Central Themes and Key Points
The Tang Empire (618-907)
  • The Sui (581-617 CE) and subsequent Tang (618-906 CE) dynasties reunify China, three-hundred years after the fall of the Han dynasty (in 220).
  • The Tang, along with the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) that follows, is often referred to as China’s “Golden Age” and it is interesting to contrast developments in China with developments in Europe at the same time. (Europe, after the fall of Rome in 410, entered a millennium (c. 400-1400) where disengagement from humanistic learning dominated.)
  • Under the Tang, China becomes the preeminent civilization in East Asia and the world with links east to Korea and Japan and west, along the Silk Route.
  • Poetry, calligraphy, landscape painting, philosophy, political thought, historical writing, scientific advances in astronomy, chemistry, and medicine, and the production of fine silks, porcelain, and teas all flourish, particularly in the period from the 7th to the 12th centuries.
  • The Tang capital of Changan (today, Xian) was one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the time. As an eastern terminus of the Silk Route, traders and goods from East, West, and South Asia as well as a variety of religions coexisted in the capital. Religious groups and temples representing Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Manichaeism, (a Persian sect from the 3rd century CE expounding philosophical dualism), Nestorian Christianity (a sect that separated from Byzantine Christianity in 431 and was centered in Persia), and Zoroastrianism (a Persian religion from the 6th century, named after its founder the prophet Zoroaster) could all be found. The imperial families of the Sui and Tang intermarried with families of nomadic and Turkic origins in China’s Northwest. Such images should be held in mind when considering presentations of China as a “closed” society throughout history. An Arab market and mosque, dating from this period when the Chinese capital hosted traders from across Eurasia, remain active in Xian at the beginning of the 21st century.
    Buddhism played a dominant role in Tang dynasty China, its influence evident in poetry and art of the period. A universalistic religious philosophy that originated in India (the historical Buddha was born in c.a. 563 BCE), Buddhism first entered China in the first century CE with traders following the Silk Route. Buddhist teachings spoke to the concerns of salvation and the release from suffering and flourished during the period of political disunity in China (220-581) after the fall of the Han dynasty. Various schools of Buddhism spread after the reunification of China under the Sui (581), and Buddhist influence reached its height during the three-hundred years of Tang rule (618-907). The monk Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang), whose travels to India to bring back Buddhist sutras, or discourses, became the basis for the popular 16th century novel, Monkey or Journey to the West, followed the Silk Route during this period (629-645). Buddhism, religious Daoism, and Confucianism all coexisted as the “three teachings” under the Tang. Compromise between the Confucian emphasis on family and filial responsibilities and the demands of Buddhist monastic life was maintained to varying degrees until 845, when the Tang emperors moved to limit the wealth and economic power of landed Buddhist monasteries. The influence of Buddhism declined in China after the Tang, and Buddhism, as Rhodes Murphey notes, “entered the stream of folk religion, especially for the non-literate, and its beliefs and practices further mixed with peasant traditions of magic, as was also the case with Daoism.”
  • Buddhist religious art of the Tang period is today seen in Japan, where it spread over the course of the Tang period.


  • Poetry is the primary literary form in China from earliest times (not epic or drama as in the West). During the Tang dynasty, poetic form reaches new heights and everyone who is literate in the society writes poetry; it is an essential element of social communication. China’s three most renowned poets live at this time: Wang Wei, Li Bo, and Du Fu.

East Asian Cultural Sphere under the Tang

  • The influence of Chinese civilization spreads throughout East Asia as neighboring countries study and borrow from Chinese civilization. Korea, Japan, and what is today Vietnam share in Chinese culture and the four countries are united by
      1. Confucian thought and social and political values;
      2. Buddhism (in forms developed and refined in China after its origination in India);
      3. literary Chinese and its writing system which becomes the language of government and that used by the elites of these societies to communicate among themselves.
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