The Sui dynasty, followed by the Tang


The course of the Grand Canal initiated in the Sui Dynasty. The canal runs from Beijing in the north, through the port of Tianjin down to the Yellow River, then down to the Yangtze River ending at Hangzhou.

After an interval of nearly four centuries, a miracle happened: China both north and south was re-united – and under a ‘proper’ Chinese dynasty (though the new emperors had close links with the Northern Wei). This was the Sui dynasty, which in itself lasted only 29 years, or basically two emperors, (AD 589 – 618). The dynasty was one of great activity: its greatest single achievement was the building of the Grand Canal that which ran for 1200 miles, linking the Yellow River in the North to the Yangtze and beyond in the South. This became vital for Chinese economy: power and population was concentrated in the north, along the Yellow River, beyond the limits of rice cultivation; the agricultural surplus was along the rice fields of the Yangtze River and henceforward China depended on rice grown along the Yangtze being taken along the canal, to the Yellow River. It was a huge undertaking: it was 40 m wide with an imperial road beside it. (By contrast the Grand Union Canal is only 8 metres wide at its widest). Conscript labour – up to a half a million people – was used  to build the canal. But the effort of this and other massive construction proved burdensome; a huge invasion of Korea was defeated by the weather, and eventually the Sui Emperor was overthrown and replaced by a new dynasty, the Tang dynasty.

Two camels 358

These two camels together with the groom who is leading them, form one of the treasures in the British Museum. They reputedly came from the tomb of Liu Tingxun who died in AD 728 and they are in the three colour technique of lead glazing.

The Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) is often considered the golden age of Chinese civilisation when arts and literature flourished and technology carried it forward. The Tang dynasty produced all those wonderful polychrome jars, and dishes, and figurines that are often seen as the essence of Chinese culture. The Silk Road was kept open, connecting Xian to central Asia, and the West. The Tang dynasty is in many ways the crucial event in Chinese history: whereas the West was falling evermore precipitously into a Dark Age, China bounced back more gloriously than before, and the culture of the Han dynasty was restored, bigger and better.

The secret was the establishment, or re-establishment of a strong bureaucracy. We tend to regard bureaucracy with distaste, but in Chinese history, bureaucracy is good. Bureaucracy meant rule from the centre, of bureaucrats chosen for their intellectual abilities and sent out to become governors of the local regions, where they put down, or at least restrained the power of the local lords, and with their quiet scholarly efficiency were a better bargain for the peasant masses than were the local landlords.

In the Tang dynasty, bureaucracy became more formalised. The famous examination system was established when would-be bureaucrats spent several years at what might almost be called universities, studying the works of Confucius. Those who did well in the exam were then sent out to be governors in the provinces, or joined the central bureaucracy. The system was imitated in Britain nearly a thousand years later with the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the civil service in 1854, where civil servants were chosen for their brains rather than their lineage, and Victorian Britain flourished.

The civil service was reorganised into what is known as the ‘Three Departments and Six Ministries’ system. The biggest department was the Department of State affairs, which ran the Six Ministries, but the powerful departments were the other two departments – the Secretariat which actually wrote the laws and decrees, and the Chancellery which supervised the Secretariat and the Department of State Affairs. It was a perfect system of checks and balances run by gentlemen scholars of very high IQ, and it was a system that ran China successfully for nearly 2,000 years. Sneer not!

Little Goose 408

A Little Goose pagoda in Xian built AD 707 – 709..

There is however another side to the Tang glories. The capital was once again at Chang An, that is modern Xian, where they took over and revitalised the town that had been the capital in the early part of the Han dynasty. Under the Tang, Chang An became probably the most populous city in the world with over a million inhabitants. But though Chang An may have been big, it was certainly the most authoritarian city the world had ever seen. It was surrounded by vast walls which enclosed an area three or four times bigger than the later town of the Ming dynasty – today one of the wonder sites for the visitor to China. Within the walls the whole city was divided up in a rigid grid system with each ward surrounded by its own wall, where the gates were locked at night, and the sound of the nightly curfew summoned the inhabitants back to their homes every night without fail: we describe the system separately in our chapter on the Chinese palaces. It was an amazing system, and one where any concept of freedom was totally absent. But it worked well for several hundred years.

Taizong 599

Monument in honour of Taizong, the second Tang emperor AD 626-646. This is one of the monuments in the Great Tang all-day shopping mall – a huge commercial development in the modern city, decorated down the centre with flamboyant statues of the great figures of the Tang dynasty. The header at the top of this page is the triumphant terminal of the shopping mall, honouring the great Tang emperor Xuan Zong, the 7th emperor AD 712 – 756.

Although the Tang dynasty when seen from afar was a golden age, a quick look under the surface reveals the usual ups and downs. The best emperor was as usual the second emperor, Taizong. He began in ruthless manner by deposing his father, the first Emperor, then assassinating both his brothers and having all their 12 children put to death. However once this ruthlessness was behind him, he settled down to become the wisest of all emperors. He selected good advisers and listened to their advice and China flourished. He was also a very good general, and beat up the Turkic tribes to the north, and established the boundaries of China further out than ever before.

Fifty years later came one of the strangest episodes in Chinese history – a woman became the Emperor, or rather the Empress Wu. She began as a fifth rank concubine,  worked her way up to being the ‘first consort’, and when the emperor became incapacitated, she moved to becoming regent and eventually pushed him out and became Empress in her own right, from 690 to 705.

But the most glamorous, and tragic, Emperor was the Emperor Xuanzong, 712 to 756, who began brilliantly but ended disastrously. This was the great age of culture: he was himself a considerable poet, and promoted poetry, establishing an academy for poets. But he was also an able administrator reforming the equal field system. But the thing at which he really excelled was sex. He was a prodigious performer, having numerous concubines and producing 30 sons and 29 daughters.

The ‘Palace ladies’ had elaborate ranks, which constantly changed. The traditional (Rites of Chou) rankings were:

1 Empress
3 Madames
9 Imperial concubines
27 Shifus (who appear to be translated somewhat unromantically
         as ‘Accredited workers’)
81 Imperial Wives

These wives were in turn ranked, with titles such as:

Beautiful lady
Talented lady, or simply
Good lady

However sex was Xuanzong’s downfall. When he was approaching 60, he fell madly in love with a girl of 20, Yang Guifel. She was beautiful and sexy but unfortunately lacked sound political sense. In 755, one of her favourites, the provincial governor An Lushan rebelled, and his rebellion threatened to bring down the whole dynasty. Eventually the rebellion was defeated but Xuanzong was forced to abdicate and hand power to his son. He lived on several years, occasionally interfering; but it was a sad end to a brilliant start. The story of his love affair with Yang Guifel became the subject of many plays and operas.

The An Lushan rebellion proved to be a turning point. In order to put down the rebellion, provincial governors had to be placated and given more power, and many became independent, paying no taxes to the central government. As a result the equal field system was replaced by a land tax system while a new salt tax proved very lucrative. But the central government lost more and more power. Factionalism proved troublesome. The emperors called in the eunuchs to settle matters but this proved even worse, for the eunuchs began to form yet another independent power. Eventually in 906 the Tang dynasty came to an end, and for the 50 years, power was shared between a succession of fleeting dynasties.

 On to the Song dynasty

Created: 18th April 2015