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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10th Century AD: Steppes Nomads Conquer Northern China

Episode 27: Manchurian Warlords and Song Emperors

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

In this lecture, Harl focuses on the steppes nomads who ruled northern China following the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 907 AD (two centuries before the birth of Genghis Khan).

Harl focuses on three major tribes, the Khitans, the Jurchens and the Xi Xia.

The Khitans, who ruled northern China between 907 and 926, originated from the Manchurian forests prior to adopting a nomadic lifestyle. Calling themselves the Liao Dynasty, they conquered 16 Chinese provinces (including the densely-populated region around Beijing) and ruled as Chinese-style emperors. They simultaneously extended their authority over other nomadic tribes on the adjacent steppes while ruling an estimated 10-15 million Chinese subjects.

Over time, the Khitan emperors came into increasing conflict with the Song Empire ruling southern China. In 1005, they signed a treaty establishing a boundary between the Liao and Song Dynasties that required the Song emperor to pay them tribute.

The Liao Dynasty collapsed when the Jurchens, originating from the steppes north of Manchuria, formed an alliance with the Song Dynasty to attack the Khitans simultaneously from the Northeast and South. After renaming themselves the Jin Dynasty, the Jurchens penetrated a long way into southern China forcing the Song court to relocate further south and pay them tribute. By 1125, the Jin Dynasty ruled the Chinese heartland, a total of 30-40 million Chinese (one-third of the Chinese population).

The Khitans migrated west following their defeat by China and overran the Islamic Seljuk Turk Federation and all the caravan cities in Transoxiana. This ultimately led to to the collapse of the Seljuk-run Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, which once again came under Arab control.*

Although they only occupied a small region between the Khitan Federation and the Uighur** Federation in the Tarim Basin, the nomadic Xi XIa Federation was politically important because it controlled the Silk Road and (after adopting Chinese Script) served as an intermediary between the Khitans and the Song Dynasty.

*See The Multiethnic Origins of the Muslim Conqueset

**See 9th Century AD: Mass Migration of Uighur Turks to China Leads to Rise of Seljuk Turks on the Steppes

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The Turkmen Role in the Rise of China’s Tang Dynasty

The empire during the reign of Wu Zetian, circa 700

Episode 15: The Turks: Turkmen Khagans and Tang Emperors

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Harl begins this lecture by describing internal changes in China following the 220 AD collapse of the  Han dynasty collapse, and a mass population shift from the Yellow to the Yangtze River. Owing to better rainfall and more fertile soil, southern China provided better opportunities for cultivating rice and silk.

Simultaneously mainly Turkish speaking nomads migrated into northern China, carving out a new federation around the Yellow River. Prioritizing control of the Silk Road trade, these nomads garrisoned the Jade Gate and took the dynastic name of the former Wei kingdom (220-226 AD). They were great sponsors of Buddhism and helped it spread throughout China.

In 581 AD the Sui Dynasty reunified China, to be usurped in 618 AD by the Tang Dynasty. Under the latter, China was as large as it had ever been, relying on the Turkish Wei rulers to run northern China. Continuing the corvée* system of military construction initiated by the Han Dynasty, the formed required all males to engage in one year of construction for the emperor or one year of military service (followed by one year of garrison duty), Twenty percent of the Tang armies were nomadic cavalry and horse archers.

In 630 AD, the Tang emperor invaded the Eastern Gökturk Khanate and recruited prisoners they captured into the army. Through this process, they brought the entire Tarim Basin under Chinese control for the first time (see How the Arrival of the Turks Transformed the Steppes ).

In 660 AD, the Tang army conquered the Western Gökturk Khanate, bringing it under Chinese control.

The Tang Empire invested heavily to stimulate development (mainly stock raising) in the Tarim Basin. They resettled native Chinese settlers to better oversee the Silk Road caravan cities and cast bronze coins to pay the Chinese garrisons that maintained order.

They also invested heavily in restoring Chinese border walls and canal building to move rice, silk and troops. The Grand Canal, stretching over 1400 miles between the Yellow and Yangtze River, was constructed during this period.

In 755-763 AD, there was a massive uprising against the heavy taxes imposed to pay for all this, led by a Gökturk (Uighur) general named An Loushan. The Tang emperor eventually put down the rebellion but lost control of the Tarim Basin to Tibet.

In 907 AD the Tang Dynasty collapsed, fragmenting into smaller kingdoms run by warlords.

*Corvée is a form of unpaid, forced labor (usually for a government ruler), which is intermittent in nature and which lasts limited periods of time.


How the Arrival of the Turks Transformed the Steppes

Episode 14: The Turks: Transformation of the Steppes

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Harl dates the beginning of the Middle Ages to the domination of the Eurasian steppes by Turks (who had migrated from the Orcon Valley in Inner Mongolia). In 330 AD, the Turks formed their first viable steppes confederations. Their success in defeating other tribes stemmed mainly from their superior saddles with metal stirrups, their improvements in the composite bow and their impressive skill as metallurgists. Their military tactics (combining simple mounted archers with heavily armored cavalry with lances) would only be defeated by the advent of firearms in the 15th century.

After negotiating terms with China’s Wei kingdom,[1] they went to war with the Hephthalites [2] to cash in on the Silk Road trade. In the late sixth century the Göktürks assimilated a number of Turkic tribes to form the Göktürk Khagnate. The latter expanded rapidly and broke into the Eastern and Western Göktürk Khagnates.

In 618 AD the Tang dynasty re-unified China and went to war against the Eastern Khagnate, which splintered into independent tribes. Thousands of Turks were captured and taken to China to serve in the military. China subsequently conquered and took control of the Western Khagnate as well.

Following the collapse of the Tang dynasty in 680-681 AD, the Göktürk Khagnates were restored.

By 700 AD the Uighur Turks had captured sufficient territory to assimilate the earlier Göktürk Khagnates. Mainly embracing Manichaeism,[3] the Uighurs tolerated all religions, built towns and developed their own written language. They enjoyed close relationships both with caravan cities and Chinese emperors. As well as marrying half their khans to Chinese princesses, they also adopted Chinese culture and religions.

In 845 AD the Uighur Khagnate collapsed following an internal civil war, and the majority of Uigurs migrated to the Tarim Basin.

Harl views the sophisticated administrative skills of the khagnates as a dress rehearsal for the Mongolian empire. In fact, Ghenghis Khan’s owed  his vast empire to the Uighurs he employed as administrators.

[1] In 220 AD, the Han empire disintegrated into three separate kingdoms, with the Wei kingdom controlling northern China.

[2] SeeThe Political Forces Controlling the Steppes When Rome Fell

[3] How the Silk Road Propagated Buddhism and Other Major Religions, as Well as Written Language

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.


The Dark Ages: When Barbarians and Peasant Farmers Took Back Power

The Dark Ages Are Upon Us : Imperator

Episode 22: Chaos and Consolidation

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this fascinating lecture, Benjamin traces the reconfiguration of Eurasia following the collapse of the Rome and the Han empire in China. The period 400 – 1000 AD is commonly referred to as the Dark Ages, owing to the break-up of Western Europe into smaller kingdoms and city-states. This seems to be based on the traditional view that large totalitarian empires run by ruthless dictators are preferable to smaller city-states, largely because the latter are at greater risk of being overthrown by the peasant farmers who generate state wealth.

  • China – Between the 3rd and 7th century AD (following the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 200 AD), 37 separate dynasties attempted to rule different areas of China. During the 6th century AD, the Sui dynasty unified northern and southern China via construction of the Grand Canal linking the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. This paved the way for the Tang dynasty. The the wealthiest, most powerful and most urbanized* empire to that point in history, it would conquer Vietnam and much of Tibet and Central Asia.
  • Japan – adopted Buddhism and Chinese administrative systems in the 3rd Century BC, but independent regions controlled by powerful Samurai would not be unified under a single emperor until 1000 AD.
  • India – the Kushan empire controlling Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and northern India collapsed in the 3rd century AD to be replaced by the Gupta network of regional rulers. During this period, Aryabhata (476-550) discovered the rotation of the Earth and first calculated the length of the solar year, and Varahamira invented the concept of zero.
  • Iran – the Parthian and Kushan empire was replaced by the Sassanian empire (251-651 AD), which promoted a resurgence of Zororastrianism and traded with the Byzantine Empire and the Chinese.
  • Western Europe – (following the collapse of Rome) broke up into six independent kingdoms governed by the Franks and Burgundians (in northern France), the Alemanni (in Germany), the Ostrogoths (in the Balkans) and the Odoaccerdom (Italy) and Visigoth kingdoms (Spain and southwest France). Many former Roman cities were taken over by peasant farmers and converted to pasture and market gardens.** There was a brief effort to unify Western Europe (as the Holy Roman consecrated by the Pope) effort under Charlemagne in 800 AD, but following Charlemagne’s death, reverted to warring kingdoms governed by local kings.
  • Western Asia – the eastern Roman empire (consisting of modern day Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Macedonia) continued under centralized  Byzantine rule from Constantinople.

The political dynamics of this era were complicated by a number of significant invasions:

  • Muslim: the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD, leading to the Muslim conquest of much of central Asia, North Africa and the Iberian peninsula.
  • Barbarians: the invasion of formerly Roman Britain by Picts, Scots and Anglo-Saxons.
  • Vikings: the invasion of Britain, northern Europe***and Russia**** by Vikings.

*By the 10th century AD, 2 million people lived in Chang’an and 1 million in Hangzhou.

**In the 7th century AD Rome had a population of 25,000, down from a population of one million in 150 AD.

***Normandy in France was settled by Vikings.

****Vikings controlled most of Ukraine and Russia via the trading networks they established. Kievan Russ, the first Russian state, was created by Viking elites who controlled these networks.

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