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8.3: Tang Government Structure

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    Every aspect of Tang government was affected by aristocratic power: bureaucracy, recruitment, law. Under the emperor, a bureaucracy based on the Qin-Han model carried out the work of government. Unlike in the northern regimes of the period of division, government office was not inherited within a clan.

    The Tang state recruited officials in three ways. First, one could be a member of a clan with a close relationship to the imperial house, the Li clan. Second, a close relative already in office could designate a son or nephew for office, which was called the “shadow privilege,” but it would not be the same office that he himself held, so that bureaucratic rotation was possible. Third, the route for a minority of Tang officials was to pass the civil service examinations. Tang rulers, and the Empress Wu especially, did use the examination system to recruit new talent into government, but the exams did not really challenge aristocratic power. About thirty families normally held the highest offices, and a top post required a personal connection to the imperial Li clan or another very powerful person.

    A new set of laws, the Tang Code, provided the basic law of the land and was adopted by centralizing regimes in the peninsula and archipelago. It was based on a legal code designed for Emperor Wu of Liang, gentler than that of Han, in accordance with his Buddhist beliefs, and it included both northern and southern legal elements. Laws were standard for whole country, but not for all Tang subjects. Rather, following Tuoba Wei precedent, it divided people into three broad categories: the privileged, respectable commoners (良民), and inferior or base people (賤 民).

    A person’s category of birth and social roles had very real effects. By law, the privileged – imperial relatives and high officials – received lighter sentences, while inferior people received heavier sentences for the same crime. Punishments for commoners varied by age, sex, mental and physical health, and relationship to the victim. The very young, very old, and women, for instance, generally got lighter sentences. It was much worse to murder one’s father than a stranger. Sons and wives were punished for hitting fathers and husbands, but fathers and husbands were not punished for hitting sons and wives. Crime and punishment varied by social rank, but the law was uniform throughout the empire. The exception was foreigners: if a conflict arose between two people from different countries, Tang law applied, and if they were from the same country, that country’s law should apply. And contrary to Qin and Han law, family juniors were supposed to report seniors’ crimes only if they directly threatened the state.

    Figure 8.7. Tang woven silk textile identical to one held by the Tōdaiji temple in Nara, donated by a Japanese empress in 756. Can you identify a foreign influence, and a possible origin of the purple dye, by reviewing? Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

    In managing land and labor, Tang bureaucratic government remedied the weaknesses of northern and southern regimes, while adopting their useful innovations. Tang taxed its subjects in two separate ways, based on their different eco-systems. First, in the drier north, the state claimed most of the land and adopted the Tuoba Wei “equal-field” system to parcel it out to farming men for their lifetimes. There is evidence from land registers preserved in dry Dunhuang that the system was actually enforced. Each man between the ages of 21 and 59 was granted the same amount of land, and owed about three bushels of grain, seven meters of silk cloth or eight of hemp or ramie cloth, and twenty days of labor. The labor and grain could be commuted to cloth payments. Only husbands were liable for the tax, but the cloth was probably mostly made by wives, and that constituted most of the payment, so it was the work of women that supported the state most directly. (Moreover, since there was a shortage of coin and counterfeiting was rampant, cloth was the most common, stable, and transportable form of currency in Tang; so weaving wives were literally making money.) Unlike in Qin, military conscription was not universal, but was a special service that won a man exemption from labor conscription, like other specialized labor for local government office.

    Second, in the south, grain was collected according to the amount of land a family owned, and money was collected according to the amount of other property they owned – not much, an average of 240 coins per household, providing only about one-twentieth of the value of the graincloth-labor taxes in the equal field system.10

    The officials of the former Southern Dynasties, which had relied on commercial taxation, had earned reputations for astonishing levels of corruption, including rip-offs like forcing foreign merchants to sell goods to them at half price, then reselling at the regular price. To avoid such a bad reputation, the Tang central government disavowed interest in profiting from the luxury trade, or even taxing maritime trade directly. Instead it demanded foreign luxury goods as tribute from domestic prefectures that did not produce them, so had to buy them from Canton merchants themselves. “By doing so,” historian Wang Zhenping explains, “the T’ang court wanted to create for itself an image of a moral and benevolent government.”11 This set a precedent for the unrealistic way in which the Japanese state, focused its regulations on rice, and simply ignored the lucrative maritime trade as a possible source of tax income.12

    This page titled 8.3: Tang Government Structure is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sarah Schneewind (eScholarship) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.