How the Tang Dynasty Declined and Fell

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Tang dynasty is one of the most magnificent dynasties of China. Tang projected its power over Manchuria, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Central Asia. In fact, Tang was probably the strongest empire in the early medieval period.

Chinese scholars usually called the decline and fall of imperial dynasties “a vicious cycle.” No matter how glorious Tang was, Tang could not escape an inevitable fate that befell on other dynasties.

An Shi Rebellion

An Shi Rebellion was the first catalyst that led to Tang’s eventual downfall. There were many causes of this rebellion. In the mid-8th century, the Tang court was in complete decadence. Emperor Xuanzong ignored his duties and spent most of his time with consort Yang Guifei. This put the court under the control of Yang Guozhong, a highly corrupt chancellor.

Furthermore, the emperor also gave excessive military power to non-Han generals, providing them many capabilities to revolt.

Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Guifei, a symbol of Tang's decadence
Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Guifei, a symbol of Tang’s decadence

In 755, An Lushan started a rebellion and marched toward the heart of the Tang dynasty. Literally, no one could stop him, because his troops were experienced frontier guards, while the imperial troops were left rotten in the capital for years.

An Lushan quickly conquered Luoyang, the eastern capital. He then marched west to strike Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), the capital of the Tang dynasty. Tang resistance was fierce. However, the rebels finally overcame the defense and captured the capital, forcing emperor Xuanzhong to flee to Sichuan. Soon, he abdicated in favor of his son, Emperor Suzong.

An Lushan
An Lushan

The new emperor formed his new army and sent it to crush the rebels. Both sides fought fiercely in the central plains of China for years. In the end, Tang dynasty was finally able to subjugate the rebels.

However, at what cost?

Consequences

Chinese historians compared two consensuses, the pre-rebellion one and post-rebellion one. The pre-rebellion recorded that the empire had a population of 52,919,309 in 755. However, the post-rebellion one showed that the population was only 16,900,000 in 764 or the year that the rebellion was over.

The difference between the two was 36 million. However, this certainly does not imply that the rebellion caused 36 million deaths. This was because the protracted war could certainly lead many to flee their hometowns, creating a huge error in the collection of data.

By the way, the death toll was still significant. The numbers may be up to ten million deaths. A sharp decline in population also led to a plunge in imperial revenue, as fewer taxpayers were available, causing financial problems in later decades.

Constant warfare in the rebellion permanently destroyed the fertility of the central region of China. Chang’an and Luoyang had to rely on grains from the southern areas ever since. As a result, trade and commerce in the southern area prospered. The economic power thus started to slip from the imperial grip at Chang’an.

Loss of imperial power

Military governors (Jiedushi)

Tang dynasty was in gradual decline after the rebellion, despite numerous attempts to stop it. One of the most problematic issues in this period was the rise in power of the regional military governors (Jiedushi, 节度使.)

Theoretically, the Jiedushis were military governors appointed by the Tang imperial court. The original propose of creating them was to fend off foreign invaders. However, as their posts were far from the capital, and all Jiedushis directly controlled the army, they took that opportunity to expand their influence.

The Jiedushis took the assigned regions as their own and became the regions’ de-facto ruler. They can conscript more men into the army, collect taxes for themselves and even promote or demote their retainers or generals.

Hence, the Jiedushis became a regional power that the imperial court could not ignore. If the imperial court attempted to strip their titles or ranks, these Jiedushis, such as An Lushan, could rebel.

Prolonged Trouble from the Jiedushis

Initially, the Tang court could not risk another rebellion, as it could put the dynasty into an abrupt end. The imperial court chose a pacifist policy. The Tang government decided to control these regions nominally. To obtain the loyalty of these Jiedushis, Tang court made their titles hereditary. This meant that the descendants of the Jiedushis would remain Jiedushis.

Even though this policy kept the Jiedushis in check, the force that threatened the dynasty would never disappear. Those regions under Jiedushis would never come back under imperial control. Imperial authority over those lands was gone forever.

Emperor Dezong of Tang
Emperor Dezong of Tang

This fact was clear to several Tang emperors such as Emperor Dezong and Emperor Xianzong. Hence, they tried to quell the power of these military governors and restore imperial authority. Though there were some successes, all of them were temporary. Tang court in the 8th-9th century had to spend resources trying to suppress these warlords for a century without any long-term success.

Frequent wars against these Jiedushis significantly worsened the imperial treasury. Tax revenues that suffered from the decreased population could not cover the expenses. To finance the expedition, the Tang government had to increase the taxes on peasants, leading to widespread discontent over the realm.

Eunuchs

Eunuchs are men who served the emperor in the palace after their castration. Throughout Chinese history, eunuchs usually become powerful in imperial politics. Strong emperors would keep these eunuchs in check, while weak emperors fell into the grasp of the eunuchs.

The rise of eunuch was repeated in every major Chinese dynasty. Tang dynasty was not an exception.

Eunuchs’ power in the Tang dynasty

These eunuchs rose in prominence in the reign of Emperor Dezong of Tang. As the emperor attempted to crush the Jiedushis, he relied on the advice of these eunuchs. Since the emperor put his trust in them, they were gradually promoted, so their power increased as well.

Several Tang emperors also died relatively young, so their legitimate heirs were either too young or weak to handle administrative affairs. Thus, he had to put their faith on the eunuchs, whom most of the time were the same people who brought up these emperors. Thus, it was inevitable that the eunuchs possessed imperial powers.

Eunuchs
A mural from a Tang era depicting eunuchs

As the court was under the eunuchs’ control, leaders of the eunuchs would exterminate everyone who obstructed their power. Honest and capable ministers would be expelled or executed. Soon, the eunuchs’ powers would be too formidable for even emperors to openly challenge them. In the late Tang dynasty, several emperors such as Emperor Jingzong and Wenzong were murdered by these formidable eunuchs.

The administration under these eunuchs was disastrous. Corruption was rampant. People’s sufferings were ignored. Hence, they began to lose faith in the government. Many would believe that Tang had already lost their Mandate of Heaven (Tianming), and the new dynasty was imminent.

Well, they were in fact correct.

Overall, Tang emperors not only lost their imperial authority over key states to the Jiedushis, and but also imperial power to the eunuchs. As a result, they became puppet emperors.

Agrarian Rebellion

As the whole court was under the eunuchs’ control, Tang emperors, who were now puppet emperors, had no need or power to govern by themselves. Hence, they spent their time on alcohols, women, and luxuries.

The imperial families were no different. For instance, when a daughter of Emperor Yizong married, she spent five million taels of silver on her lavish ceremony. That equaled to cumulative yearly incomes of tens of thousands of peasants.

Certainly, imperial treasuries could not keep up with their spending. They became strained in the late Tang period. Tang administration solved this problem by increasing taxes on the population.

That was another grave mistake. It led to widespread discontent, especially among the peasants who suffered most. Their incomes already plunged because natural disasters in the 860-870 AD destroyed their crops.

Finally, the peasants had no choice. They could not tolerate anymore, so they decided to rebel in 874. Thus began the major rebellion of late Tang dynasty.

Beginning

Their leaders were Wang Xianzhi and Huang Chao. Many peasants quickly joined their ranks. The rebels soon numbered more than 10,000 and started attacking major provinces in the central part of China.

Tang court chose to implement a divide-and-conquer strategy to deal with the rebels. The emissary came to Wang Xianzhi and offered him a title of general. This caused a major break between Wang Xianzhi and Huang Chao. In 877, Huang Chao left Wang Xianzhi and campaigned by himself. Unfortunately for Wang Xianzhi, the negotiations failed. Tang imperial troops defeated and killed him in 878.

After Wang Xianzhi’s death, his followers rejoined Huang Chao’s army. Huang Chao attempted to raid Luoyang, Tang’s eastern capital. However, he faced stiff resistance, so he marched south to avoid a battle with major Tang armies.

Small Wild Goose Pagoda
Small wild goose pagoda, a paragon of Tang architecture

Rebels gained strength

Huang Chao quickly conquered several prefectures in the south of the Yangtze river. This caused turmoil in the Tang court. Thus, the Tang government tried to tame him by offering him several titles. However, both sides never reached an agreement.

In fall 879, the rebels attacked and sacked Guangzhou. Arab sources pointed out that foreign merchants up to 200,000 were killed. Whether the massacre really occurred was unclear, as it was not mentioned in any Chinese source.

Hot weather and illnesses in the south killed many of Huang Chao’s troops. Hence, He decided to march back north. On his way, he fought with several imperial armies. Huang Chao suffered some defeats but still managed to plunder several prefectures. This pillage kept his army intact.

The tide of war turned against Tang dynasty, as Huang Chao defeated a major imperial army in 880. His victory increased his prestige among the people. Many more peasants who suffered from the Tang regime joined his army. Some who refused to do so were conscripted by Huang Chao. Within months, his army was as large as 150,000 men.

His army was near Chang’an in late 880. Tang generals attempted to block the rebels’advance to the capital. Unfortunately, they failed, as many imperial soldiers mutinied. Emperor Xizong of Tang had to abandon the capital and flee to Sichuan in early 881.

Tang’s revival

After Huang Chao captured Chang’an, he executed many of the imperial Li Clan, and purged former imperial officers who were disobedient. Huang later declared himself emperor of Qi.

Huang Chao really made a terrible mistake for not following Emperor Xizong. This made the crumbling Tang regime regained an initiative. Emperor Xizong rallied troops from all regions and recruited even nomadic tribals to crush Huang Chao and his new regime.

Li Keyong
Li Keyong Cr: Wikipedia

Emperor Xizong appointed Li Keyong, a leader of the Shatuo tribe as a general. He combined his nomadic cavalry with the Tang imperial troops and struck the rebels. Many of Huang Chao’s followers surrendered to Tang. The most prominent one was Zhu Wen.

*Remember Zhu Wen, we will talk about this guy later.

Li Keyong and the Tang army crushed the rebels’ major army in spring 883. This victorious army then marched toward Chang’an to recapture it from the rebels. Huang Chao could not stay further in Chang’an, so he fled east. Huang Chao was defeated and killed in summer 884, though many sources pointed out that he committed suicide.

Into the abyss

Overall, this agrarian rebellion was disastrous for the Tang dynasty. The imperial government took a decade (874 AD-884 AD) to defeat the rebels. Subsequently, the Jiedeshis again rose in power. Some were ex-rebel generals who defected to Tang such as Zhu Wen. Some were generals who proved themselves in battles against rebels like Li Keyong.

Many of these warlords openly fought against each other. The entire realm was in disarray. In other words, no one feared the Tang emperor anymore.

Zhu Wen

After surrendering to Tang, Zhu Wen was instrumental in ending the rebellion. As a result, he received many promotions, making him one of the Jiedushis.

Zhu Wen
Zhu Wen

Zhu Wen took an opportunity of weakness in the imperial court to expand his influence. He built up his position at Xuanwu circuit and conquered other territories from fellow warlords. Within years, he was the strongest warlord in the realm.

He was far from being humble. In fact, Zhu Wen was extremely ambitious and bloodthirsty. He marched an army to seize Chang’an in 903. Emperor Zhaozong (Emperor Xizong’s younger brother) was in Zhu Wen’s hand. He quickly executed his enemies in the court and forced the emperor to move the capital to Luoyang.

Emperor Zhaozong
Emperor Zhaozong

Despite holding the emperor firmly in his hand, Zhu Wen was still apprehensive. He was afraid that the emperor would conspire with the officials and other Jiedushis against him.

He decided to eradicate this threat by starting another great purge. In 904, he ordered his troops to attack the palace and killed the emperor. Emperor Zhaozong died along with many members of his clans, loyal officials, and their family members.

The last emperor of the Tang Dynasty

Zhu Wen felt he was not ready to take the throne. He crowned Li Zuo, an infant son of Emperor Zhaozong, emperor. He would be remembered as Emperor Ai, the last Tang emperor.

Emperor Ai was an innocent child. Therefore, he could not obstruct Zhu Wen’s authority. Zhu Wen later killed all older brothers of the new emperor. At this point, Zhu had already slaughtered almost every member of the imperial family.

In 907, Zhu Wen forced emperor Ai to yield the throne to him. The young emperor was too powerless to resist. He abdicated the throne in that spring. Zhu Wen then became the emperor of the Liang dynasty. Tang dynasty was effectively over.

Emperor Ai did not survive long. A year after his abdication, he was dead. His guards killed him on Zhu Wen’s orders.

Cr: Zizhi Tongjian