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8.9: The Fall of Tang

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    The fall of the Tang dynasty has recently become better understood. Historians used to think that aristocratic power was already on the wane as the examinations drew in new talent, and the clans lost touch with their estates back home. Then the An Lushan rebellion of 755 seriously weakened Tang, allowing its generals to become warlords who brought chaos to society so that the dynasty could barely hang on.

    But the Tang dynasty survived the rebellion quite well. It is true that the central government lost some control, but the rebellion also promoted development in the economy. Millions of families fled south, pushing forward agricultural development there. The equal-field system collapsed, putting land into private hands, and the state came to rely on commercial taxes and a twice-a-year tax measured in coin but collected mainly in cloth, and assessed on the basis of household wealth (in nine grades). Earlier in Tang, merchants had been required to join guilds and restricted to a few marketplaces in the capital and one in each city, where officials strictly limited business hours and inspected weights and measures. Now the central government could not enforce those restrictions, and the provincial courts of the generals welcomed commerce.

    Things worked differently, but the Li family presided over the Tang state for another century and a half.

    Tang aristocratic power also survived the rebellion. A relatively small number of clans provided most of the Tang chief ministers, and because they influenced personnel decisions they could reproduce their power, like the Kims of Silla. The super-elite clans, stretching back long before Sui times, had long held onto power through dense networks of intermarriage and friendship. The networks were strong, partly because clan members all lived in the capital region, in and between Luoyang and Chang’an (a 10-day journey apart), except when posted as officials to other parts of Tang. Even within the two capital cities, their homes clustered together. As high ministers they married their daughters to the smartest members of the capital elite and hired their sons-in-law.

    An Lushan was a member of the Tang government himself, and the adopted son of the emperor’s favorite consort. When he rebelled, An left administration intact, and did not massacre aristocrats. They fled the capitals, but then they returned. Even late in the Tang period more than half of the chief ministers and many lower officials still came from a small number of clans. In other words, as new evidence shows – including digital analysis of excavated epitaphs – the clans were doing fine long after the An Lushan rebellion.

    In fact, the very reason we know so much about the disruption the rebellion caused, historian Nicolas Tackett argues, is that aristocrats survived to write complaints about it. Here is a poem by Du Fu, serving far from the capital:

    Springtime – Gazing into the Distance

    My country’s broken, though the hills and rivers remain. 春 望

    About the springtime city the grasses and trees grow thick. 國 破 山 河 在

    Feeling the times, flowers, too, drop tears. 城 春 草 木 深

    Hating to part, birds, too, have jumpy hearts. 感 時 花 濺 淚

    Beacon fires light, one after another, these three months. 烽 火連 三 月

    A letter from home! – worth a thousand gold. 家 書 抵 萬 金

    I’ve scratched my white hairs even shorter – 白 頭 搔 更 短

    The topknot soon won’t hold my hairpin. 渾 欲 不 勝 簪

    After the An Lushan rebellion, a few men from lower-ranked families made their way into high office through the examination system and the networks of friendship that gathering for the exams made possible. But it was not until later that the clans vanished as a political force. Their power dissolved very quickly, between 870s and 907, because of a different rebellion, led by Huang Chao (d. 884).

    Unlike An Lushan, Huang Chao had no court ties. He was educated, but when his anger at the Tang regime for not recognizing him exploded into rebellion, he had no long-term plan to replace the dynasty. Unlike An, Huang moved so quickly that the elite had no time to escape the capital area. Huang executed many officials, and then lost control of his troops, who sacked the two capitals and slaughtered officials and their families.

    Two decades of massacres across the empire followed. Moments of peace in each place gave rise to impossible situations in which people had to take sides, and no-one knew where or when to escape. So many aristocrats were killed or scattered that their whole power-base, the network of families and connections, collapsed. For the very same reason, the written record of the destruction is sparse.37 When Tang finally fell, the aristocracy fell with it, murdered and scattered with no time to write and preserve poems.

    The Five Dynasties period (906-960) that followed Tang is often considered a time of violence and tumult. In fact, people experienced it as a welcome reestablishment of order, even though there was not one central government. The economy continued to grow and commercialize, creating an entirely new social formation, as we will see in Chapter Ten. But first we will turn to a culture that shared much with Tang, but produced its own wonderful objects and texts: Hei’an Japan.


    This page titled 8.9: The Fall of Tang 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.

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