Tuesday, October 24, 2023

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 3: The Tang Dynasty

Click here to read the original Cautious Optimism Facebook post with comments

7 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff last discussed the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and the entry into northwest Xinjiang. This week we’ll discuss the Han’s fall and the later Tang dynasty.
Tang Empress Wu Zetian
Cautious Rockers who wish to go back and read the Economics Correspondent's previous entries on the Qin dynasty (221 BC-206 BC) and the first emperor of a unified China, or the Han dynasty and its initiation of Chinese expansion into northwest Xinjiang, can find links in the comments section.


After enjoying one of China’s handful of “golden ages,” the Han dynasty began to weaken in the 2nd century. In a narrative that would go on to repeat itself with future dynasties corrupt palace eunuchs gained too much political influence, in this case surrounding the boy emperor Ling and securing his favor.

When a plague devastated the country in the 170’s, the boy emperor raised taxes on the already overburdened peasants who in turn gravitated towards a faith healer named Zhang Jue. Zhang eventually led the great Yellow Turban Rebellion which was put down by the army, but the violent and costly process of suppression fragmented the empire with regional warlords drawing power away from the capital.

Later when the adult Emperor Ling died his teenage son was declared emperor by the empress dowager whose brother, in turn, moved against the eunuchs to reduce their hold on the power apparatus. The eunuchs lured the empress dowager's brother into the capital where they assassinated him, at which point imperial troops seized the palace and killed two thousand eunuchs. In the chaos that ensued a general seized power from the teenage emperor and tried to install his own puppet boy emperor, but that plot failed when the general was killed by his own bodyguard. Soon warlords were fighting warlords and the Han collapsed in 220.

As the Correspondent mentioned in the last column, the Han was brought down by problems that would repeatedly topple future dynasties: in this case corrupt eunuchs, central and regional power struggles, court intrigue, a plague, and internal rebellions.

After the Han dynasty fell China split into three kingdoms in what’s appropriately enough named the “Three Kingdoms Period” (Wei, Shu, and Wu), a 260-year period of Chinese disunity. The “nationsonline” website provides a good short synopsis:

”An era of disunity, when three kingdoms Wei, Shu, and Wu were competing for control of China. As a result of the disintegration of the society, constant foreign incursions, and alien reign throughout the North, many fundamental changes occurred in China during this period. The Confucian system that had ordered society was in ruins, and the growing influence of Taoism and the importation of Buddhism worked profound changes everywhere.”

Although there is so much that can be said about the Three Kingdoms Period the Correspondent is going to skip over the transitory period leading up to the Tang dynasty, and also skip another chaotic period after the Tang; because he’s in a bit of a hurry to get to the Song dynasty, after which the last thousand or so years of Chinese history is more orderly: a string of wholly unified dynasties transitioning from one to another before ending with the pivotal Qing dynasty.

The Qing (pronounced "ching") beginning in 1644 and surviving all the way to 1911, was so consequential in the development of modern China that the Correspondent will likely post more articles on that era than all the other dynasties combined.


The Chinese map becomes considerably less complicated with the founding of the Tang dynasty in 618.

The preceding and short lived Sui dynasty (581-618) collapsed when its last emperor burned through a treasure on his lavish and palatial lifestyle and embarked on multiple wars of expansion, ending with a disastrous campaign into Korea which led to internal rebellions and his own assassination.

One of his officials rose to power and established the Tang dynasty in 618 (pronounced “tahng”).

In his past study of Chinese history the Economics Correspondent repeatedly read the Tang was *the* golden age of Chinese golden ages. Prosperity, art, culture, poetry, and territory all reached contemporary pinnacles although two later dynasties’ borders would extend further. During the Tang the Chinese empire became the most populous in the world and its capital, Chang’an (modern day Xi’an) was the most populous city on earth.

Also some of the Correspondent’s Chinese family members have expressed the same sentiment about the Tang being the greatest dynasty of them all—for what that’s worth.

Incidentally while China’s population growth from 50 million to 80 million during the three centuries of the Tang is impressive, it’s worth putting into more recent historical perspective. By comparison, after centuries of growing its population by only 3% every hundred years, Great Britain’s headcount more than doubled during the first century of the Industrial Revolution.

But back to the Tang, one evening over dinner the Correspondent heard a dissenting opinion from an academic acquaintance of his from San Jose State University. This professor was reading a book on the economy of the later Song dynasty from which he concluded the Song was *the* golden age. When asked about the alternative Tang he was adamant that the true golden age of Chinese history was during the Song. Hence now it’s less clear what the golden age of Chinese golden ages really is although several Internet sources agree with what the Correspondent has seen in so many history books: it’s the Tang.

Regardless, some of the notable achievements of the Tang include the inventions of:

-Compass navigation
-Wood block printing
-The first mechanical clock
-Water-powered air conditioning
-Paper money

Many more advances are recorded in law, architecture, medicine, and literature.

While paper money didn’t appear in the West until the late Renaissance, it was being used over eight centuries earlier in 8th century Tang China. Traveling merchants wishing to lighten their load would deposit their coins with a local government office in exchange for promissory paper notes. When the merchants arrived at their destination, often the capital city, they would redeem the notes at another government office and from there conduct their business using heavier, fungible coinage.

The money came to be known by Tang Chinese as “flying cash” since, unlike metallic coins, it flew in the air when the wind blew.

By 812 AD the Tang government declared paper notes a valid means of general exchange and shortly thereafter began printing them for its own revenue purposes, initiating the concept of the monetary economy. Since the notes were redeemable in coin the Tang never got around to generating hyperinflation, but had the dynasty not fallen just 95 years later it may have eventually discovered the extractive properties of fiat money.

But not to worry, future dynasties would more than make up for the Tang’s purported discipline when abuse of the printing press would create hyperinflations during virtually all the ensuing dynasties and even Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist government.

And if we jump forward for just a moment to the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), Italian merchant Marco Polo took detailed notes of how the great Kublai Khan made use of paper money, bringing the novel idea back to Italy although it took a few more centuries for European banks to begin issuing hand-to-hand paper currency. Nevertheless, to its credit or blame, the invention of paper money ultimately lies with the Tang dynasty.


One other notable curiosity of the Tang dynasty is the only female ruler to officially assume the Chinese imperial throne.

Although Chinese history records other women who have controlled de facto imperial power, in all those cases the emperor’s throne has still been officially occupied by a male child sovereign, an ill husband, or in the case of Han dynasty Empress Lu, an adult son with no interest in affairs of the state.

Empress Wu Zetian is the sole exception and she remains famous in China even today, her likeness appearing in countless Chinese movies and soap operas.

Wu Zetian (pronounced "Woo dzuh teeyan”) was first empress consort of the Tang emperor Gaozong and enjoyed an elevated position due to the birth of her two sons, each of whom would become emperors decades later. Even in her early days as empress consort Wu was ideological and gained influence in court affairs, but her elevation to power was greatly assisted by the emperor Gaozong himself who suffered a stroke in 660. 

Gaozong survived but his health would deteriorate slowly over the course of twenty-three years, during which time Wu assumed more and more responsibilities of state administration on his behalf. Gaozong’s long illness and deterioration provided the perfect set of circumstances for Wu to gradually achieve full power.

When the emperor died in 683 Wu’s eldest son occupied the throne, but using her considerable power she had him deposed for attempting to govern independently and appointed her younger and underage son as emperor which she used as rationale to assume the regency. By 690 she broke away from the Tang system and founded the short-lived Zhou dynasty as empress regnant (i.e. official head of state, not just emperor’s consort of empress dowager/mother). 

Although she already had effectively ruled China for many years prior, Wu legally held the throne for fifteen years until, in 705, the aging and ailing empress was overthrown by her eldest son in a coup that restored both the Tang and his own emperorship.

She died shortly afterwards.

As for Wu’s legacy as head of state, she’s regarded not only as cruel, vindictive, cunning, and ruthless, but also as a highly effective administrator who was largely responsible for the Tang’s rise to golden age status. Under Wu China’s territory expanded, government corruption was reduced, a cultural renaissance took place, and the Tang grew into a genuine world power. A short quote from historians Cotterell and Cotterell sums up Wu’s reign pretty nicely:

”Though she was ruthless towards her enemies, the period of her ascendancy was a good one for China. Government was sound, no rebellions occurred, abuses in the army and administration were stamped out and Korea was annexed, an achievement no previous Chinese had ever managed."

Next installment we’ll work our way into the Song (960-1279) and Southern Song (1127-1279) dynasties.

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