III. The Postclassical Period, 500–1500 > E. East Asia, to 1527 > 1. China, 589–960 > b. Political, Social, and Cultural Patterns
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
b. Political, Social, and Cultural Patterns
The Tang government built on the Sui foundations of recentralized administrative control. In addition to the armed forces and the censorate, the administration was split into three parts: the Department of State Affairs, the Secretariat, and the Chancellery. At the beginning of the dynasty, the highest officials of these three agencies met daily with the emperor to hammer out decisions of state. Prior to his accession to the throne, Li Shimin headed the Department of State Affairs. Imperial edicts had to go through both the Secretariat and the Chancellery, which thus served as a check on the autocratic control of the sovereign. The Department of State Affairs had six ministries under its aegis: personnel, revenues, rites, war, justice, and public works. The entire administrative organization of state was laid out in the Tang liudian (Six Canons of the Tang), which was written under Xuanzong.  1
In 711 all prefectures in the empire were placed into one of 10 circuits, later (733) expanded to 15, and later yet to 20. These circuits in the Xuanzong reign of the mid-Tang were headed by regional commanders who held both civil and military authority. After the Rebellion of An Lu-shan, they became virtual satrapies, the bases for the Five Dynasties era that followed the Tang.  2
Personnel tapped for bureaucratic appointments came from a much wider group in the Tang than before; far more men (only men) sat for the civil service examinations, and only a small percentage passed them. As the examination system became the regularized route to government service, the importance of education, necessary to pass the exams, skyrocketed. This in turn caused the spread of education. There were two national universities in the Tang period, one in Chang'an and one in Luoyang. The student populations were dominated by the aristocracy and sons of officials; the education offered was geared to taking the examinations at the various levels. The two most important examinations tested one's literary skills and one's knowledge of the classics of antiquity. A standard appointment lasted for three years, after which time one reapplied to the Ministry of Personnel. While on duty, all officials were evaluated annually by higher officials. There were nine bureaucratic ranks attached to the level and importance of a position, and movement up the ladder depended on receiving good reports, the availability of openings, and good family background. The Tang system mixed aristocracy with meritocracy; the great families retained their prestige, but rising egalitarianism was creating more access to government for others. The Tang legal codes became the models for all of East Asia.  3
The Tang militia system also carried on from that of the Sui, but the Tang had professional career soldiers who tilled their own fields, a revered group in Tang times. There were 600 garrisons throughout the empire, mostly near Chang'an, Luoyang, and along the northern border. There was also a standing army, stationed in the capital, which served as an imperial bodyguard. It provided the base of the Tang fighting force into the 8th century. By 749 the militia system had effectively become defunct in the capital region, although it remained in force along the border areas; even it needed conscription, though, to keep troop strength up. Later in the dynasty, the state was compelled to rely on mercenaries hired in the regional commanderies, a background cause of both the Rebellion of An Lu-shan and the subsequent decentralization of power.  4
In population, the census of 753 (on the eve of the Rebellion of An Lu-shan) recorded a figure of 52,880,488. Eleven years later, the census of 764 (after the rebellion) gave a figure of 16,900,000. Although this figure is certainly too low, it does indicate a clear decline in population. Two-thirds of the population still lived in northern China until after the rebellion; from that point on, the population of the Yangzi Delta reached parity with the north. In the early 8th century, the 26 largest prefectures all had more than 500,000 people. Chang'an prefecture had 2 million, and Luoyang was in excess of 1 million. Chang'an in the mid-Tang was both the largest and the most cosmopolitan city in the world. There were 30 square miles within the city walls, divided into countless wards for specific uses, and boasting hundreds of temples.  5
Either in the late Tang or during the Five Dynasties period, the practice of foot binding began to spread. Young girls would be guided, usually by their mothers, to wrap their feet extremely tightly with pieces of cloth. These would then restrict the growth of the foot and keep it stylishly small and dainty, albeit at cost of great pain for the young women. The practice eventually spread to various social classes, although certain ethnic groups (such as the Hakka people) never practiced the custom.  6
The equal-field land system was in full force early in the Tang. Under this system, all families were allocated land by the state, and in return they paid a tripartite tax: a grain payment for land rent, a corvée labor assessment or payment in its stead, and payment of a set amount of cloth. This system held up through the middle of the Tang, despite inequities and favoritism, and helped the peasantry's state of affairs. Buddhist temples and monasteries acquired land without taxation. The tax reforms of 780 instituted by the official Yang Yan (727–81) aimed at saving the declining equal-field system. This created a new structure known as the double-tax system (paid in summer and fall): half was a household tax payable in cash, indicating the rise of monetary economy; and half was a land tax payable in grain. These measures brought stability to the national taxation system, although they did favor those with land. In fiscal administration, Liu Yan (715–80) rebuilt and oversaw the state's monopoly on salt, which brought the state considerable revenue before the double-tax reforms.  7
The variety of religions present in the Tang period was remarkable. It was an era of great development, particularly for Buddhism. After 16 years spent in India, the famed pilgrim XUANZANG (c. 596–664) returned to China in 645 with a large quantity of original Indian texts. He chronicled his travels and later headed a commission that translated 75 books in 1335 volumes, creating a system of consistent transcription from Sanskrit. He introduced the scholastic doctrine of Vasubandhu, that the visual universe is only a mental image. The Pure Land sect of Buddhism enjoyed popular favor for the next 70 years. Based on texts translated earlier, it taught direct salvation through faith in Amitabha and the repeated invocation of his name. The Chan sect was developed by Huineng (638–713), the sixth patriarch. It continued to acquire followers, especially as disorder grew in the later years of the dynasty, offering refuge through introspective contemplation.  8
As early as 607, the Sui had ordered all Buddhist sects to pay homage to the throne and had tried to regulate entry into the Buddhist and Daoist clergy. These practices were continued by the Tang, and Buddhism flourished through the Tang until the persecution of 841–45. Earlier, the great poet and prose writer Han Yu (786–824) had vilified Buddhism as a foreign, non-Chinese religion, as part of an effort to revive Confucianism. The persecutions of the 840s destroyed 4600 monasteries and 40,000 temples and shrines; 260,500 monks and nuns and 150,000 lay servants were returned to the tax rolls; and huge amounts of land were likewise returned to the tax registers. The attacks were not so much inspired by anti-Buddhist sentiments as they were an effort to regain state control in that sector, and they reveal that even at a time when there was an allegedly weak center, the state had the capacity to carry out such a repression.  9
Daoism also prospered in the Tang. It was, in many ways, reorganized on the Buddhist model, gaining imperial patronage. It was argued that since Laozi was said to have been surnamed Li and so was the Tang imperial house, he must have been the ancestor of the Tang emperors. A large compendium of Daoist writings, the Daozang, was prepared along Buddhist lines.  10
In historical scholarship, Liu Zhiji (661–721) composed the Shitong (Generalities on History), the world's first work explicitly in the field of historiography. Du You (735–812) devoted 36 years (766–801) to the compilation of the Tongdian (Comprehensive Canon), a historical encyclopedia with 200 sections, covering a panoply of topics from high antiquity through the year 755. In literature, fiction began to develop, especially toward the end of the Tang, in the form of the chuanji (strange tales), short stories that appeared in numerous anthologies. They were composed in the literary language, and only later appeared in the colloquial. Han Yu urged a return to a simple “ancient style,” and he spawned a movement that produced much chuanji writing. The Tang was the golden age for Chinese poetry. The Quan Tang shi (Complete Tang Poems) includes 48,900 poems written by 2300 authors, mostly officials or candidates (and hence intellectuals). Regulated verse, prose poems, songs, and other forms flourished. During the Xuanzong reign lived three of the greatest poets: Wang Wei (699–759), Li Bo (701–62), and Du Fu (712–70). In the 9th century, in addition to Han Yu, Bo Juyi (772–846) was a high official and a brilliant poet and essayist.  11
In the field of art, Wu Daoyuan (c. 700–60) painted murals in temples and monasteries and was also a fine figure painter. Li Sixun (651–716) and the poet Wang Wei created two of the first and most influential landscape styles. Tang-period pottery was resplendent with new colors in soft lead glazes, applied with new technical versatility. The first true porcelain with high-fired feldspathic glaze probably dates from about this time.  12
Yixing (c. 725), a Buddhist astronomer, invented the first known clock escapement. The Buddhists also enlarged the seal and produced wood blocks for printing on paper, although the oldest extant datable text is from 8th-century Korea. During the Five Dynasties era, a complete, 130-volume set of the classics was first printed (932–53), with commentaries, from wood blocks—a cheap substitute for stone engraving. The volumes were printed in the Later Tang capital of Luoyang by Feng Dao (882–954), who had seen the process in Sichuan. The text used was that of the stone inscription of 836–41.  13
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.