Taizong and the Rise of the Tang

Episode 21: Taizong* and the Rise of the Tang

Foundations of Eastern Civilizaiton

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

The Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) was known for strong benevolent rule, diplomatic prowess, a surging economy (thanks to a resumption of Silk Road trade and a government monopoly on salt, liquor and tea production) and major military expansion.

Lui Huan, the first Tang emperor, was a Sui governor and member of the royal family when he deposed the last Sui emperor Yang Guang. Lui Huan maintained power by establishing an extremely sophisticated Confucian bureaucracy and undermining local nobles by making direct land grants to peasant

He established the very first state schools (which wouldn’t arrive in the West for another 1,000 years) and re-established competitive exams (on Confucian philosophy) for government officials. The Tang Dynasty was also known for a well-maintained transport system (of roads and canals) and a sophisticated courier system relying on hundreds of horses, thousands of human runners and a government network of inns and stables for travelers.

Lui Han continued to improve on the Equal Field System started under the Wei Dynasty. The system operated under the premise that all land belonged to the emperor (rather than a few powerful nobles). Although approximately 1/5 of this land was passed down through families, 4/5 could be reassigned by the state depending on family circumstances.

The Tang Dynasty brought Manchuria came under Chinese control and made Sella in Korea a tributary state. The Tang military conquered Tibet, as well as briefly occupying Vietnam, and their conquests in Western Asia extended as far as the Aral Sea.

Chinese western expansion halted following the 751 AD Battle of Talas (in modern day Kyrgyzstan), in which allied Muslim and Tibetan armies overpowered Chinese troops and forced them to retreat.

The initial Tang emperors were extremely tolerant of the foreign religions (mostly Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Nestorian Christianity) practiced by hundreds of thousands of foreign immigrants.

The Tang Dynasty is also famous for introducing the first paper money, which began as receipts for its primary industrial products (paper, cast iron, silk and porcelain).

Between 624 -705 AD China was ruled by the empress Wu Zetam, who began as the emperor Gaozong’s concubine and took over the government after he suffered a stroke.

*Emperor Taizong of Tang, previously Prince of Qin, personal name Li Shimin, was the second emperor of the Tang dynasty of China, ruling from 626 to 649. He is traditionally regarded as a co-founder of the dynasty for his role in encouraging Li Yuan, his father, to rebel against the Sui dynasty.

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1000 – 1750 AD: The Birth of Global Commerce


Episode 31: The Advent of Global Commerce

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this lecture, Benjamin explores the gradual transition to global commerce that occurred between 1000 and 1750 AD.

He credits the major technological innovations of the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) in southern China with a major role in this process. With the shrinkage of the territory under their control, this Song began relying on trade, rather than tribute, as their major source of government funding. For this reason, they generously subsidized new  technological innovations with potential for improving export trade. Major inventions during this period included paper money, movable type printing, agricultural terracing (of entire mountains), gunpowder, sophisticated silk reeling machines and advanced irrigation technology. It would be another 600 years before these technologies would appear in Europe (a mostly illiterate backwater mired in continuous civil wars).

During this period, Benjamin maintains, European progress was slow owning to what he refers to as a “Malthusian cycle.” Between 800-1200 AD, a warmer, wetter European climate increased both agricultural output and population. Between 1400-1700 AD (the “Little Ice Age”), temperatures plummeted and crops failed. Famine combined with the Black Death (starting in the 1340s) would kill 30-50% in many European towns and cities.

With reduced tax take stemming from declining populations, European governments also sought to expand foreign trade as a way of funding government. The Portuguese were the first to establish trade networks with Asia in the 16th century. After 1600, the British and Dutch joined the lucrative Indian Ocean trade. In the 16th and 17th century the Portuguese and Spanish carved out huge empires in Central and South America, destroying the Inca and Aztec empires.

The silver the Spanish mined in Peru would form the basis of a global banking system that would ultimately finance global trade.

During the 16th century, China’s own population grew rapidly due to the introduction of corn, sweet potatoes and peanuts from the New World. After the Chinese government demanded that all taxes be paid in silver, most Spanish silver ended up in China. Some was transported by Spanish sailors to the Philippines, where Chinese merchants sold them silks and porcelain. Some reached China via bankers who used it to finance their Indian Ocean trade.

The triangular trade involving African slaves and plantation crops (sugar, tobacco and cotton) would be a key source of European wealth.

The discovery of new peoples (in in the Americas, Australia and the Pacific) not mentioned in the Bible led to growing intellectual skepticism, as scholars such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Galileo and Isaac Newton claiming a need to base knowledge on empirical evidence rather than the study of ancient texts. The adoption of so-called scientific method in Europe would lead to a “scientific revolution,” driven in part by warring European states in search of new military technologies.

Gutenberg’s introduction (to Europe) of the moveable type printing press* in 1439 contributed to the speed of scientific innovation. By 1600, Europe had printed nearly 200 million books.

By 1700, global trade was large enough that most European governments derived their income from taxes on trade. Yet as late as 1750, most of the world was directly involved in agriculture, with only 10-20% living in cities and towns. This changed with Europe’s enactment of a series of Enclosures Acts starting in the late 1600s. Roughly 50% pf the rural population would be driven off land they farmed communally and forced to take up menial work in the cities and towns.

*The moveable type printing press was first invented in Korea during the 11th century.

Can be viewed free on Kanopy.