The Sui and Tang Dynasties: A Prosperous and Open Age

Cao Dawei & Sun Yanjing. China’s History. Singapore: Cengage Learning, 2011.

Reunification and the Sui Dynasty

From the end of the 6th century to the early 10th century, a unified empire was rebuilt in China, and China entered into its heyday.

In 581, Yang Jian, a relative of the emperor of the Northern Zhou, replaced the dynasty and renamed the nation Sui, with its capital in Chang’an (today’s Xi’an, Shaanxi). Yang Jian or Emperor Wendi of the Sui Dynasty was the son-in-law of a Xianbei noble and the granduncle of Emperor Jingdi of the Northern Zhou Dynasty, who succeeded to the throne at age seven. His family itself was the epitome of cultural fusion. Yang Jian was surrounded by a group of Han Chinese officials and Xianbei nobles deeply influenced by the Chinese culture. Furthermore, his position as a royal relative entrusted to assist handling politics rendered him great power and privileges. That facilitated the Sui’s smooth replacement of Zhou and the subsequent establishment of the Sui Dynasty, the first dynasty ruled by the Han Chinese people and accepted by the minorities in the Northern Dynasties.

In 589, the Sui troops crossed the Yangtze River and ended the Chen Dynasty, capturing Jiankang within eight days and reuniting China after 400 years of separation. The Sui integrated the Yellow River and Yangtze River economic areas, greatly intensified the political, economic, and cultural ties between north and south, and promoted rapid growth of the economy.

After reunification, Emperor Wendi and his successor Emperor Yangdi promulgated a series of political and economic reforms to further intensify the centralized sovereignty and develop the economy. At the beginning of Emperor Yangdi’s reign, he started to build Luoyang to better display its function as an economic center. Meanwhile, a 2000-km-long canal from Zhuojun (today’s Tongzhou District, Beijing) in the north to Yuhang (today’s Hangzhou, Zhejiang) in the south was also being built. The Grand Canal, linking five rivers—the Haihe, the Yellow, the Huaihe, the Yangtze, and the Qiantang rivers—became an important political, economic, and cultural tie, and played an important role in consolidating and promoting development along the canal.

The period from the start of the Sui Dynasty to the early regime of the Emperor Yangdi saw vast expanses of territory and powerful national strength. With substantial increases in population and land reclaimed, the state’s official granaries could contain millions to thousands of millions of dan (one dan equals 50 kg). Extra granaries were built for relief in times of harvest failure. At the end of the regime of Emperor Wendi, “the grain storage nationwide could meet the needs of the people for the next 50 to 60 years.”

During the reign of Emperor Yangdi, cloth and silk in Dongdu piled up like mountains. Stored products of the Sui Dynasty remained until the 20th year of the Tang Dynasty, inspiring Ma Duanlin, a historian of the Yuan Dynasty, to say “no other dynasty in history could compare with the Sui.”

Emperor Yangdi determinedly and dauntlessly pursued his policy of reform, with great achievements. Most of his projects and political and economic reforms were of strategic significance, contributing to the flourishing of the Tang Dynasty that followed. However, he paid little attention to the burden this put on the people. The emperor continuously engaged millions of people in civil works and engaged others in wars against (Korean) Koryo, resulting in desolated lands and starving people everywhere. Civilians went so far as to break their own hands and feet to escape from labor and army service. Emperor Yangdi’s tyranny gave rise to nationwide peasant uprisings. Sui rapidly perished. In 618, Li Yuan seized the opportunity and established the Tang Dynasty in Chang’an.

Splendid Early Tang Dynasty

In 626, Li Shimin, honored with great feats in founding the Tang Dynasty and achieving national reunification, changed his reign title to Zhenguan. The powerful Sui Dynasty’s quick collapse deeply shocked Li Shimin, Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. He realized emperors “will be the head when honest and upright, and isolated when brutal and tyrannical.”

So, he successively freed 6,000 court girls and promised not to hold grand ceremonies of worship of heaven on mountains, pray for celestial beings, or conduct large-scale touring. He was also open to advice and tolerant toward his ministers’ comments. His minister, Wei Zheng, often cited the end of the Sui Dynasty as a means to criticize his faults in public.

Emperor Taizong, when extremely angered by the criticism, once told the empress that he would kill Wei Zheng sooner or later, but he eventually accepted Wei’s suggestions. That gave rise to an open and free political atmosphere between the emperor and his ministers.

Emperor Taizong believed that “winning talented people is fundamental to national prosperity.” With an open mind and unique insight, he didn’t stick to the beaten track in employing talented people. He chose from former leaders of the insurgent troops, former ministers of the Sui Dynasty, favorite ministers of his political opponents, and ordinary people of humble birth. Those wise and brave people later played an important role in formulating and implementing reform and stabilizing the political situation.

During his reign, Emperor Taizong drew on the experiences and lessons of the Sui Dynasty, rolling out a series of policies aimed to stabilize society and develop the economy. He vigorously adjusted productive relations, social relations, and relations inside the ruling group, which resulted in clean politics and economic prosperity. The period was thus called the “Peaceful and Prosperous Zhenguan Period” in history.

Li Zhi, Emperor Gaozong, the successor of Emperor Taizong, was a coward and weak in health. Wu Zetian, the queen, was actively engaged in political affairs. After Li Zhi passed away, Wu Zetian ascended the throne in 690, becoming the only female emperor in Chinese history. She controlled the empire for half a century. Her father, a nouveau riche, rose with Li Yuan, Emperor Gaozu, but was looked down upon by the hereditary nobles for his humble origin. Emperor Gaozong’s decision to install Wu Zetian as his empress was once strongly opposed by his senior ministers. However, with the support of those ministers with no scholarly background, Wu Zetian stepped onto the political stage as an empress. After seizing power, she ruled that all officials, including soldiers promoted to fifth-ranking officials due to their feats, should be included in the name catalog previously reserved exclusively for hereditary officials.

She also put cruel officials in important positions so they could frame people for crimes and kill noted families and ministers who embraced resistance—as a way to break the tradition of prestigious families’ monopoly of high rank and politics. Moreover, Wu held examinations and questioned applicants herself. She selected talents from common landlords regardless of rank or family. Luo Binwang, one of the four outstanding poets of the early Tang Dynasty, once wrote A Call to Crusade against Wu Zetian, saying she was ruthless and rapacious, and “is hated by both people and the god, and can’t be tolerated by the heaven and earth.” Instead of flying into a rage, Wu spoke highly of Luo’s talent and chided the prime minister for not hiring him.

During her regime, Wu followed the policies of the Zhenguan Period: To reward farming and sericulture, and reduce labor service and taxation. Being prudent in wars resulted in continuous economic development. According to Assembled Essentials of the Song Dynasty, households nationwide rose from 3.8 million in 652 AD, a time right before she came into power, to 6.15 million in 705 AD, when she abdicated the crown.

In 712, Li Longji ascended the throne and was called Emperor Xuanzong. During his early term, he carried on reforms, adjusting official systems, and developing production. That led to a highly stable society, a thriving economy with bumper harvests and affordable grain, and a population growth of up to 10 million households. The period also saw an unprecedented development in handicrafts, such as porcelain and textiles, and a surge in iron product categories, scale of production, and new techniques. The state power of the Tang Dynasty had reached its culmination, and the period was thus honored as the Kaiyuan Flourishing Age.

Reforms of the Sui and Tang Dynasties

The prosperity of the early Tang hinged on the economic and social development then. Land cultivation and irrigation using bent shaft plows and scoop waterwheels granted greater freedom to individual peasants. This led to the rapid development of intensively cultivated small land parcels and produced a great number of middle and small landlords. Meanwhile, the population of decadent gentry and landlords, crushed by widespread peasant wars at the end of the Sui Dynasty, gradually declined. The individual cultivation-based landlords broke the fetters of hereditary noble households and started to play an important role in state politics, initiating a range of far-reaching innovations in the prevailing systems.

Establishment of the Three-Ministry and Six-Department System in the Sui and Tang dynasties represents a significant change in the ancient Chinese official system. Zhongshu Ministry (Imperial Secretariat), Menxia Ministry (Imperial Chancellery), and Shangshu Ministry (State) were the supreme administrative organizations of the country, in charge of decisionmaking and drafting orders, and the review and execution of state affairs, respectively. Under the Shangshu Ministry, six departments were set up. The Department of Civil Appointment was in charge of the appointment and assessment of officials. The Department of Finance was in charge of land resources, household registry, taxation, and financial affairs. The Department of Rites was in charge of ritual affairs, celebrations, sacrifices, schools, and imperial examinations. The Department of War was in charge of officer selection, serviceman registry, military orders, and weapons. The Department of Punishments was in charge of laws, orders, the judiciary, criminal punishment, and prisons. The Department of Works was in charge of civil engineering, irrigation and flood control, arable land, roads, and the like. The heads of these three ministries were prime ministers. They discussed state affairs and assisted the emperor in ruling the country, while supplementing each other and checking each other. The responsibilities of the six departments were well divided and became the formal administrative institutions of the country.

The expostulation system was designed to supervise and correct major policies of the court. Even orders of the emperors were examined in the Tang Dynasty. The Menxia Ministry had the exclusive right to reject reports of the officials and to review and return orders of the emperor. During the Zhenguan Period, the Wuhua Panshi system was also implemented, allowing officials of concerned departments to overview all major military events and present their views to the emperor for a final decision. To ensure administrative efficiency, officials who intentionally delayed the deadline of the joint signature would be punished.

The Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern dynasties stressed family background when selecting officials. Descendants of noble birth could get promoted to ministers and monopolize the positions for generations, even though some were ignorant, incompetent, and unenterprising. But things had changed in the Sui and Tang dynasties with the increasingly bigger role of the emerging commoner-landlord class, hence the establishment of the official selection system with imperial examinations.

Under the imperial exam system, the central government chose officials via regular imperial examinations and emphasized that capabilities were the standard for official selection. The imperial examinations were divided into Jinshi and Mingjing. Mingjing was designed to test the capability of reciting classics. Jinshi mainly focused on poetry and ode writing and strategies on current affairs, aimed at testing the person’s capability of governing political affairs and solving social problems. The scholars had to pass further examinations of the organization department. Outstanding ones would be chosen and appointed. Another way to be appointed was to first act as an assistant in the local government, and then be recommended by senior officials.

The official selection system based on imperial examinations broke the monopoly of the rich and powerful families, expanded the social foundation for the central regime, and injected a fresh force into social development. It created a relatively objective, equitable, and fair official selection mechanism, ensuring the continuous introduction of talented people and providing the state organization with a systematic guarantee of vigorous, stable, and efficient performance.

Tang’s laws simplified the system of the Sui and had lighter penalties. Execution was very prudently applied, and five reviews were required. Comment on Law of the Tang Dynasty, the earliest extant legal code in China, has had a great influence on Asian countries throughout history.

The Early Tang Dynasty made certain adjustments based on the System of Equal Distribution of Land adopted since the Northern Wei and Sui dynasties. Provisions on awarding land according to numbers of slaves, maids, buqu (a social class between slaves and ordinary people), and cattle were canceled, keeping the despotic economy in check to some extent. Officials of five-rank (out of nine) or higher and those honored due to military feats were also awarded a certain parcel of land based on rank and merit, which served as an important way to support the emerging landlord class. Restrictions on sales of some types of land, like permanently held land and bestowed land, were loosened, further facilitating the development of private ownership.

With regard to the tax and corvee system, the Tax-Labor-Substitution System was implemented widely, which allowed replacement of corvee with payment by silk or cloth. In the middle Tang Dynasty, land mergers and the false reporting of household population led to the collapse of the System of Equal Distribution of Land. The court also changed the Tax-Labor-Substitution System to the Dual-Tax System, speeding the process of land privatization and the development of the commoner-landlord economy. The Dual-Tax Law stipulated that taxes be levied on property size—not on population—which released control over peasants. In addition, coins largely replaced physical goods as a means of paying tax, and nobles, bureaucrats, and merchants were all required to pay tax, too. That expanded the government’s tax base and increased its revenue.

These significant systematic reforms implemented in the Sui and Tang dynasties reflected the development of the emerging commoner-landlord system and their political pursuits as well. They initiated a new trend for future social development and made the Sui and Tang dynasties a critical turning point in ancient Chinese history.

Hu and Han are “Members of One Family”

The Tang Dynasty was witness to another grand unification. The central government and the border ethnic groups developed closer relations. Emperor Taizong announced that, “I love the Han and ethnic groups equally, though most have favored the former all along.”

After defeating the Eastern Turks in the South Desert during the Zhenguan Period, the Tang Dynasty adopted the policy of “all tribes following their local customs.” Turkish aristocrats were still the governors, and generals had jurisdiction over tribal members. All previous ethnic customs and ways of life were retained. In the meantime, nearly 10,000 Turks moved to Chang’an, including more than 100 Turkish chieftains who were honored as senior officials with five-rank or above. Before long, the Tang Dynasty set up the Protectorate General of Anxi in the Western Regions; the Protectorate General of Beiting was further established during the regime of Wu Zetian, respectively governing areas south and north of Tianshan Mountain.

Moved by the open policy, chieftains of northwestern tribes addressed Emperor Taizong respectfully as Tian Khan (the great heavenly Khan) and supported him as their mutual leader. During the later Zhenguan Period, more than ten tribes in the North Desert, including the Huihe, submitted to the Tang Dynasty in succession, and opened a “road of Khan” in the desert. The court set up sixty-eight posthouses along the path to receive emissaries and offer services for traveling businessmen. After that, Emperor Suzong, Emperor Dezong, and Emperor Muzong all married one of their princesses to the Huihe Khan for peace-making purposes.

Emperor Taizong also accepted the request of Songzan Gambo, the chieftain of Tubo on the Tibetan Plateau, to marry Princess Wencheng to him. When the princess entered Tibet, she brought handiworks, grains, vegetable seeds, herbal medicines and tea, as well as more than 100 kinds of production techniques and medical books, making Tubo “gradually affected by the advanced culture” and greatly boosting the local economic and cultural growth.

After succeeding to the throne, Emperor Gaozong conferred the title of Chief Commandant of Escorting Cavalry upon Songzan Gambo and honored him as the King of Xihai Jun. During the reign of Emperor Zhongzong, he further married Princess Jincheng to Chidai Zhudan, the king of Tubo, who called himself the “nephew” of the emperor, and said, “Tubo and Han are members of one family.”

In 823, the Tang Dynasty and Tubo entered into an alliance in Changqing. The Monument to the Tang-Tubo Alliance still stands in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa today, serving as witness to the friendly relations between the Tang Dynasty and Tibet.

The mid-seventh century saw the rise of Heishui and Sumo tribes of the Mohe ethnic group in the Songhua River and Heilongjiang River basins. During the Zhenguan Period, Heishui Mohe started to pay tribute to the Tang Dynasty. In the early eighth century, the Tang Dynasty established the Heishui Governor-General Mansion and appointed its chieftain as the governor. In the beginning of Kaiyuan Period, Emperor Xuanzong conferred the title of King of Bohai upon Dazuorong and honored him as the Governor of Huhan Prefecture. Bohai had close relations with the central plains, and its capital, Shangjing Longquanfu (present-day Bohai Town, Anning City, Heilongjiang Province) was modelled on Chang’an of the Tang Dynasty. The prefecture and county system were also copied, as well as the advanced production techniques of the central plains.

There were six tribes—Six Zhaos—in the Erhai area during the Sui and Tang dynasties. In the early eighth century, the Tang Dynasty supported South Zhao to unify the Six Zhaos, and Emperor Xuanzong honored its chieftain as the King of Yunnan. The advanced techniques from the central plains promoted the development of the local economy. When growing stronger, South Zhao came into conflict with the Tang Dynasty, resulting in a time of alternating war and peace. At the end of the eighth century, South Zhao once again submitted to the Tang Dynasty. In 794, the King of South Zhao met the emissary team of the Tang Dynasty at the Divine Temple in Diancang Mountain. From then on, South Zhao has been deeply affected by the Tang Dynasty in a wide range of aspects, such as administrative organization, production techniques, and way of living, making great contributions to the development of the southwestern regions.

With more than 800 provinces, prefectures, and counties established in the border areas inhabited by ethnic groups, the early Tang Dynasty boasted a territory reaching the sea in the east, the Anxi and Congling Mountain areas in the west, the Mongol Plateau in the north, and the South Sea in the south, and was characterized by unprecedented affluence and power. Both folk customs and art also showed signs of communication and the merging of ethnic and Han cultures. The ethnic groups greatly appreciated silk and porcelain and central plains food, like dumplings, and tea became an important material for exchange.

Meanwhile, the central plains saw the popularity of ethnic clothes and food. Frescoes and sculptures from the Tang Dynasty also reflect the distinct glamour of the Western Regions, either in expression or artistic style. The dancers and bands were mostly from diverse ethnic groups, and the musical instruments include those of both ethnic and Han styles, manifesting the characteristics of a time when ethnic groups and Han were members of one family.

Openness and Communication

The Sui and Tang dynasties boasted developed inbound and outbound trade routes. The land route ran from present-day North Korea in the east, through the Silk Road, to present-day India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Persian Gulf in the west. It further extended to many European and African countries through Central Asia and the Mediterranean Sea. The sea route started from today’s South Korea and Japan in the east and ended in the Persian Gulf in the west. Tang Dynasty policies that encouraged openness and communication, as well as the smooth land and sea routes, gave rise to extremely frequent Sino-foreign exchanges.

Japan had sent its emissaries to the Tang Dynasty thirteen times, with hundreds of Japanese students going with each mission. In 645, Japan launched Taika Reform, taking the Tang Dynasty as a model in many aspects including political, legal, and land and tax systems, and even the construction of its capital city. Ku Kai, a Japanese scholar monk who once went to the Tang Dynasty to study Buddhism, adopted the strokes of Chinese characters to create Japanese letters called Katakana.

Jianzhen, a monk of the Tang Dynasty, tried to cross the ocean eastward to Japan but failed multiple times. He finally did it on his sixth attempt, at the age of sixty-six. Jianzhen himself carried out monkhood initiation for the Japanese emperor, empress, and prince, as well as for ordinary people from various circles. He gave lectures on Buddhism and introduced Chinese medicine, architecture, sculpture, calligraphy, painting, and other knowledge to the Japanese people. In the late seventh century, Silla on the Korean Peninsula also sent groups of students to the Tang Dynasty, and imitated such Tang systems as the six departments and official selection through imperial examinations. Deeply affected by the Tang Dynasty, Silla displayed a strong Tang style in a wide range of areas from science and technology to art, literature, and folk customs.

During the early Zhenguan Period, the senior monk Xuanzang made an arduous journey west to India, where he studied Buddhism earnestly for five years. Then he toured around many other counties to give Buddhist lectures. Seventeen years later, he returned to Chang’an, where he devoted himself to translating Buddhist sultras, and The Buddhist Records of the Western Regions, compiled by his disciples, describes what he saw and heard along his westward journey. He was also entrusted by Emperor Taizong to translate the Tao Te Ching into Sanskrit. Xuanzang’s efforts with Buddhist scriptures promoted Sino-Indian cultural exchanges and had a great influence on Chinese history.

The Tang Dynasty opened itself to the outside world in an all-around way and carried out extensive communication with foreign countries, keeping commercial ties with more than seventy, including countries in West Asia, Europe, and Africa. The government permitted foreigners to live in China, marry Chinese people, and take part in Chinese examinations for official selection. Some foreigners even acted as military officials of the court or servants of the emperor. The city of Chang’an, capital of the Tang Dynasty, covered an area of 84 square kilometers and had a population of nearly one million, the world’s largest international city then. Arabia saw the establishment of an Arab Empire that spanned across Asia, Africa, and Europe in the seventh century, but it collapsed in the ninth century. Europe was in the medieval era of division and chaos. The prosperous Sui and Tang dynasties, while imposing a far-reaching influence on neighboring countries and regions, extensively absorbed foreign cultures to enrich and develop the Chinese culture. Merchants, scholars, and people of ethnic groups, as well as foreign emissaries and students, gathered in the capital city of Chang’an, and grand feasts filled with singing and dancing were widespread. Women also wore ethnic clothing, rode horses, played ball games, and joined various sorts of social, sports, and entertainment activities. The society was full of vigor and vitality.

Brilliant Culture of the Sui and Tang Dynasties

The Sui and Tang dynasties, integrated in territory, prosperous in economy, and liberal in politics, promoted the quick development of culture and education. A complete school education system from the central to the local was established, which taught law, mathematics, and other major subjects. The social reforms and systematic renovation during the period also gave fresh impetus to advances in science, technology, literature, and art.

The period saw two great inventions that had a significant impact upon human civilization, namely wood block printing and gunpowder.

Enlightened by the techniques of seal engraving and printing from engraved stones in ancient China, wood-block printing began in the early Tang Dynasty. The Zhenguan Period left records of engraving and printing. The Vajra Sutra, an exquisitely engraved printing work, done with bright ink in the ninth year of the Xiantong Period of the Tang Dynasty (868), is the earliest dated wood-block document in the world. The invention of wood-block printing that followed in the wake of paper making played a significant role in keeping, spreading, and developing human culture.

In the early Tang Dynasty, Taoists stumbled upon the formula for gunpowder as they were making medicines. Sun Simiao, a medicine expert in the early Tang Dynasty, recorded how to make gunpowder in the book Alchemical Scriptures. “First, put two taels of sulphur and another two taels of saltpeter into an earthen pot, then burn the Chinese Honeylocust hot and put it inside the pot, which will jointly create raging flames.” There are other records of peasant insurgent troops that used gunpowder in wars at the end of the Tang Dynasty. In addition, gunpowder was used in hunting, excavation, and stone extraction.

Ancient Chinese architectural art entered a period of maturity during the Sui and Tang dynasties. Yu Wenkai, an architect of the Sui Dynasty, used drawings and models to design and direct the construction of the beautifully laid out city of Daxing, which was later expanded into Chang’an (Xi’an) during the Tang Dynasty. This and his design and construction of Luoyang demonstrate the era’s superb techniques in urban construction. The Zhaozhou Bridge, designed and built by Li Chun, a workman of the Sui Dynasty, is a singlehole, stone arch bridge 37 meters wide and more than 50 meters long. Reputed as “a wonder in world bridge-building history,” it is well preserved until today.

The Tang Dynasty was the golden age of ancient Chinese poetry, with more than 50,000 poems passed down to present. Prosperity, openness, cultural diversity, and the enterprising spirit encouraged by the fresh official selection system combined to inspire the brilliance of Tang poetry characterized by orderly rhythm and proper parallelism. Gao Shi, Cen Sen, Wang Changling, and other frontier poets sang the praises of soldiers and officers. Poems written by Meng Haoran, Wang Wei, and other idyllic poets expressed the peaceful harmony between man and nature.

The most notable poets in the Tang Dynasty were Li Bai and Du Fu. Li Bai, called the God of Poetry, wrote poems that are bold and unconstrained, representing the vigorous and personality-oriented spirit in the prosperous period of the Tang Dynasty.

Du Fu, called the Saint of Poetry, was destitute and homeless and worried about the country and the people throughout his life. His poems reflect social reality, especially people’s difficult lives amid the chaos caused by war. His poems were heavy and indignant, and were called “poetic history.”

Paintings of the Tang Dynasty featured greater scope of subject, with figures, landscapes, and flowers and birds becoming independent fine art forms. Systematic painting techniques were invented, and diverse schools of painting emerged. Wu Daozi, respected as the Saint of Artists, combined his interest in calligraphy with line drawing, achieving the artistic effect of “drifting clothes and moving lines.”

The national reunification in the Sui and Tang dynasties brought about the combination of the southern and northern calligraphic styles—gracefulness and vigorousness. The styles of Ouyang Xun, Yan Zhenqing, and Liu Gongquan were representative of the times. Ouyang’s scripts were bold and dignified. Yan’s calligraphy was round and simple, while Liu had a serious and vigorous style. Zhang Xun and Huai Su were famous for cursive hand, which is smooth, drifting, and unrestrained.

Affected by foreign cultures, the music and dance of the Sui and Tang dynasties were colorful in style. Emperor Xuanzong, acquainted with music rhythms, once imparted dancing and singing techniques to 300 musicians in a pear park, and composed “Dancing in a Gauze Costume” by drawing on the styles of Western Regions.

The Mogao Grottoes, located in Dunhuang, Gansu, a key site along the Silk Road, is the world’s largest and best-preserved Buddhist artistic treasure. More than 3,000 colorful sculptures and 45,000 square meters of frescoes have been preserved at present, most of which are works dating from the Sui and Tang dynasties. Statues with different facial expressions look vivid and lively, and the frescoes’ smooth, drifting lines are splendid and charming.