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The T'ang dynasty: 618-907

Rebellion breaks out against the second Sui emperor in 613, partly provoked by the burden of constructing his Grand Canal. In 616, fleeing from his capital at Xi'an, he and his court are towed down the canal to temporary safety in his specially designed barges. Two years later he is assassinated by his own troops.

Meanwhile one of the emperor's high officials has seized power in Xi'an. By 618 he is in a position to declare himself the founder of a new dynasty, the T'ang. China enters its most dynamic era, a period rivalled only by the first two centuries of the Han dynasty.

Chinese culture under the T'ang reaches new heights in ceramics and literature. The Chinese style influences Korea and Japan, and the two younger civilizations also give an increasingly warm welcome to Chinese Buddhism. Imperial control now extends once again from desert oases along the Silk Road in the northwest to parts of Manchuria in the northeast and to Vietnam in the south.

Beyond China's borders to the west, the might of the emperor reaches further than at any previous time. Princes as far away as Bukhara and Samarkand recognize his sovereignty.

Imperial science and a great map of China: 721-801

The extent of the imperial Chinese bureaucracy under the T'ang dynasty makes possible an unusually thorough scientific project (echoing, for a different purpose, the brave amateur experiment of Eratosthenes 1000 years earlier). In 721 the emperor sets up nine research stations, across a span of more than 2000 miles, from Hue in the south to the Great Wall in the north.

For four years each station measures the sun's shadow at noon on the summer and winter solstice. It is an elegant experiment in that no difficult synchronization is required. The shortest and longest shadows at each place are the correct answers, providing invaluable information for cartographers.

A famous map of 801 - a landmark in cartography - no doubt makes use of the nine points of latitude scientifically established in the experiment of 721-5. It is a map of the Chinese world, produced for the T'ang emperor by Chia Tan.

Chia Tan's map is on an ambitious scale, measuring about 10 by 11 yards. It charts the entire T'ang empire and extends its range into the barbarian world beyond China's borders, showing the seven main trade routes with other parts of Asia.

T'ang pottery: 7th - 9th century

T'ang is the first dynasty from which sufficient pottery survives for a Chinese style to become widely known in modern times. The surviving pieces are almost exclusively ceramic figures found in tombs. They represent the animals (particularly horses, but also camels) and the servants and attendants needed by the dead man in the next life.

The eclectic nature of Chinese religion is well suggested in the range of attendants considered helpful. A general by the name of Liu Tingxun, buried at Loyang in 728, is accompanied by two Confucian officials, two Buddhist guardians and two ferocious-looking earth spirits of a more Daoist disposition.

Vigorously realistic in style, with bright and often dappled glazes, T'ang horses and tomb figures are among the most delightful and recognizable of styles of pottery.

But the T'ang potters make another contribution of much greater significance in ceramic history. They discover the technique of the thin white translucent ware known as porcelain. There is much argument about the date of the first porcelain, for there is no precise agreement on how to define it (it is most commonly described as white china so thin that it is translucent and makes a ringing sound when struck). Other definitions involve the relative proportions of ingredients such as kaolin and porcelain stone.

Wares produced in north China during the T'ang dynasty, from as early as the 7th century, have the characteristics of porcelain. From the start they are widely appreciated. In a summer palace of the 9th century, far away on the Tigris at Samarra, broken fragments of T'ang porcelain have been found. The earliest known example of a foreigner marvelling at this delicate Chinese ware derives from the same century and region.

In 851 a merchant by the name of Suleiman is recorded in Basra, at the mouth of the Tigris, as saying that the Chinese have 'pottery of excellent quality, of which bowls are made as fine as glass drinking cups; the sparkle of water can be seen through it, although it is pottery.

T'ang poetry: 7th - 9th century

Chinese poetry achieves its golden age during the T'ang dynasty. The ability to turn an elegant verse is so much part of civilized life that almost 50,000 poems (by some 2300 poets) survive from the period.

Poetry is a social activity. Friends write stanzas for each other to commemorate an occasion, and competitive improvization is a favourite game at a party or on a picnic. Early in the dynasty news of a child prodigy, a girl of seven, reaches the court. She is brought before the empress and is asked to improvize on the theme of bidding farewell to her brothers. The Resulting poem, delivered in this alarming context, is brilliant - though no doubt polished in the telling.

Chinese scholar officials, pleasantly torn between Confucianism and Daoism, write poetry when they are in their Daoist vein. Verses are composed when the official is on a journey with friends, or on holiday, or in temporary retirement in a thatched cottage in some delighful landscape.

Most of the leading poets, though their inspiration lies among friends in the countryside, are also on the fringes of imperial court life. In this balance they echo to some extent the experience of Horace in imperial Rome. Like his short odes, the favourite T'ang form known as lü-shih ('regulated verse') is distinguished by its finely honed elegance.

Wang Wei, Li Po and Tu Fu: 8th century

The three greatest T'ang poets are exact contemporaries in the early 8th century. One of them, Wang Wei, begins his career with a brilliant success in the official examinations but he rarely holds the high positions which this would normally imply (ssee Chinese examinations). More important to him is his villa in the mountains south of the capital city, at Wang-ch'uan.

The beauty of the landscape inspires Wang Wei both as painter and poet. None of his paintings survive, but later Chinese landscapes reveal the closely related influence of the countryside in both art forms. A poet of the next dynasty writes of Wang Wei that there are pictures in his poems and poems in his pictures.

The other two leading T'ang poets, Li Po and Tu Fu, are unsuccessful in the examinations (see Chinese examinations). Instead they regularly present poems to the imperial court in the hope of finding preferment. Occasionally they are successful. But both men, for much of their lives, lead a nomadic existence - supporting themselves on small farms, or lodging in Daoist monasteries.

Nevertheless they are able to acquire great fame in their lifetime as poets, thanks to the extensive network of educated Chinese officialdom. In 744 (when Li is 43 and Tu 32) their paths cross for the first time, and the two poets become firm friends. Friendship and Chinese poetry are closely linked.

The first printed book: 868

The earliest known printed book is Chinese, from the end of the T'ang dynasty. Discovered in a cave at Dunhuang in 1899, it is a precisely dated document which brings the circumstances of its creation vividly to life.

It is a scroll, 16 feet long and a foot high, formed of sheets of paper glued together at their edges. The text is that of the Diamond Sutra, and the first sheet in the scroll has an added distinction. It is the world's first printed illustration, depicting an enthroned Buddha surrounded by holy attendants. In a tradition later familiar in religious art of the west, a small figure kneels and prays in the foreground. He is presumably the donor who has paid for this holy book.

The name of the donor, Wang Chieh, is revealed in another device which later becomes traditional in early printed books in the west. The details of publication are given in a colophon (Greek for 'finishing stroke') at the end of the text. This reveals that the scroll is a work of Buddhist piety, combined with the filial obligations of good Confucian ideals: 'Printed on 11 May 868 by Wang Chieh, for free general distribution, in order in deep reverence to perpetuate the memory of his parents.'

The printing of Wang Chieh's scroll is of a high standard, so it must have had many predecessors. But the lucky accident of the cave at Dunhuang has given his parents a memorial more lasting than he could have imagined possible.

The T'ang in decline: 751-906

With the exception of printing, the great T'ang achievements take place in the first half of the dynasty. This is a repetitive pattern of Chinese history, for the vigour of the founding emperor of a dynasty - a self-made man - can rarely be matched by descendants who grow up in a palace environment, pampered by eunuchs and shielded from practical experience.

The T'ang are also unfortunate in their neighbours. For the first time since communication with the west is established, during the Han dynasty, there is an expansionist new power beyond the Himalayas. The Arabs, with their Muslim faith, have the vitality traditionally considered in China to be characteristic of a new dynasty.

The Arabs and the Chinese: 751-758

By the mid-8th century, with the Arabs firmly in control of central Asia and the Chinese pressing further west than ever before, a clash is sooner or later inevitable. It comes, in 751, at the Talas river. The result is a shattering defeat for the Chinese. For the Arabs an interesting fringe benefit of victory is the valuable secret of how to make paper.

Seven years later the Arabs again demonstrate their strength with an impertinent gesture at the opposite extreme of the Chinese empire. Arriving in 758 along the trade route of the south China coast, they loot and burn Canton.

The rebellion of An Lu-shan: 755

Between the two Arab incursions, the T'ang administration is gravely weakened by the rebellion of an army commander serving on the northwest frontier. In 755 An Lu-shan marches east and captures both the western and eastern capitals, at Xi'an and Loyang. The emperor flees ignominiously.

Two years later An Lu-shan is murdered by his own son. But the weakened condition of the empire is soon demonstrated again. In 763 the emperor is unable to prevent an invading Tibetan force from briefly capturing Xi'an.

Eunuchs and warlords, Daoists and Buddhists

The T'ang dynasty never again recovers its former strength. The next century and a half is characterized by violent struggles between powerful groups. One such clash is between the eunuchs who run the imperial palace, and who are now increasingly given command over the palace armies, and the regional governors controlling troops in the provinces.

Another clash is between Daoists and Buddhists. In recent centuries the Buddhists have been the more favoured of the Daoists, an older indigenous sect by now jealous of the foreign upstarts, seek to influence the emperors against their rivals.

In 845 the Daoist campaign is finally and decisively successful. The emperor initiates a purge in which 4000 Buddhist monasteries are destroyed, together with many more shrines and temples. A quarter of a million monks and nuns are forced back into secular life.

Soon lawless provincial armies and popular unrest combine to make the country ungovernable. Rebellious peasants occupy Xi'an in 881. In 903 a surviving leader of that peasant uprising captures the emperor and kills him with all his eunuchs. Three years later he sets up a dynasty of his own with his capital at Kaifeng. A succession of similar warlords follow his example in a chaotic 50-year span known as the Five Dynasties.

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