Tuesday, November 7, 2023

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 4: The Violent Fall of the Tang Dynasty

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

6 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff continues his series on Chinese history detailing the violent and lengthy decline of the golden age Tang dynasty.

Tang General An Lushan (703-757)
For CO readers who may have missed the earlier columns on the Qin, Han, and Tang dynasties, we’ll take a momentary time out to tabulate a simplified list of China’s dynasties starting at 475BC.

Warring States period: 475BC–221BC
Qin dynasty*: 221BC–206BC
Han dynasty*: 206BC–220AD
Three Kingdoms, Two Jins, Northern and Southern dynasties, and Sui periods: 220-618
Tang dynasty*: 618-907
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period: 907-960
Song dynasty (sometimes referred to as the Northern Song)*: 960-1127
Southern Song dynasty: 1127-1279
Yuan dynasty*: 1279-1368
Ming dynasty*: 1368-1644
Qing dynasty*: 1644-1911

*denotes dynasty ruling a unified China

As the Correspondent has mentioned already it’s somewhat of an injustice to write only a column or even two for an entire dynasty since there’s so much more that happens during the course of two or three centuries. He’ll try to make up for it with the last and, in his opinion, most interesting and important dynasty of all: the Qing (pronounced Ching). For the Qing the Correspondent will probably post as many articles than all the others combined… before moving on to Republican China, Nationalist China, and finally Communist China.

Returning to the Tang dynasty the Correspondent thought he would move right on to the Song dynasty, but the story of the Tang’s collapse is turbulent enough that he devotes this column entirely to the end of the Tang, complete with civil wars, corruption, power struggles, coups d’etat, and executions.


The Tang dynasty was severely weakened by an earthshaking insurrection: the An Lushan rebellion named after the general who led it. An Lushan was a central Asian of Turkic descent who rose to become a highly effective Tang general and favorite of the Emperor Xuanzong. Xuanzong rewarded An with an elaborate house, military command of every region north of the capital, and considerable influence within the imperial court.

In other words the emperor made the mistake of giving An Lushan too much power and influence.

Given that there was very little military presence guarding the capital city and much discontent in the north with the Tang, An Lushan attempted to seize power for himself, sending his armies south where they quickly captured the capital after which he proclaimed the new Yan dynasty.

The emperor fled further inland to modern day Sichuan province where, protected by the rugged geography surrounding the regional basin, his armies reassembled.

The Tang’s efforts to regain control of the empire were also aided by infighting within An’s new government itself. Just a few years later An was murdered by his own son, who in turn was murdered by a general loyal to An Lushan, who in turn was murdered by his own (the loyal general’s) son. In less than six years An Lushan’s new Yan dynasty had burned through four emperors, the first three murdered by ambitious internal rivals.

Eventually imperial Tang forces regained control of the battlefield and many Yan generals, disillusioned with repeated coups and political assassinations, and seeing the writing on the wall, defected and the rebellion collapsed in 763.

The An Lushan rebellion is considered one of the bloodiest civil wars in history. Records make it difficult to narrow the death toll, although a widely circulated number is 36 million which was one-sixth of the world’s population in 763. However that number is derived from Tang records tallying the reduction in registered taxpayers which many historians argue would be expected in all the civil chaos. With citizens fleeing their home cities and the Tang and Yan governments unable to track the location of every taxpayer in the turmoil of an eight-year civil war, a figure of 36 million is highly suspect.

An attempted correction adjusting for tax collection errors arrives at a more modest and believable number of 13 million dead, yet even that was still 6% of the world’s population in 763. Today 6% of the world's population would translate to 500 million dead.

A good modern comparison would be World War II with estimates of 60-75 million dead. That’s a lower share of world population, just 2.6% to 3.3% in 1945, but what’s truly notable is the An Lushan was not a world war and its larger relative death toll was amassed within a single country.

There is another historic rebellion during the 19th century, the Taiping rebellion, that is estimated to have killed 20-30 million Chinese by its end in 1865. The Taiping claims the highest absolute body count of any civil war in history and third largest of any human conflict after only World War I and II, but as a share of world population it falls far short of the An Lushan rebellion at only 1.5%-2.3%.

Note: the Economics Correspondent will write at greater length about the longer and, in his opinion, more interesting Taiping Rebellion when he gets to the Qing dynasty.


Although the Tang dynasty was able to finally suppress the An Lushan rebellion at great cost, it never fully recovered its original glory. There were attempts by a handful of emperors to rebuild China and some progress was made, particularly by the Xianzong emperor (r. 805-820). However Xianzong’s successors weren’t as interested in governing and allowed the ever-conniving palace eunuchs to gain too much control of the empire’s power apparatus.

The Emperor Wenzong tried to overthrow the eunuchs in 835 but his plot failed. In a demonstration of how much power they had amassed the eunuchs ordered an open, public execution of nearly all the emperor’s political allies and Wenzong was made a puppet head of state. For many decades after the government was controlled by eunuchs who dictated who would sit on the throne, the emperors wielding only symbolic power.

Another large rebellion took place (the Huang Chao) in 874 when its commander of the same name took the capital and even advanced into the south of China where he massacred Arab, Persian, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish merchants. Old records (which also may not be reliable) claim Huang Chao killed 8 million people, but after ten years the rebellion was again suppressed. However the sheer destruction inflicted upon the country was so enormous that the Tang was effectively, if not officially finished.

Multiple generals with regional commands had fought to suppress the Huang Chao and, in the process, Tang power moved away from the center towards military fiefdoms. These regional warlords then fought among both themselves and the eunuchs over who would become the next emperor, starting with the powerful general Zhu Wen. 

Zhu forced the official emperor to move out of the capital. He then assassinated the emperor and placed the emperor’s son on the throne as a puppet. He also assassinated all of the son’s brothers, the empress dowager, and many of the late emperor’s loyal officials to eliminate any rivals for power.

Once what was left of the imperial court had settled into accepting Zhu as regent he deposed the boy emperor and took the throne for himself, poisoning the young ex-emperor a year later. Zhu proclaimed the new Later Liang dynasty which marked the official end of the Tang dynasty in 907. However, with so many regional warlords exercising effective power over their respective territories China fell into the so-called “Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms” period of disunity.

In a pattern that would repeat itself with the later Ming and Qing dynasties, the empire’s decay and process of its collapse was long and painful. From the outbreak of the An Lushan rebellion to the Tang’s final collapse a protracted 152 years passed during which the common people and country as a whole suffered while emperors, generals, and eunuchs lived in opulence and feuded over power.

Lasting from 907 to 960, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period would be the last time imperial China was fragmented into multiple, chaotic fiefdoms although there would be one more episode where China was split into two (the Jurchen Jin and Southern Song dynasties: 1127-1279). With only that single exception, the dynasties moving forward will take on a simpler, more uniform appearance and transition from one unified Chinese regime to another between the years 960 and 1911, or nearly a millennium.

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