The Chinese imperial Sui (581 – 618 BCE) and Tang dynasty (618 BCE – 907 CE)

This is part 3 of our TEFL China series – Ancient China: Sui and Tang dynasty. For the previous parts check our TDC’s TEFL blog. The main source for this post is the HarvardX: SW12.3, Cosmopolitan Tang: Aristocratic Culture in China. This is the 3rd part of a 10 MOOC series about the history of China, spanning from the ancient sage kings upto modern China.

Cosmopolitan Tang: Aristocratic Culture in China

Ancient China: Sui and Tang dynasty – Overview

TEFL ChinaThe period before the Tang dynasty was characterized by conflict between Northern and Southern dynasties with different kinds of rulers and political systems, between Northern ‘Barbarians’ and Southern ‘Aristocrats’ with an affinity of literature and writing, a divide between Han and non-Han-Chinese.     *the Han dynasty ruled over a unified China between 206BCE and 220AD

Before the Tang took control over China, the short-lived Sui dynasty will bring an end to four centuries of conflict and division and conquer the Southern dynasties and unify China once more in 589. The Sui, who only last for merely 73 years, will pave the way and lay the foundation for the success of the Tang dynasty (Wikipedia – Sui dynasty).

The Tang will continue reforms started by the Sui with strengthening the central and civic control over local administration and local (war-)lords. They link the political powerful North with the fertile South with the construction of the Grand Canal, still the longest an oldest canal in the world (Wikipedia – Grand Canal). Buddhism will become a state-sponsored religion and military campaigns will see the expansion into South-East and North-East Asia.

Historically, the Tang dynasty, is characterized by two periods: The first part, as a centralized and cosmopolitan empire, where the internal competition between aristocratic lords is channeled into civil and central power; flourishing trade into Central Asia; the reorganization of the tax system; centralized agrarian reforms; inclusion of non-Chinese into the empire; a golden age for scholarship, literature and law, which attracts envoys, traders and pilgrims from across Asia and the world.

The second part of the Tang, will see overexpansion through continuous military campaigns; the establishment of standing armies, including the reliance on frontier people as generals, which eventually led to the breakdown of the tax and military system, revolts by the professional armies, rise of frontier kingdoms (e.g. Uyghurs, Tibetans, Turks) and the retreat of central power and control.

The end of the Tang empire comes with a revolt led by a failed civil servant, Huang Chao, by 874 which takes a decade to suppress and although the Tang defeat the revolt, will never recover and once again, China will descent into unrest and division.

Nonetheless, the Tang empire is seen as one of the greatest Chinese dynasties. The territorial expansion will give China a sense as the great hegemon of East Asia, the centralized hierarchical order will serve as a new model of a rational state and the example as China as a cosmopolitan country, which not only takes but also gives something back to the world.

Ancient China: Sui and Tang dynasty – Social, religious, economical and military order

Social political order in the Tang dynasty

The imperial family of the Tang, the Li family, is of so-called ‘mixed blood’. One of the founders is ethnically Han-Chinese but as its tradition of the great clans in the North-West, they intermarried with the tribal people of the area, the Turks. Similar to the Sui imperial family, the Li clan is partly living in yurts and speaking the Turk language. Foreigners serve as generals and officials in the empire. There is no sense of anti-foreignism. For the Tang, foreign simply means outside of the empire. And once they are conquered – they are Chinese as well.Ancient china: sui and tang dynasty

Women also have a surprisingly modern role in society. They are not just decorative and bound to their home, as it is a tradition at the time in the South but they are actively taking part in society. One of the best examples is Empress Wu. She briefly usurp the throne and establish the Wu-Zhou dynasty. The empress in not the only but one of the very view female Chinese empress ruling China. Empress Dowager at the end of the Qing dynasty might be another example later in history.

Inclusion is one of the reasons for the success of the Tang. The central government incorporates the great clans of the North-East, the South-East and Sichuan. By the way, if you would like to teach English in Sichuan let us know, we from TeachDiscoverChina are the experts for TEFL China in Sichuan province.

There are two problems which the Tang have to solve to make the empire work: The first one is how to shift the loyalty of the clans to the central court? They solve that issue by introducing a hereditary system for government positions. Official posts in the central government can be passed on from on clan members to their heirs and hence the clans will be guaranteed to stay in (central) power.

The other problem is how to cut the ties of the clans from their home bases / local domination? This will be solved by administrative reforms (started by the Sui) in reorganizing prefectures and counties and the ‘rule of avoidance’. The ‘rule of avoidance’ states that officials might not serve where they have relatives. It is still operative in today’s’ China. These reforms help to break the great clans from their local dominion and give local government more independence and the central government the control over appointments and ranks.  The great clans could make their male heirs eligible for office but could not decide for which role/rank.

As the central government decides the rank of officials, the prestige of the great clans depends on ranking and the service to dynasty. There is a ranking system which will determine the prestige accordingly. The great clans are also not allowed to intermarry. Education will further become one possible path into office, which is potentially open for everyone. Those reforms will bolster the supremacy of the imperial house / the Li family over the clans as ‘primus inter pares’ (the first among equals) but still continue the competition between the clans.

Religious order of the Tang

During the Tang dynasty Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism will not only become all be patronized by the state but also institutionalized and also centralized or canonized. As a side note, all three stated forms here are understood as a religion according to a normative set of rules as one ought to behave, etc.


Confucianists in Tang China are without exception all bureaucrats or civil servants. They have Confucian temples with a school in most counties but by no mean all and an imperial academy in the capital. Followers of Confucius are both political and religious/cultural figures – they give prayers and so on.


In contrary to Christianity, there is no such thing as baptism or conversion to Buddhism. Instead, one chooses to patronage Buddha. The real Buddhists are the nun and monks. According to official counts during the Sui dynasty in 589, there are about 2M registered nuns and monks in the North. Far less in the South. They live in monasteries and nunneries with extensive landholdings, including rent income from respective households. Those land holdings are one of the reasons why Buddhism is attacked and/or attempts of suppression by governments throughout imperial China.

DaoismTEFL China blog

In the 3rd century, a reformed Daoism is more an imitation of Buddhism with Daoist temples and officiants (= priests). Daoists are only 1/10 of Buddhists in numbers but they hold a special claim in the Tang dynasty. The imperial house has the surname Li. One of the central figures of Daoism – Laozi – also held the same surname. Hence the imperial house claims to be direct descendants from Laozi, which gives Daoism a special favor in the empire. E.g. religious debates were held, wherein the end the Daoist contestant wins.

Patronage of religion in Tang

Sui and Tang patronage all three religions at the same time but also tried to centralize control over them. Tang were less concerned about their commitment to one single religion but focused on control over their practices.

During the dynasty, there are attempts to integrate all three religious texts or teachings into one central religion or teaching. The emperor is the central representative for all three religions, similar to the country unified different states into one empire. During Tang, religious, sectarian texts will be canonized.

Despite those three religions other practices, such as Manicheans, Christians or Zoroastrians) have a place in the thriving and bustling capital of Tang, Chang’an. Which is by that time the greatest city in the world with around 1M inhabitants

Economical order during the Tang dynasty

Started by the Sui, the tax system was further reformed under the Tang. Namely the ‘equitable field system (or Juntianfa in Chinese). It was basically a contract between farmers and the central government. Farmers were given guaranteed land rights in exchange for revenue. More productive land had to pay less and less productive land had to give more tax. Land rights were given at the age of 18 and had to be returned with death or at the age of 60 – retirement age. The annual obligation was not just grain but also textile and a set amount of labor hours.

As mentioned before, the great clans were treated differently. They received land as part of their salary and high officials got estates including farmers, which could be inherited and were also tax-exempt.

The idea of how to organize the state was that the great clans as the peak of the social, political and economic elite, while all surplus went to the central government. In its core, the model of the Tang dynasty was a unified hierarchy from the top down of power, status, culture and wealth. Teach English in China

Chang’an as the capital of the Tang empire was at its time the greatest city of the world, with all the hustle and bustle. It was an important center point for luxury goods for the Tang aristocracy, which attracted merchants from around the globe

Military order under the Tang

During the first half of the Tang, the central court had to solve the problem of a very decentralized and highly independent military. The solution was the creation of a militia system in frontier areas, where part of the farmers were trained as an army reserve in exchange for tax-exempts.

With the ongoing territorial expansion, the Tang needed that tax revenue and had to establish a standing army, defend growing borders and skirmishes with nomads, which spelled an end to the militia system eventually.

It was replaced by professional armies with military governors, which created problems at a later time when those governors increased their power when the center grew increasingly weaker.

World power TangTEFL China

Ancient China: Sui and Tang dynasty – How the Tang dynasty dominated the region. The territory between Bagdad and Chang’an was highly contested by different powers, such as Persians, Moslems, Turks, Tibetans, and others. The Tang were by far the most successful at that time.

Tang armies controlled trade routes and established protectorates throughout Central Asia. Continued expansion until 753 saw a first battle between a Chinese and an Arab army at the Talas river, which resulted in the defeat of the Tang army. It is argued that both armies at the time were not at their peak but were battled at several fronts through overexpansion. The Tang empire stretched and faced military problems in Northern Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Korea.

Though it was not just conquest by the Tang, what made it so successful. It brought a new model of order to its world. All those countries were looking up to the Tang and were keen to learn from the empire. They sent embassies of students, monks, high officials, and aristocrats. Some of them stayed their whole life as officials. They learned Tang education, technology, history, political system and its model for government, the legal system and its rule of law, military organization and Tang religion. After returning to their countries they brought the Tang system with them and with that the Tang empire became the fundament of the East Asian civilization.

Furthermore, those who came to the empire learned the writing from the Tang which for example became the basis for Japanese and Korean. They learned how to live in squared cities with a grid system, eat with chopsticks, drink tea and wear silk clothes.

I think it is an amazing thought that no matter where you are in Southeast Asia and you eat with chopsticks, you hold a part of the amazing history of Tang China in your hands. And it seems to me that the Tang were so successful as they were an open and inclusive country which didn’t just conquer territory but also brought law and a more modern way of the state organization to the region. It not just held people and countries in (military) awe but inspired them to be like the Tang!

If you want to find traces in China, for example in Xi’an the modern name for the Tang capital Chang’an (or actually the capital for 10 Chinese dynasties), while teaching English in China let us know and we find you the perfect school for discovering China.

So, that was part 3 of our blog series – Ancient China: Sui and Tang dynasty – let us know what you think in the comment section!

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