Times & Places

Tang dynasty (618-907 CE)

The brief Sui dynasty, established in 581 reunified China before its collapse in 618, and was succeeded by the Tang. The Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.) is often referred to as a golden age in Chinese history. Before the end of the seventh century, Tang rulers gained control of two Central Asian kingdoms, united with Tibet through marriage, and began the conquest of Korea, then known as Great Silla. Further, relations were established with Southeast Asia kingdoms and Japan, through which a great deal about Tang art is known through the repository at Shosoin, the treasure house of the Buddhist temple Todaji in Nara.

The Silk Road’s advancement of trade and international communication during the period established the captial, Changan (now Xian), as a cosmopolitan, cultural center. Changan was one of the key stops along the Silk Road and became a center for religious, scholarly, and artistic life. Foreigners resided there and various foreign religions were practiced, with many places of worship built with funds donated by the Tang government. There were Zoroastrian and Manichean temples, Nestorian Christian churches, Jewish communities, and from the 8th century, mosques.

The embrace of the foreign manifested in a mixture of borrowed and native elements in the arts of the period, apparent in sculpture, painting and ceramics. The use of foreign shapes and motifs can be seen especially in Tang ceramics in the copying of metal work to produce Persian shapes, Hellenistic amphora; as well as the development of color glazes and the perfecting of porcelain. Despite the introduction of Vajrayana Buddhism and the emergence of Chan, there are few religious subjects in art. Guardian kings are one of the few Buddhist subjects in Tang pottery, as mingqi.

While the prosperous dynasty dominated the Asian continent militarily and politically for years, a series of both external and internal setbacks wore away Tang power and contributed to the eventual disintegration of the unified empire. In 751, Tang armies were defeated by the Arabs in battle at the Talas River in present day Kyrgyzstan. This effectively stopped Tang westward expansion, and this portion of the Silk Road came under the power of the Arabs victors. Further, the Arabs allied with forces from the Tibetan Empire, against which the Tang empire battled from the early decades of the dynasty.

In 755, a series of rebellions broke the power of the hereditary aristocracy, and the emperor and many prestigious members of the aristocracy fled the capital. General An Lushan, who had been appointed by the emperor to battle foreign forces, rebelled and captured the capitals of Xian and Loyang, forcing the emperor to flee. The An Lushan rebellion lasted until 763, during which time the Arabs sacked Canton, and Tibetans briefly captured Chang'an. Other rebellions continually broke out in the countryside. Though the Tang was able to re-establish itself, with the loss of Central Asia to Islam, the Tibetan invasion, and the breakdown of domestic order and infrastructure, it never fully recovered. Further, attitudes towards foreigners changed. In 836, laws were passed forbidding unnecessary interaction between Chinese and foreigners, and in 845, the emperor outlawed all foreign religions.

Although the Tang Dynasty continued until 907, its political structure was substantially weakened. Various parties began competing for political power, and the Tang dynasty eventually fell. During the period from 907 to 960, a succession of dynasties ruled briefly in the north, while the south was divided into several kingdoms in a period designated the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. The former were influenced by the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), established by Khitans who took over northern China. Uncertainty prevailed until the establishment of the Song dynasty in 960.

Drawn from

  • DMA Connect, 2012.
  • Michael Sullivan, The Arts of China (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 122-151.
  • Bamber Gascoigne, The Dynasties of China: A History (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003), 85-114.
  • Sherman E. Lee, Far Eastern Art, 5th Edition (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1994), 296-313.

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