weaponry. Technologically, this period witnessed the Tang’s introduction of the use of gunpowder and the magnetic compass.

The wealth of the Tang Empire set the stage for a magnificent cultural explosion. The growth of cities had a deep impact on the culture of the Tang Dynasty. The combination of trade and great wealth created one of history’s great cosmopolitan societies. Merchants, scholars, and diplomats from all over the Eurasian land mass could be found in China’s great cities. Great restaurants, teahouses, and theaters catered to the varied interests and tastes of this multicultural society. A diversity of religious, political, and philosophical views intermingled and, on many occasions, challenged traditional Chinese cultural practices and beliefs. Trade;China China;trade

Buddhism Buddhism;China China;Buddhism , which was the most important competitor to established Chinese belief systems, was introduced to the Middle Kingdom (China) by merchants traveling along the Silk Road during the Han period. Not unlike Christianity during the decline of the Roman Empire, Buddhism gained an important following during the great period of self-doubt at the end of the Han Dynasty. The traditional Confucian system seemed to be failing; consequently, this new religion offered a comforting alternative during this period of societal collapse.

The same held true during the Tang period of great wealth. When China began to experience the corruption and moral decline that often accompanies material excess, many people from all levels of Chinese society began to look for antidotes to their spiritual malaise. Buddhism offered an attractive alternative to the traditional Chinese belief system. Members of the elite were impressed with the religion’s intellectual sophistication. They were also attracted to the belief of salvation in another life based on the moral and ethical actions of the individual in this life.





The most important proponent of Buddhism in China was Xuanzang Xuanzang (Buddhist Monk) , a neo-Confucian scholar. After training and studying in India, Xuanzang returned to China and advanced the cause of Buddhism in East Asia. His greatest contribution was his translation of major Buddhist texts into Chinese.

In addition, the great economic strength of the Tang allowed the government to develop a successful and highly aggressive military and foreign policy. The Tang believed that they controlled the mandate of heaven and that China was truly the Middle Kingdom at the center of the cosmos. Taken literally, this meant that the rest of the world was beneath the status of China and should be treated accordingly. Tang international policy was essentially based on a Confucian superior/subordinate relationship. The government implemented a tributary system in which other nations paid homage to the emperor through taxes, gifts, and acts of loyalty. Tang armies conquered Korea and transformed the peninsula into a political and cultural satellite. The new Korean bureaucracy was established on the Confucian model, with its new capital, Kumsong, constructed along the lines of the Tang center of government at Chang’an. Confucianism Confucianism;Korea Korea;Confucianism became the dominant belief system of the Korean upper class, with its political philosophy dominating Korean education. This Confucian connection led to a cultural exchange system that helped cement Chinese culture on the peninsula. Buddhism, which had challenged Confucianism on the mainland since the fall of the Han Dynasty, became widely accepted by the Korean peasants. Buddhism;Korea Korea;Buddhism

The Tang Dynasty also made incursions into Southeast Asia. Most important, the empire attempted to reestablish control over Vietnam Vietnam;China and . Sino-Vietnamese diplomatic and military conflicts had been a part of Chinese history extending as far back as the Han Dynasty. Chinese emperors found that the Vietnamese jealously guarded their independence; as a result, many a Chinese general felt the sting of Vietnamese military power.


Over time, the Tang Dynasty’s civil and military leadership became careless and corrupt. Uprisings occurred throughout the empire; the most prominent of these was led by Huang Chao Huang Chao and lasted from 875 to 884. Faced with widespread decline in the dynasty’s centralized authority, the empire splintered and collapsed in 907. Subsequently, China entered into a period in which regional military governors ruled independent feudal kingdoms. Most important, Chinese intellectuals would begin to question the aggressive attitudes and policies of the Tang military. By the rise of the Song Dynasty (Sung; 960-1279), the Confucian elite succeeded in putting the military under civilian control. This new bureaucracy was to be governed by the conservative Confucian ethical system that would successfully reduce the power and prestige of the Chinese military.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bol, Peter K. This Culture of Ours: Intellectual Transitions in T’ang and Sung China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. An excellent overview of Tang and Song intellectual history. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. The best single-volume account of Chinese cultural history. Maps, index, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graff, David A. Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900. New York: Routledge Press, 2002. An excellent overview of medieval Chinese military history. Maps, index, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graff, David A., and Robin Higham. A Military History of China. Cambridge, England: Westview Press, 2002. The best survey of Chinese military history on the market. Maps, index, and bibliography.

Categories: History Content