china's golden age -- 5/7/19

Today's selection -- from The Open Empire by Valerie Hansen. The three centuries of China's Golden Age -- the Tang dynasty:

"In 589 the Sui dynasty reunified China and ruled for three decades. The Sui rulers were succeeded by the Tang, who governed for nearly three centuries. These were the years of China's Golden Age, the peak of Chi­na's cultural glory. Even today, the word for Chinese in Cantonese means 'people of the Tang,' and Chinatowns all over the world are called Tang­-people-streets (Tangrenjie). The empire flourished during this time when its populace was more open to and more enthusiastic about foreign in­fluence than it would ever be again. Many Chinese of high and low social status intermarried with non-Chinese, often Turkic, people. Anything Indian or Central Asian was all the rage. Learned monks traveled through Central Asia to reach Indian teachers, merchants accompanying them brought back exotic trade goods, and even the Chinese who stayed home wore non-Chinese fashions as they composed poems set to the latest for­eign tunes.

"The Tang was an age not just of cultural openness but of political strength. The central government had more power over its inhabitants, who numbered some sixty million, than did any other premodern dy­nasty. The Tang issued a law code so influential that it was later adopted in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam by rulers who sought to emulate the Tang. Local officials closely monitored the population of the empire, regularly redistributed land, and strictly supervised markets. We can see the gov­ernment's reach in the central capital of Chang'an, where it built a planned city with walled subdivisions. The commercial markets were strictly separated from the rest of the city, and market officials set prices for basic commodities every ten days. The government's reach extended as well to the distant desert oasis of Turfan in modern Xinjiang, in the northwest of China. There the Tang state established a complex system of household registration and land redistribution, enforcing it every three years.

A 17th-century Chinese depiction of Wu, from Empress Wu of the Zhou,
published c.1690. No contemporary image of the empress exists.

"The Tang was also, unusually, an age of prominent women. Some ruled through their husbands or sons, while one, Emperor Wu, became the only woman in Chinese history to become emperor in her own name. Short stories and paintings of the time allow glimpses of the lives of more typical women as well. Historians have traditionally held a woman -- an imperial concubine famed for her beauty -- responsible for the end of China's Golden Age because her affair with a Central Asian general triggered one of the most destructive rebellions in Chinese history."



Valerie Hansen


The Open Empire


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2015, 2000 by W.W. Norton & Company


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