The Tang Dynasty
The Tang Dynasty (618 - 907)
China's history is so long that it seems impossible to fully comprehend. You have to attack it in little chunks. My method is by looking at each of its dynasties. Although there were long periods where there was no single "Chinese empire," you can get a sense of different trends by looking at some of the key dynasties. In this hub I'd like to sum up what historians call one of China's most glorious periods in history--the Tang Dynasty.
After a long period of wars and unstable governments, China united under the Tang Dynasty. This dynasty is significant for its incorporation of Buddhism into the Chinese culture. It was also a time of bureaucratic rule, great commerce and international exchange, and splendid art and poetry that is still revered to this day. For me, it is interesting to study this period because of its interactions with a tiny island nation to the East known as Japan (or Yamato at the time). At this time in history, China was feared and respected, and it wielded great influence in the region.
The Dynasty was founded by the Li family, who rebelled against the Sui Emperor to eventually take control of the country. The capital of the dynasty was established in Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) which was the most populous city in the world at the time. It was the beginning of nearly 200 years of rule, which were sometimes interrupted by periods of rebellion and strife.
The early period of the Tang Dynasty was marked by a strong central government that had thorough control over the country. A census was undertaken and taxes enacted to fund the government. During this time, the civil service system was overhauled and a new way of selecting bureaucrats was determined.
It was known as the imperial examination system. In many ways it is not so different from the civil service exams (or even GRE's) of our own time. Students were required to have thorough knowledge of the Confucian classics and excellent skill in writing and calligraphy. Although it was not required to be an aristocrat in order to take the examinations, the tests were engineered so that passing them required an aristocratic education that most people did not have access to. Thus the power of the elite was maintained--although there was more social mobility than in previous generations.
Buddhism had been growing in influence for some years, but it really became prevalent in China during the Tang Dynasty. Its beliefs were mainly imported from India through the Silk Road, the greatest trade route in Asia. The previous emperor Wen Ti, of the Sui Dynasty,had been an avid supporter of Buddhism and had worked to spread the religion amongst his subjects. One of the factors that made Buddhism so compatible to the Chinese was its many similarities to Taoism.
Although Buddhism spread with great success throughout the empire, it may well have had too much success. In the later part of the dynasty it faced a grave threat. The Taoists and Confucianists had become jealous of the popularity and wealth of Buddhist monks. In 845, the government turned an ear to their accusations of the excesses of Buddhist power and decided to take action. Monasteries, temples and shrines were desecrated, while precious works of art were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns were forced to give up their religion.
In 846, however, the emperor died (possibly because of mercury poisoning, a Taoist "potion" for immortality) and the persecution of Buddhists ended. The next emperor re-established many of the monasteries and ironically began to take action against the Taoists. Buddhism, however, never quite regained its former glory. Today it is more well established in other countries (though it is quite entrenched in Tibet).
It is interesting to note that China was much more internationally-minded during the 7th and early 8th centuries. This was a period when many Japanese diplomats and monks travelled to China to pay respect and also to bring back elements of the culture, legal code, and bureaucratic system, and written language. After that period, China drew back into itself due to the increasing hostility of the Arabs (especially on the seas). Japan also withdrew and at this time began to take the elements of Chinese culture it had gained to mold its own culture in Nara and Kyoto. After the 10th century, the two countries would cease most major interaction for hundreds of years.
The Tang Dynasty would seem like one of the greatest governments ever to rule China, but as with all of China's dynasties, it finally began to decline and fall apart. In its the later period, the government had less and less influence, as it had given up its centralized power to military governors. The dynasty that had ruled "All Under Heaven" for nearly two hundred years finally met its downfall.
References: Gascoigne, Bamber. The Dynasties and Treasures of China; The Viking Press, 1973