Rebellion of An Lushan

The rebellion of An Lushan undermined the stability of the Tang Dynasty, planting the seeds of the dynasty’s ultimate fall.

Summary of Event

The rebellion of An Lushan was one of the seminal events in China’s long history, an event that not only led to the ultimate fall of the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907) but also generated a story filled with romance, betrayal, and tragedy. [kw]Rebellion of An Lushan (755-763)
[kw]An Lushan, Rebellion of (755-763)
An Lushan
An Lushan Rebellion
China;755-763: Rebellion of An Lushan[0680]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;755-763: Rebellion of An Lushan[0680]
An Lushan
Li Linfu
Yang Guifei
Yang Guozhong

An Lushan was a Chinese general of non-Chinese origin. His father, a Sogdian from Central Asia, was a soldier in the Tang armies and his mother was of Turkish origin. His rebellion began in 755 and was not put down by imperial authorities until 763, although An Lushan was murdered in 757. The rebellion was a consequence of a number of factors that long preceded the uprising. The Tang Dynasty Tang Dynasty is often considered to be China’s greatest dynasty. Its capital, Chang’an (now Xi’an), was the largest city in the world, a cosmopolitan city with links to the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East, and India (because of the Silk Road), as well as to Korea, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia. Under the Tang, China ruled territories that reached across much of Central Asia. Among the greatest of the Tang emperors was Xuanzong, Xuanzong (Tang emperor) who ascended the throne in 712.

As emperor, Xuanzong reduced the corruption of the previous reign, appointed well-qualified and hard-working ministers generally selected through a public examination system based on the writings of China’s ancient sages such as Confucius, reformed the laws and made them more humane, and attempted to shift the tax burden from the peasants to the landowners. Commerce expanded, canals were rebuilt, and foreign trade increased. A patron of artists and intellectuals, he established the Imperial Academy of Letters, or the Hanlin Academy. Although he had fifty-nine children, he was largely successful in excluding the relatives of his numerous consorts and concubines as well as the palace eunuchs from political power.

However, in the 730’, Xuanzong abandoned many of his public responsibilities, retreating into religious pursuits, notably Daoism and Tantric Buddhism. Li Linfu Li Linfu (Tang minister) became the chief minister, engendering much controversy by purging his opponents. In the 740’, the sixty-year-old emperor became infatuated with the much younger Yang Guifei Yang Guifei , the beautiful wife of one of his sons. For Xuanzong, political power and responsibility were cast aside in favor of his captivating concubine.

However, with Yang Guifei came her family and their ambitions, a phenomena not unusual in China, where the emperor was the focus of wealth and power. By the early 750’, Yang Guozhong Yang Guozhong , a relative of Yang Guifei and a regional military governor, was rivaling Li Linfu as the dominant figure at court, a position he solidified with Li’s death in 752. A year earlier, in 751, the emperor’s favorite, Yang Guifei, adopted An Lushan as her son, although rumors circulated that she was more his mistress than his mother, thus scandalizing many at court.

An Lushan had achieved a position of considerable authority as a Tang general, serving in the western frontier region. The Tang Empire stretched far beyond China’s traditional borders, requiring an army of 600,000, divided into nine zones or provinces, each headed by a military governor. The soldiers and officers, like An Lushan, often were not Chinese. During the early decades of Xuanzong’s reign, the border area was secure, with China at peace with most of its western neighbors.

However, by the mid-eighth century, imperial calm was shattered and China’s security was threatened from several quarters, most notably by Islamic Arabs. After the overthrow of the Umayyad caliphate by Abū al-ՙAbbās as-Saffā Abū al-ՙAbbās as-Saffāḥ (ՙAbbāsid caliph) in 750, Baghdad became the capital of the ՙAbbāsid ՙAbbāsids[Abbasids] caliphate dynasty. The following year, 751, Abū al-ՙAbbās defeated a large Tang army at the Talas River Talas River, Battle of (751) in present-day Kazakhstan, severing China’s routes to India and installing Muslims in place of Chinese as the rulers along the Silk Road across Asia.

Whether the defeat at the Battle of Talas River was a key factor leading to An Lushan’s rebellion is difficult to ascertain. It did lead to the eventual loss of China’s Central Asian empire and indicated that Tang military supremacy had declined. However, the pre-existing policy of giving military governors considerable authority was a more important factor in explaining the rebellion. An Lushan, like other regional military governors, had established his own power base, and by 755, he had an army at his disposal numbering 160,000 soldiers, ostensibly to defend the empire from foreign attack, but which could also be turned against the central government. For any government, to have allowed control of the military to slip from the hands of the emperor and the imperial bureaucracy to the generals was fraught with potential danger. It has also been suggested that An Lushan’s non-Chinese origins explain his rebellion against a Chinese ruler, and that if he were Chinese, he would have remained loyal to the Tang Dynasty.

What is certain is that Xuanzong had allowed power to be seized by Yang Guifei’s family, notably Yang Guozhong. Although Yang Guifei continued to give support to An Lushan, Yang Guozhong saw him as a dangerous rival and warned the emperor about An Lushan’s ambitions. Xuanzong, still enthralled by his concubine, ignored Yang Guozhong’s warnings. In 755, An Lushan rebelled, justifying his actions on the grounds that Yang Guozhong had usurped the emperor’s authority.

An Lushan’s mounted cavalry overwhelmed the royalist forces, and after capturing the eastern capital of Luoyang in only thirty-three days, An Lushan declared himself emperor of a new dynasty. He halted after the fall of Luoyang, and by failing to attack Chang’an, he gave the royalist forces the opportunity to regroup, but when Yang Guozhong’s imperial armies attempted to recapture Luoyang, they suffered a disastrous defeat, forcing the emperor and the court to flee Chang’an.

While in flight, Emperor Xuanzong’s guard murdered Yang Guozhong and his family, blaming him for the defeat. The emperor was forced to order the execution of his beloved Yang Guifei, which became the subject of one of China’s most famous poems, written by Bo Juyi Bo Juyi (Po Chü-yi; 772-846).

The emperor could not save her, he could only cover
  his face
And later when he turned to look, the place of blood
  and tears
Was hidden in a yellow dust blown by a cold wind.

With the fall of Chang’an, the emperor relocated in China’s southwest while his son and heir, Li Yu, fought the rebels in the north. Believing Xuanzong incapable of governing, the prince assumed the throne in 756 as Emperor Suzong Suzong (Tang emperor) . An Lushan was murdered the following year by his son, who in turn was killed by another rebel. Chang’an was recaptured from the rebels in 757, as was Luoyang, briefly, but with the weakening of Tang authority, the Tibetans invaded, sacking Chang’an in 763. Suzong died in 762, with his eldest son becoming Emperor Daizong Daizong (Tang emperor) . The royal armies gradually overcame the rebels, and by 763, the An Lushan rebellion was at an end, but Tibetan forces remained a threat until 777. Both Suzong and Daizong practiced a policy of clemency toward the rebels, but by leaving rebel leaders in power in various provinces, the dynasty planted the seeds for further problems.


Tang China never recovered from An Lushan’s rebellion. Emperor Daizong died in 779, having retreated into mystical Buddhism, and by the time of his death, several border provinces had broken away from imperial control. By the mid-ninth century, civil war had broken out in China, and in 907, the Tang Dynasty ended.

Most historians agree that An Lushan’s rebellion did not in itself cause the fall of the Tang, although it was a major turning point. In the aftermath, China was left without its Central Asian territories and was continuously threatened by foreign invaders. Internally, China was subject to the ambitions of ruthless warlords similar to An Lushan, with their semi-independent armies. A series of weak emperors left the central government controlled by royal eunuchs. Tang China after An Lushan’s rebellion was a different China.

Further Reading

  • Chiu Tang-shu. Biography of An Lushan. Translated by Howard S. Levy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960. A brief but readable biography of An Lushan.
  • Paludan, Ann. Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998. Includes an account of Xuanzong’s reign and the An Lushan episode.
  • Pulleyblank, Edward G. “The An Lu-shan Rebellion and the Origins of Chronic Militarism in Late T’ang China.” In Essays on T’ang Society, edited by John Curtis Perry and Bardwell Smith. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1976. A shorter discussion of the An Lushan rebellion.
  • Pulleyblank, Edward G. The Background to the Rebellion of An Lu-shan. London: Oxford University Press, 1955. The major study of An Lushan’s rebellion.
  • Roberts, J. A. G. A History of China. Vol. 1. London: Alan Sutton, 1996. Includes an excellent brief examination of An Lushan’s rebellion.