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The Tang Dynasty (618-907), Tang Culture

Nestorian Christianity, way Buddhism, Buddhist festivals, huge tracts of land, Li Bo

The Tang created a vibrant, outward-looking culture. The main capital of Chang'an, and the secondary capital of Luoyang, became great metropolises. Chang'an and its suburbs grew to house more than 2 million inhabitants. Knowledge of the outside world was stimulated by the presence of envoys, merchants, and travelers who came from Central Asian tributary states and from China’s neighboring states such as Japan, Korea, and Tibet. Because of the presence of many foreign merchants, a number of religions were practiced in Tang China, including Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Islam, although none spread among the Chinese population the way Buddhism had a few centuries earlier. Foreign fashions in hair and clothing were often copied, and foreign pastimes, such as the sport of polo, found followings among wealthy Tang subjects. Musical instruments and melodies from India, Iran, and Central Asia brought about a major transformation in Chinese music.

The Tang was the great age of Chinese poetry. Skill in composing poetry was tested in the civil service examinations, and educated men were expected to compose poems at social gatherings. Among the most famous of the great poets of this age were Wang Wei, Li Bo, Du Fu, and Bo Juyi. In the late Tang period, courtesans in the entertainment quarters helped popularize a new verse form called ci by singing lyrics written by famous poets and composing lyrics themselves.

In Tang times, Buddhism fully penetrated Chinese daily life. Buddhist monasteries ran schools for children. In remote areas, monasteries provided lodging for travelers, and in towns they offered places for educated people to gather for social occasions. Monasteries held huge tracts of land worked by serfs, which gave them the financial resources to establish enterprises like lumber mills and oil presses. Buddhist tales became widely known, and Buddhist festivals, like the summer festival for feeding hungry ghosts (known by its Sanskrit name, Ullambana), became among the most popular holidays. Another important feature of the period was the growth of Chinese schools of Buddhism. Adherents of Pure Land Buddhism, for example, honored the Buddha Amitabha in order to be reborn in his paradise, the Pure Land. Pure Land Buddhism became the dominant form of Buddhism in China. Among the educated elite, Chan (known in Japan as Zen) gained popularity. Chan teachings rejected the authority of the sutra writings as the words of the Buddha and claimed the superiority of mind-to-mind transmission of Buddhist truth. According to Chan Buddhism, enlightenment could be achieved suddenly through insight into one’s own true nature.

During the late Tang dynasty, when China’s international position weakened and the court faced financial difficulties, opposition to Buddhism as a foreign religion emerged among influential intellectuals. In 845 the Tang emperor began a full-scale persecution of the Buddhist establishment. More than 4,600 monasteries and 40,000 temples and shrines were destroyed, and more than 260,000 Buddhist monks and nuns were forced to return to secular life. Although the suppression was lifted a few years later, the monastic establishment never fully recovered.

In the mid-9th century the Tang government began losing control of the country. Like the Han before it, the Tang was finally destroyed by ambitious generals who suppressed peasant rebellions and then fought one another for control. A brief period of disunion known as the Five Dynasties period followed. From 907 to 959, five short-lived military regimes quickly succeeded one another in North China, and most of the rest of the former Tang domain was split into ten independent states.



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