During the 400 years of the late Eastern Han Dynasty to the early Sui Dynasty, the reunification of the forces in China had been growing. This indicated that the Chinese nation, with the Han nationality at the core, had become a relatively stable community. Thus, the Sui’s reunification was a historical trend.
In 581, Yang Jian usurped the throne of the Northern Zhou and established the Sui Dynasty. Yang Jian reigned as Emperor Wendi of Sui. In 589, the Sui conquered the Chen Dynasty and reunified the northern and southern parts of the country. In 618, a peasant uprising brought about the end of Sui, with the death of Emperor Yangdi. During the peasant uprising, Li Yuan, a powerful Sui official, and his sons seized the opportunity to revolt and established the Tang Dynasty. The period from the reign of Emperor Taizong, Wu Zetian, and to the early part of the reign of Emperor Xuanzong is called the time of the “Benign Administration of the Zhenguan Reign Period” and the “Flourishing Kaiyuan Reign Period.” The territory ruled by the Tang Dynasty was broader than that of any of the previous dynasties. It reached the East China Sea in the east, extended to the islands in the South China Sea in the south, bordered Lake Balkhash in today’s Kazakhstan in the west and extended as far as the Outer Hinggan Mountains in the northeast. The minority ethnic groups inhabiting the border were gradually developed, and the country was very powerful.
During the Sui and Tang dynasties, the economy of China prospered, exchanges with the outside world were frequent, and glorious scientific and cultural achievements appeared. Calligraphy, painting, and sculpture flourished in the Tang Dynasty. In particular, Tang Dynasty poetry is regarded as the acme of this genre, represented by the greatest poets Li Bai and Du Fu. In the field of prose literature, Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan were outstanding. Tang was one of the richest and most powerful countries both in ancient China and in the world at that time. During the period of Sui and Tang dynasties, Western countries were splitting, and politics was in chaos: The economy and culture were in laggard development. In contrast, Asia was thriving. In Asia, two empires were very strong. One was the Arab Empire which crossed the European, Asian and African continents, and the other was the feudal societies of China’s Sui and Tang dynasties. The burgeoning economy and culture of the Sui and Tang dynasties influenced the countries around China, especially the countries in East Asia such as Japan and Korea. At that time, Japan especially sent people to study the system and culture of China. Chang’an (today’s Xi’an, Shaanxi Province), the capital city of the Tang Dynasty, was not only the political center of China at that time, but it was also one of the centers for economic and cultural exchanges for the whole Asian region. Because of the Tang Dynasty’s enormous international influence, Chinese people were called the “People of Tang” by their neighbors. Until now, the overseas place where Chinese community in a foreign land is still called “Tangrenjie” (Chinatown).
The Grand Canal of the Sui Dynasty
China’s major rivers, such as the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, all flow from west to east into the ocean. But there is a river which joins up the north and the south. It is a man-dug waterway, known as the famous Grand Canal.
From 605 to 610, in order to strengthen his control of the country and to transport the materials more accessible from the area south of the Yangtze River to the north, Emperor Yangdi of the Sui Dynasty gathered several million workers to construct this Grand Canal. It took them about six years to complete. Some sections were the former canals which workers only repaired, broadened and deepened them, and some natural rivers and lakes were also included in the project.
The Grand Canal went throughout the country and took Luoyang as its center. It was originally some 2 000 km long, and the width of the water surface was from 30 to 70 m. The canal reached Zhuojun County (in today’s Beijing) in the north and extended to Yuhang (today’s Hangzhou) in the south. It was connected to big rivers like the Huaihe, the Yellow River, the Huaihe, the Yangtze River and the Qiantang River. The canal flows through today’s Hebei, Shandong, Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. Therefore, it is one of the greatest projects in China’s history.
The opening of the Grand Canal helped to transport grains and materials from south to north continuously and thus played a very important role in promoting the economic and cultural development of the whole country and in maintaining political unity.
In the Yuan Dynasty, on the model of the old Grand Canal, people dug the Shandong Canal and the Tonghui River, which extended from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south and became the main north-south communication waterway in China.
Today, China is planning to restore the Grand Canal, not only for the convenience of transportation between the north and the south but also to transfer water from the south to the north to solve the problem of water shortage in the north.
Emperor Yangdi’s Extravagant Trip to Jiangdu
Emperor Yangdi was a talented politician but abandoned himself to sensuous pleasures without any mercy to his people. Jiangdu (Yangzhou City in Jiangsu Province) was the political, economic and cultural center in the southeastern region. The Grand Canal had hardly been completed when Emperor Yangdi boarded his four-floored dragon boat with thousands. accompanying boats, and nearly 200 000 in his retinue, and sailed downwards to Jiangdu for his extravagant traveling. Excessively material and labor resources were splurged for his enjoyment. For instance, the honor guard had extended as long as 10 km. Endless forced labor aroused the resentment among the people along the banks of the canal. Continuous revolts had eventually overthrown the government of the Sui Dynasty. In 618, Emperor Yangdi was put to death in a mutiny launched by his subordinates.
The Benign Administration of the Zhenguan Reign Period
Emperor Taizong, Li Shimin, enjoys a prestige which is quite high. When he was young, he assisted his father in establishing the Tang Dynasty. Very talented as a general in the war, he wisely employed capable persons to assist him in governing the country. He named the period of his reign “Zhenguan” (627-649). Drawing lessons from the downfall of the Sui Dynasty, Emperor Taizong carried out many enlightened policies and measures beneficial to the country and died, people, which consolidated the state power of the Tang Dynasty, restored social stability and boosted the economy. Therefore, the reign was termed “the Benign Administration of the Zhenguan Reign Period” by historians.
Emperor Taizong knew that a well-ordered administration needed capable people and a wide range of expert opinions. So he made good use of capable people no matter what their backgrounds were. He once said that using a bronze mirror; one could tidy one’s clothes; using history as a mirror, one could know the way of governing a country; using people as a mirror, one could tell right from wrong.
Emperor Taizong implemented many measures that enjoyed the support of the people, such as joining counties and prefectures together to reduce expenditure; letting peasants have a certain amount of land and reducing the burden of corvee labor to ensure that peasants had time to work on their land. Citing an ancient saying, Emperor Taizong said that the emperor was like a boat and the people were like water; water could carry the boat, but it could also capsize it.
Emperor Taizong won the support of all the minority peoples by adopting relatively enlightened policies toward them. The ethnic groups in the north called him “Great Khan.” The emperor sent Princess Wencheng to the king of Tubo, in Tibet, which made the relations between the Han and Tibetan people closer and contributed to the stability of China as a multi-ethnic country.
Wu Zetian, China’s First Female Monarch
Wu Zetian (624-705) was the first and the only female monarch in the history of China and, an outstanding politician.
She was a smart, courageous, and beautiful girl; she knew literary history in her childhood. At the age of 14, she was taken into the imperial palace by Emperor Taizong as a concubine. After Emperor Taizong died, she was sent to a temple and became a nun. Emperor Gaozong, son of Emperor Taizong, was fond of Wu Zetian when he was crown prince. Two years after he succeeded to the throne, he had Wu Zetian brought back to the imperial palace. Then he demoted his consort and made Wu Zetian his empress.
Wu Zetian soon became involved in affairs of state and palace intrigue, including getting rid of officials who opposed her. Emperor Gaozong, not being in good health, often let her handle his duties for him. At that time, Emperor Gaozong and Wu Zetian were called the “Two Saints” by the people, which meant they had two emperors.
When Emperor Gaozong died in 683, Wu Zetian administered the country as the Empress Dowager. In 690, Wu Zetian changed the name of the dynasty to Zhou and became the Empress herself. She carried on die policy of developing production initiated by Emperor Taizong. She also promoted many talented people in defiance of protocol, especially members of her own clan. She was a devout Buddhist and spent money lavishly on the construction of temples. Eventually, Wu Zetian was forced by her senior ministers to hand over the power to her son, Zhongzong.
Di Renjie, the Prime Minister
In order to reinforce her regime, Wu Zetian valued preeminent figures. Heard that Di Renjie (630-700) enjoyed great prestige for justly handling affairs, and strictly enforcing the law, she nominated him as the Prime Minister (the highest level of an official in ancient China). Even when Di Renjie was the Prime Minister, he spared no efforts to recommend many standouts to the government. Those who were appreciated by him, such as Zhang Jianzhi, became a couple of well-known ministers later. Someone said to him, “The elitists in the country are all your honor’s pupils.” Di Renjie replied, “Nothing is more important than recommending the capable people for our country.”
The Flourishing Kaiyuan Reign Period
Kaiyuan (713-741) was the earlier reign title of Li Longji, Emperor Xuanzong (712-756). Through over 100 years of development from the beginning of Zhenguan reign of Taizong to the end of Kaiyuan reign, the Tang Dynasty became unprecedentedly prosperous. So this period was referred to as the “Prosperous Kaiyuan Period.”
Emperor Xuanzong was the grandson of Wu Zetian, but he modeled his rule on that of Emperor Taizong. He made use of capable people, listened to his ministers1 advice and devoted himself to state affairs. He demonstrated his capability with prompt measures one year by combating a plague of locusts in northern China and saved the people from starvation.
The renowned poet Du Fu described the prosperity of that time in his poem Remembering the Past: “Remember the good old Kaiyuan days/When even a small county had ten thousand households/The rice shone, and the corn was white/And granaries of state and people burst with grain alike.” During the Kaiyuan Period, the society was stable and peaceful, and commerce and transportation were highly developed. Yangzhou, located where the Grand Canal meets the Yangtze River, was a bustling city where merchants from all over China and abroad converged. Chang’ a capital of the Tang Dynasty, was then one of the world’s great metropolises. Envoys, merchants, scholars, and artisans of many countries flocked to Chang’an to trade, and to study the advanced culture and technology of the Tang Dynasty.
The Revolt of An Lushan and Shi Siming
In the second half of his reign, during the Tianbao Period (742-756), Emperor Xuanzong was obsessed by his favorite concubine, Lady Yang. He neglected his duties and the court was corrupt, and the army weak. A Lushan (703-757) wormed his way into Emperor Xuanzong’s confidence and took command of a great part of the armed forces. In the year of 755, An Lushan and 5hi Siming staged a revolt in Fanyang with an army of 150 000, marching toward Chang’an. This was known historically as the Revolt of An Lushan and Shi Siming. It is until the year 762 that the revolt was finally suppressed. This revolt did serious damage to the economy of north China and marked the decline of the Tang Dynasty.
The Heyday of Chang’an
Chang’ a capital city of the Tang Dynasty is now called Xi’an. The city of Chang’an was built in the Sui Dynasty and called at that time Daxing. The city took nearly 100 years to build. During the Tang Dynasty, Chang’an was almost 11 times as big as today’s Xi’an and was a metropolis of international renown.
The emperor lived and ruled in the imperial palace in Chang’an. To the south of the palace, there was the so-called Imperial City, where the government offices were located. The streets and residences of Chang’an were designed like a chessboard, with the neat and symmetrical layout of the east and west. The width of many streets and avenues inside the city was over 100 m (Zhuque Avenue was the widest street). The city of Beijing in the Ming and Qing dynasties was modeled on the pattern of Chang’an.
The residential areas and commercial areas inside the city were located separately. In the commercial areas, there were many shops: meat shops, fish shops, medicine shops, silk shops, iron shops, gold and silver shops, etc. There were said to be over 200 kinds of shops in the eastern commercial area. All kinds of precious and rare goods were available there.
Chang’an was also the cultural center of China at that time, with rich and colorful recreational activities, such as music, dancing, cockfighting, tug-of-war, swing-playing, etc. The most famous painters, calligraphers, and poets of the Tang Dynasty usually gathered in Chang’an, and their creative activities added much glory to the city. Students came from Japan and Korea to study in Chang’an, and merchants flocked there from Central Asia. Among the population of around one million in Chang’an, there were over 10 000 foreign households.
Songtsen Gampo and Princess Wencheng
The Tubo people were the ancestors of the Tibetan people. They appeared on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau at a very early period. They were farmers and herders. In the early seventh century, Songtsen Gampo united the various Tubo tribes and made Luoxie (today’s Lhasa) the capital of the Tubo kingdom.
Songtsen Gampo admired the culture of the Tang Dynasty and was eager to form an alliance with that powerful empire. In 641, Emperor Taizong sent Princess Wencheng to him as his bride.
The Tubo people used to live in tents. It is said that a gorgeous palace was built specially for her, which was the predecessor of today’s Potala Palace.
Princess Wencheng took with her to Tubo medicines, books on science and technology, grain and vegetable seeds, and exquisite handicrafts of the Tang Dynasty. In addition, people who were proficient in raising silkworms, making wine and paper, and weaving and embroidering accompanied her, to teach these arts to the people of Tibet. Princess Wencheng was an ardent believer in Buddhism. It is said that the location of the Jokhang Temple was chosen by her.
Princess Wencheng lived in Tubo for 40 years, making great contributions to the friendship between the Han and Tibetan peoples. She is still remembered and loved by the Tibetans. Statues of Princess Wencheng are preserved in the Jokhang Temple and Potala Palace. There are many beautiful legends told about Princess Wencheng among the Tibetan people.
Records on the Western Regions of the Great Tang Empire
After he returned to China, Xuanzang wrote a book titled Records on the Western Regions of the Great Tang Empire. The book records in detail the different traditions and customs, products, climates, geographical conditions, histories, languages, and religions of over 100 countries and areas in the Western Regions at that time. Most of the contents were what he saw and heard on his journey, which are very important materials for research into the geographical and historical conditions in ancient Central and South Asia. Now this book has been translated into many languages and enjoys worldwide fame.
Xuanzang’s Journey to the West
In the classic novel Journey to the West, a monk entitled the Tang Priest, goes on a pilgrimage to India to fetch the Buddhist scriptures back to China. Together with his disciple's Monkey, Pig, and Friar Sand, he overcomes 81 hardships, and his mission is successful. The novel is a collection of legends, but in history, there really was such a monk. His Buddhist name was Xuanzang.
Xuanzang (602-664) renounced the world and became a monk when lie was young. He acquired a good command of the Buddhist classics, and he found that there were a great many errors in the translated Buddhist scriptures. Therefore, he decided to go to Tianzhu (today s Indian Peninsula), the birthplace of Buddhism, to study and bring back authentic scriptures.
Xuanzang started his journey to the west in 627. He crossed mountains and deserts, overcoming numerous hardships, and finally reached Tianzhu alter a journey of a whole year.
Xuanzang studied in Tianzhu (today’s India) and stayed there for as long as 15 years, rendering homage to six Buddhist Holy Lands successively. His sincere commitment to Buddhism and unswerving determination moved many Tianzhu people. Some kings even sent several people to copy Buddhist sutra for him. In return, Xuanzang introduced them some Buddhist scripture that had been lost. Xuanzang also learned the language of Tianzhu, attended huge gatherings concerning Buddhist learning and delivered speeches on many occasions. Xuanzang’s erudition won the respect of the Tianzhu people.
At the age of 42, Xuanzang returned to Chang’an, bringing back 657 Buddhist scriptures. He then commenced the work of translating the Buddhist scriptures. He translated 74 Buddhist scriptures altogether, amounting to about 1 305 volumes.
Xuanzang was not only an eminent monk but also a great translator and an envoy for friendship between China and India. He made great contributions to the development of Chinese culture, and for cultural exchanges between China and India and other countries.
Jianzhen Crosses the Ocean to Japan
Almost 100 years after Xuanzang returned to Chang’an Jianzhen, another eminent Buddhist monk of the Tang Dynasty, crossed the ocean eastward to Japan, to spread Buddhism.
Jianzhen was born in Yangzhou. As the abbot of the Darning Temple in that city, he received envoys sent by the ruler of Japan in 742, who requested that teachers of Buddhism be sent to their homeland. Jianzhen decided to go by himself. However, the crossing was fraught with hazards, yet he said deceivably: “How can I give up my faith in order to protect my body?” It was only on his sixth attempt that Jianzhen arrived in Japan. At that time, he was already 66 years old, and blind. He, with his 23 disciples had brought a great number of books, the image of Buddhism, Buddhistic scripture, and some other treasure.
Jianzhen lived in Japan for 10 years. He not only spread knowledge of Buddhism, but he also made prominent contributions to Japanese architecture, medicine, and art. He designed the Toshodai Temple in Nara, which was treasured as a “bright pearl.” He had also exerted great influence on Japanese medicine; he was praised as the Founder of Medicine. Jianzhen died in Japan.
Envoys Sent to the Tang Empire
During the Tang Dynasty, China was the most advanced country in the East. On a dozen occasions, Japan sent groups of 500 to 600 students at a time to study in China. After these people returned to Japan, they spread knowledge of Chinese social institutions and culture, which did a great deal to promote the friendly relations and cultural exchanges between China and Japan.
The Three Famous Grottoes
Buddhism originated in India and spread into the hinterland of China around the first century. In the Southern and Northern dynasties, grottoes were carved in cliffs to house statues of Buddha and sacred murals. In the Sui and Tang dynasties, grotto art made great strides. The three most famous groups of grottoes are the Yungang Grottoes in Datong, Shanxi Province, the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Henan Province, and the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu Province. They are world-famous for their great number of rich and colorful Buddhist frescos, sculptures and statues.
The Yungang Grottoes are the most eminent among the Buddhist artistic works of the Northern Wei Dynasty. They are cut into the foot of a mountain and stretch 1 000 m from east to west. They contain thousands of Buddhist sculptures of various sizes, among which the biggest one is 17 m high.
The largest cave in the Longmen Grottoes was hollowed out during the Tang Dynasty. The Buddhist statues in these grottoes show the influence of the aesthetic concepts of the people of India and Central Asia.
The Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang used to have over 1 000 caves, but nowadays there remain only a few hundred, of which 60 to 70% were made in the Sui and Tang dynasties. The walls and ceilings of the grottoes are covered with colored frescos, including works of many famous painters such as Wu Daozi, Yan Liben, etc. totaling more than 45 000 m2. The frescos depict Buddhist stories. Many of them reflect the prosperity of the Tang Dynasty. The Mogao Grottoes boast over 2 400 statues, almost half of which date from the Sui and Tang dynasties.
The Great Statue of Buddha at Leshan, Sichuan Province
The Leshan Buddha is the biggest stone seated statue of Buddha in existence. Construction of the statue started in the first year (713) of the Kaiyuan reign period of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty, and it was completed in the 19th year (803) of the Zhenyuan reign period of Emperor Dezong. It is a seated statue of Maitreya (the Buddha of the Future). It is 70.8 m high, and the shoulder width is 24 m. When the statue was completed, it was painted in colors all over, and a seven-story tower 60 m wide was erected above it. This tower was destroyed in a war. There is a saying about the Leshan Buddha: the mountain is a Buddha, and the Buddha is a mountain.
The Imperial Civil Examination System
Starting in the Sui Dynasty, the imperial government selected its officials from the ranks of the successful candidates in the imperial civil examinations.
The imperial civil examination in the Tang Dynasty was classified into two types: the regular one and the irregular one. The regular examination was held every year. It had many levels, such as Xiucai, Minting, and Jinshi. The Jinshi degree was the most difficult to attain. Every year hundreds of men took the Jinshi examination, but only one or two passed. Those who passed the Jinshi examination would attend a lavish banquet held by the Qujiang Pond, and their names would be announced under the Greater Goose Pagoda in the Ci’en Temple. The irregular examination was set spontaneously by the emperor himself, who acted as the chief examiner. However, it was of less importance than the regular one.
There were two kinds of people who took the imperial civil examination. One consisted of students chosen by academics, who were called Shengtu; the other kind, called Xianggong, consisted of those who had passed the examinations held by prefectures and counties. The imperial civil examination in the Tang Dynasty was usually presided over by the Board of Rites. Those who passed the examination would be reexamined by the Board of Rites, and then receive various kinds of official positions according to their examination results.
The imperial civil examination system was the method used until the late years of Chinese last feudal dynasty, the Qing, which fell in 1911, to choose talented men for official positions. Many historians thought that the imperial civil examination system was an excellent system for selecting civilians and it has been the guarantee of the sound development from the Sui and Tang dynasties to the Ming and Qing dynasties for more than 1 000 years. However, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the imperial civil examination system, which stressed knowledge of the Confucian classics exclusively, became a rigid and stultifying institution which kept China from adopting modern scientific methods.