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The Tang Dynasty (618-907), Tang Political History

Tanguts, Emperor Gaozu, Buddha Maitreya, Emperor Gaozong, Emperor Taizong

The first two Tang monarchs—Li Yuan, who ruled as Emperor Gaozu, and his son Li Shimin, who ruled as Emperor Taizong—were able rulers who strengthened the state. The empire was divided into about 300 prefectures under direct central control, with none large enough to challenge Tang rule. Tax revenue was based on the so-called equal-field system of allotting equal amounts of land to all adult males, a system originally begun by the Northern Wei. Similarly, like the armies of the northern dynasties, the early Tang armies were composed of volunteer farmer-soldiers. In return for allotments of farmland, men served in rotation in armies at the capital or on the frontiers. Using this army, as well as auxiliary troops composed of Turks, Tanguts, Khitans, and other non-Chinese, and led by their own chiefs, the Tang rulers extended their control beyond China proper.

In 630 the Tang turned against their former allies the Turks, gained territory from them, and won for Tang emperor Taizong the additional title of Great Khan. Over the next several decades, the Tang continued their westward expansion. By allying with Central Asian city-states, the Tang gained dominance over the Tarim Pendi (Tarim Basin) and eventually made their influence felt as far west as present-day Afghanistan. The early Tang also succeeded in extending their influence to the northeast and allying with the Korean kingdom of Silla.

The third Tang ruler, Emperor Gaozong (646-683), was sickly and a weak monarch, and his consort Empress Wu soon dominated the court. She took full charge when Gaozong suffered a stroke in 660. Gaozong died in 683, but Empress Wu maintained power during the reigns of her two sons. Then, in 690, she proclaimed herself emperor of a new dynasty, the Zhou. To gain support, she circulated the Great Cloud Sutra, which predicted the imminent reincarnation of the Buddha Maitreya as a female monarch, under whom the entire world would be free of illness, worry, and disaster. Empress Wu is the only woman in Chinese history who took the title of monarch. Later historians judged her as an evil usurper, and she was without question a forceful ruler. She moved quickly to eliminate rivals and opponents, suppressed rebellions of Tang princes, and maintained an aggressive foreign policy. Her hold on the government was so strong that she was not deposed until 705, when she was more than 80 years old and ailing.

Empress Wu’s death was followed by a power struggle. In 712 her grandson Xuanzong became emperor. Xuanzong presided over a dazzling court and patronized some of the greatest poets and painters in Chinese history. In Chinese folklore, Xuanzong’s passions led to his downfall, for in his older years he became infatuated with his favorite concubine Yang Guifei and neglected his duties. Yang was allowed to place her friends and relatives in important positions in the government. One of her favorites was the able general An Lushan, who after getting into a quarrel with Yang's brother over control of the government, rebelled in 755. Xuanzong had to flee the capital, and the troops who accompanied the emperor forced him to have Yang Guifei executed.

More lay behind this crisis than imperial foolishness. The Tang had outgrown the institutions of the northern dynasties. In many areas of the empire, men received only a fraction of the land they were promised because population growth had exceeded the supply of land. However, each allotment holder still had to pay the standard per capita tax, so many peasants fled their allotments, which reduced government income. Moreover, as problems of defending the empire grew, especially warfare with the Turks and Tibetans, the militia system proved inadequate. The government had to establish military-run provinces along the borders and entrust defense to professional armies and non-Chinese auxiliary troops. It was because An Lushan commanded one of these armies that he was able to launch an attack on the central government.

The rebellion of An Lushan was devastating to the Tang. Peace was restored only by calling on the Uygurs, a Turkic people allied with the Tang, who reclaimed the capital from the rebels but then looted it. After the rebellion was finally suppressed in 763, the central government never regained control of the military provinces on the frontiers. Abandoning the equal-field system and instituting taxes based on actual land holdings helped restore the government’s finances, but many military governors came to treat their provinces as hereditary kingdoms and withheld tax returns from the central government.

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