(The SUI, TANG and SONG DYNASTIES – continued)

home | 6th-15th centuries


previous | next

The Sui and Tang Dynasties

During the Sui dynasty, armies of forced laborers, male and female, were thrown into public works projects, including the building of a grand canal system – which brought the north and south closer together economically. Also, granaries were constructed. The Great Wall along the northern borders was rebuilt. There was ship building and road and palace construction.

Prosperity returned to China. Men of privilege benefited and Confucianism began to regain popularity. But, after little more than two decades, Sui rule came crashing down. Hostility toward the Sui had arisen among those who had been driven too hard on public works projects. Also the Sui dynasty ruined itself economically and militarily by its conceit concerning expansion. It attempted to expand against the kingdom of Goguryeo in northern Korea. China's force on occasion numbered more than 3000 warships, 1.15 million infantry, 50,000 cavalry, 5000 artillery pieces and many supporting laborers. China engaged in four main campaigns, and they ended in failure. Of 305,000 Chinese troops sent against the Koreans only 2,700 returned.

Sui Dynasty, 609 CE

Sui Dynasty, 609 CE
(created by Ian Kiu, altered by fSmitha)

With its war against Korea and with flooding and famine came rebellion. China became embroiled in another civil war, with military leaders from various provinces fighting for supremacy.

In 618 the civil war ended with the Duke of Tang, Li Yuan, as the victor. He reunited China, became known as Emperor Gao-zu and began what became known as the Tang Dynasty. After he died, his sons fought over who would inherit his rule, and the winner was Taizong, who ruled to the middle of the century and led China in a return to prosperity and what would be called a golden age.

Taizong's son and heir, Gaozong, was weak, and rule in China descended again into conflict and murder. This began when Gaozong's concubine, Wu Zetian, managed to get the emperor to promote her in place of his wife. Wu Zetian used the traditional way of getting rid of rivals: she had the former empress and other rivals murdered. Wu Zetian became Empress Wu, and she exiled, murdered and drove to suicide elder ministers.

Emperor Gaozong suffered a stroke in his eleventh year of rule. He became enfeebled and a mere figurehead. Empress Wu moved to firmly establish her power. She murdered members of the Tang family whom she saw as possible rivals, and she elevated politically members of her own family. Working with informers, she instituted a reign of terror. She purged Confucian scholars and other opponents. She built up her power base by satisfying public needs and by raising in rank those bureaucrats who supported her. She remained devoted to Buddhism. She surrounded herself with holy men and monks and ordered a Buddhist temple for every prefecture.

In her old age, Empress Wu lost control at court, and in 705 officials at court forced her to resign in favor of a member of the Tang family. This was a man named Zhongzong, who ruled until his death in 710 – his wife, Empress Wei, suspected of having poisoned him. Empress Wei tried to rule as had Empress Wu. She sold offices and Buddhist monkhoods, and she was behind other corruptions at court. Arbitrarily she had lands seized. She created opponents whom she failed to exterminate, and they ousted her from power, which led to the enthronement in 712 of a new Tang emperor: Xuanzong.

Xuanzong came to power at the age of 28 and was to remain in power forty-four years. He was active and courageous, and during his reign, prosperity increased. But in his later years he became increasingly absorbed in Taoist spirituality and uninterested in rule. After 745 he fell under the spell of his son's wife, Yang Guifei, a Taoist priestess. The young woman grew in influence. Xuanzong ignored the economy, and China went into another decline.

In 751, Islamic armies defeated the Chinese in central Asia, cutting China's route to India and the West. Muslims replaced the Chinese as the dominant influence along the Silk Road, and tribal nations on China's borders grew in power.

In December 755 a military general of Turkish origin, An Lushan, who had risen to prominence defending China's northern border, revolted against the old Tang emperor, Xuanzong. An Lushan expanded China militarily while Tang family resistance continued, and China fell again into chaos. An Lushan turned ill-tempered, and he put the fear of death into those close to him, including his son, An Qingxu, who assassinated him in January 757.

Forces loyal to the Tang dynasty defeated an executed An Qingxu in April 759. The An Lushan dynasty, the Yan, had two more rulers who came and were gone by 763. What became known as the An Lushan or An-shi Rebellion was over. Claims are made that the registered population of China fell from between 33 and 36 million, making the An Lushan rebellion the deadliest war in history in terms of percentage of population. note11

Eight years of war had destroyed the Tang prosperity. Warlordism emerged, with the Tang court accepting decentralization of political power.

In 825 a reckless Tang teenager, Jingzong, inherited the throne and filled the court with incompetent persons. Exasperated court eunuchs had him assassinated. At court, eunuch power had again filled the vacuum of monarchical weakness. Eunuchs chose who would become emperor, and in 840 they chose Wuzong, the fifth son of a previous emperor, Muzong. And while doing so the eunuchs murdered two rivals to the throne and the mothers of these contenders.

Wuzong was an ardent Taoist, and he closed Buddhist shrines and temples, returned Buddhist monks and nuns to lay life and confiscated millions of acres of arable land for state use. Buddhism in China survived but never recovered, while Buddhism's rival, Confucianism, enjoyed a renewed intellectual life.

In 907 a military governor, Zhu Wen, usurped the throne and founded the Liang dynasty, one of a succession of five short-lived dynasties in the next half-century, while China fragmented into as many as ten regional states. Organized bandits roamed across China, pillaging and extorting. North of China a kingdom of herdsmen and semi-agricultural people of various ethnicities to be known as the Khitan overran a portion of China, including the capital city in 938, not yet called Beijing.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.