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The Sui and T’ang Restore the Empire A.D. 589-979

IN 589, a warlord named Sui Wen Ti conquered the last dynasty in the south and so became emperor of all China. He put his subjects to work repairing the Great Wall, building palaces and digging long canals to carry water out to the fields and grain back to the cities. He sent his armies south into Vietnam and west into central Asia. In 604, he died. No one knew how he died, but many people suspected that he had been murdered by his son Yang Ti.

As emperor, Yang Ti drove the people even harder than his father had. He did not care how many died of cold, hunger, or exhaustion, or in fighting his enemies. There were always plenty of other peasants who could be drafted as labourers and soldiers. At last the people grew tired of being treated like animals and rose against Yang Ti. In 618 he was assassinated and the Sui dynasty came to an end.

That same year, an energetic official named Li Yuan was enthroned at the capital, Ch’ang-an, as the first emperor of the T’ang dynasty. The T’ang family was to reign until 907. Just as the brief Ch’in and Sui dynasties stood for cruelty in the minds of the Chinese, so the long-lasting Han and T’ang dynasties came to be thought of as the “golden ages” of their history.


The first T’ang emperors carried on the public works program of the Sui, but with less haste. Their armies triumphed everywhere. Within three quarters of a century, they had added Tibet, the Tarim Basin, Mongolia, southern Manchuria, and Korea to the empire.

The greatest of the T’ang emperors was Hsüan Tsung, or “Mysterious Ancestor.” His long reign from 712 to 756, was one of the most glorious in Chinese history. His armies pushed even farther west. Beyond the distant Pamir Mountains, they beat back repeated attacks by Arabs and Turks.

In 751, however, the Moslems badly defeated a Chinese army at Talas, west of the central Asian mountains. Although it was fought thousands of miles from the centres of Chinese and Moslem power, the Battle of Talas was one of the most important battles of all time. After it, the Arabs streamed into central Asia, and quickly converted its Buddhist inhabitants to Islam. The great “land bridge” between China and India was closed. Cut-off from its roots in India, Chinese Buddhism began to wither. It would never again dominate Chinese civilization.

In 755, the Chinese had to abandon their last central Asian strongholds when a rebellion, led by an ambitious warlord, broke out at home. Hsüan Tsung lied to Szechwan, where he abdicated. With the help of nomadic allies, the imperial forces finally recaptured Ch’ang-an and put Hsüan Tsung’s son on the throne. By 763 China was again at peace.


The T’ang dynasty had seen its greatest days. Ever afterward, it had to depend on foreign troops. Never again did it really control any territory outside China. Even within China, its hold was weak. Its court was constantly disturbed by feuds between high officials and the generals of the capital guard. Often the generals made the emperors their puppets, forcing them to do and say what they were told.

Before the Battle of Talas, China had been the mightiest empire on earth. Its armies had no equals in the arts of war. The Chinese excelled, too, in the arts of peace. Scholars wrote great books. Poets, painters and sculptors turned out fresh and lively works. Clever men came up with all sorts of practical ideas for making life easier and pleasanter.

Even before T’ang times, the peasants of China were pushing wheelbarrows along the narrow footpaths between their fields. Men and boys flew kites for sport. Tea, first imported from southeast Asia as a rare medicine, had become a common, everyday drink. A Chinese invention that would one day revolutionize warfare — gunpowder –was being used in firecrackers, which people of all ages loved to set off.

What many people considered the greatest of all Chinese “inventions” had come down from Han times. This was the examination system, the method by which the government picked its officials. Every year or so examinations in the teachings of Confucius were given in the towns and cities of the empire. The examinations lasted several days. The first round of tests weeded out all but the cleverest scholars, who then had to take more examinations and still more. Very few candidates — only one out of several hundred — passed them all and became officials.


Government officials were the most honoured men in China and the best paid. The examination system was the highroad to fame and fortune‚ and it was open to all. Men of any age and class could take the examinations. In theory, a peasant’s son had the same chance of becoming an official as the son of a rich nobleman.


In the T’ang era, the government examiners put more and more stress on a candidate’s ability to express himself well in writing. This led to a great interest in the writing and reading of books. In those days, books still had to be slowly copied out by hand. People began to look for some way to produce books faster. At last someone thought of the carved wooden and metal plates that had been used for centuries to stamp the emperor’s seal on official papers. Why not use the same method to reproduce a page of Chinese characters or “ideapictures”? So, printing came into being. The introduction of printing helped to speed-up the spread of ideas even more than the introduction of paper centuries earlier. Before long, the two inventions were combined in another invention: paper money. Soon people began to use paper money for buying and selling in place of the strings of copper and silver coins called “cash.”

Now that printing made it possible for many more people to read their books, writers wrote more than ever. Poetry in particular flourished and the two most famous poets of the T’ang era were also the greatest in Chinese history. Their names were Tu Fu and Li Po. Both were officials under Hsuan Tsung, but, although they were friends, they could not have been more different. Tu Fu, a Confucian, took life very seriously. Li Po, a Taoist, lived a carefree, wandering existence.


In the late eighth century, the T’ang government made new tax laws which were much more fair than the old ones. For once, the peasants had enough to eat. They had more children and fewer of their children died before they could grow up. China’s population grew rapidly. This meant, however, that when crops failed or were poor, more people than ever starved to death. Bitterly, the people blamed the famines on the government, which had become too weak to help them.

In 874, a popular uprising began on the North China Plain. Five years later, one of its leaders, a disappointed office-seeker who had failed his government examinations, sacked the rich southern city of Canton. The next year he turned north and captured Ch’ang-an, forcing the emperor to flee, like Hsüan Tsung, to Szechwan. The revolt continued until 884, when it was put down by a general named Li K’o-yung.

Li K’o-yung then started warring for possessions of north China with a former rebel leader named Chu Wen, who had deserted the government. Chu Wen came out the winner. In 904, he set a puppet T’ang emperor on the throne, but three years later, deciding he might just as well be emperor himself, he replaced the centuries-old T’ang dynasty with his own dynasty.

However, Chu Wen’s dynasty controlled only the northern part of the country and it lasted only sixteen years. Between 907 and 979, China had no single government, but an ever-changing parade of larger and smaller ones. The period is called the “Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms” era — a long name for such a short space of time — after the five dynasties which followed one another in the north and the ten kingdoms which existed, mostly in the south, for all or part of those years.

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