What Was the ‘Golden Age’ of China? | History Hit

What Was the ‘Golden Age’ of China?

An Elegant Party (detail), an outdoor painting of a small Chinese banquet hosted by the emperor for scholar-officials from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Although painted in the Song period, it is most likely a reproduction of an earlier Tang Dynasty (618-907) work of art. The painting is attributed to Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100–1125 AD).
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Known for its artistic, inventive and cultural innovations, the Tang dynasty is considered a ‘golden age’ of Chinese history. Spanning from 618-906 AD, the dynasty saw a flourishing of poetry and painting, the creation of famed tricoloured glazed pottery and woodblock prints and the advent of pioneering inventions, such as gunpowder, which ultimately changed the world.

Over the course of the Tang dynasty, Buddhism permeated the country’s governance, while the dynasty’s artistic exports became internationally renowned and imitated. Furthermore, the glory and brightness of the Tang dynasty stood in stark contrast to the Dark Ages in Europe.

But what was the Tang dynasty, how did it flourish, and why did it ultimately fail?

It was born out of chaos

After the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 AD, the next four centuries were characterised by warring clans, political murders and foreign invaders. The warring clans were reunified under the ruthless Sui dynasty from 581-617 AD, which accomplished great feats such as the restoration of the Great Wall of China and the construction of the Grand Canal which linked the eastern plains to the northern rivers.

Sunrise on the Grand Canal of China by William Havell. 1816-17.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

However, it came at a cost: peasants were taxed highly and forced into hard labour. After a mere 36 years in power, the Sui dynasty collapsed after popular riots broke out in response to heavy losses in a war against Korea.

Amongst the chaos, the Li family seized power in the capital Chang’an and created the Tang empire. In 618, Li Yuan declared himself Emperor Gaozu of Tang. He maintained many of the practices of the ruthless Sui dynasty. It was only after his son Taizong killed two of his brothers and several nephews, forced his father to abdicate and ascended the throne in 626 AD that China’s golden age really began.

Reforms helped the dynasty to flourish

Emperor Taizong shrank the government at both central and state levels. The money saved allowed for food as surplus in case of famine and economic relief for farmers in the case of flooding or other disasters. He set up systems to identify Confucian soldiers and put them into civil service placements, and he created examinations which allowed talented scholars with no family connections to make their mark in government.

‘The Imperial Examinations’. Civil service exam candidates gather around the wall where results had been posted. Artwork by Qiu Ying (c. 1540).

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, he seized a portion of Mongolia from the Turks and joined expeditions along the Silk Road. This allowed Tang China to host Persian princesses, Jewish merchants and Indian and Tibetan missionaries.

The common people of China were successful and content for the first time in centuries, and it was during this successful era that woodblock printing and gunpowder were invented. These became defining inventions of the golden age of China, and when adopted worldwide catalysed events that would change history forever.

After his death in 649, Emperor Taizong’s son Li Zhi became the new Emperor Gaozong.

Emperor Gaozong was ruled by his concubine Empress Wu

Wu was one of the late Emperor Taizong’s concubines. However, the new emperor was deeply in love with her, and commanded that she be at his side. She won Emperor Gaozong’s favour over his wife, and had her dismissed. In 660AD, Wu took on most of Emperor Gaozong’s duties after he had a stroke.

Wu Zetian from an 18th-century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes.

Image Credit: Public domain

Under her rule, overland trade routes led to huge trade deals with the West and other parts of Eurasia, making the capital one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Commerce involving textiles, minerals and spices flourished, with the newly open avenues of contact further opening Tang China to changes in culture and society. Wu also campaigned extensively for women’s rights. In all, she was probably an extremely popular ruler, particularly among the common people.

Upon Gaozong’s death in 683 AD, Wu maintained control through her two sons, and in 690 AD proclaimed herself Empress of a new dynasty, the Zhao. This was to be short-lived: she was forced to abdicate, then died in 705 AD. It is telling that upon her request, her gravestone was left blank: she was disliked by many conservatives who deemed her changes to be too radical. She trusted that later scholars would look upon her rule favourably.

After a few years of in-fighting and plotting, her grandson became the new Emperor Xuanzong.

Emperor Xuanzong transported the empire to new cultural heights

During his rule from 713-756 AD – the longest of any ruler during the Tang dynasty – Xuanzong is most well-known for facilitating and encouraging political, economic, cultural and social contributions from across the empire. India’s influence upon the empire was marked, and the emperor welcomed Taoist and Buddhist clerics to his court. By 845, there were 360,000 Buddhist monks and nuns throughout the empire.

The Emperor also had a passion for music and equestrianism, and famously owned a troupe of dancing horses. He created the Imperial Music Academy as a means of further spreading the international influence of Chinese music.

The era was also the most prosperous for Chinese poetry. Li Bai and Du Fu are widely regarded as China’s greatest poets who lived during the beginning and middle periods of the Tang dynasty, and were lauded for the naturalism of their writings.

‘Pleasures of the Tang court’. Unknown artist. Dates to the Tang dynasty.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Emperor Xuanzong’s fall eventually came. He fell so in love with his concubine Yang Guifei that he began to ignore his royal duties and promote her family to high positions within government. Northern warlord An Lushan mounted a rebellion against him, which forced the emperor to abdicate, severely weakened the empire and lost much Western territory. It also reportedly cost millions of lives. Some place the death toll as high as 36 million, which would have been around a sixth of the world’s population.

The golden age was over

From there, the decline of the dynasty continued during the second half of the 9th century. Factions within the government began feuding, which led to plots, scandals and assassinations. The central government weakened, and the dynasty split into ten separate kingdoms.

After a series of collapses from around 880 AD, northern invaders finally destroyed the Tang dynasty, and with it, the golden age of China.

The Chinese state would not approach the power or breadth of the Tang for another 600 years, when the Ming replaced the Mongol Yuan dynasty. However, the scope and sophistication of the golden age of China was arguably greater than either India or the Byzantine Empire, and its cultural, economic, social and technological innovations have left a lasting imprint on the world.

British Museum Curator Yu-Ping Luk talks about Buddhist art along the Silk Roads with a focus on the British Museum's Dunhuang and Xinjiang collections.
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Lucy Davidson