Tang Dynasty: The State of Perfect Dilated ‘Chineseness’

by SC


The Tang dynasty was often considered the perfect embodiment of Chinese culture and values, praised for being a sophisticated and influential period of Chinese history. Paradoxically however, the Tang ruling family had distinct connections to the nomads on the steepe and to cultures which were considered inferior in contrast to agriculturally based Chinese. The Tang dynasty was a period where the foundations of Chinese identity were infused with foreign influences, yet these values would become permanent staples of Chinese history.

Under the Tang, China took significant steps towards embracing commercialization as trade with foreign countries became progressively more essential to the economic prosperity of the empire. The evolution of Buddhism from a dogma with undisputed Indian roots to a belief system which was inherently Chinese also occurred during the Tang dynasty. This would solidify the importance and legacy of the faith throughout every aspect of China for many centuries afterwards. The Tang was significantly because it set the precedent for every Chinese dynasty afterwards: It signified the transition from medieval China to early modern China, where the nation became the cornerstone of the East Asian world.

Under the Tang dynasty, the dichotomies Chinese identity began to shift into something which was more culturally inclusive. Whilst the Chinese continued to see themselves as culturally superior to their neighbours, the distinctions between ‘barbarians’ and ‘Chinese’ began to blur during this period. The nomadic and Turkish roots that the Tang family had meant the infusion of outside steepe beliefs and practices was supported by the government.

Under this period, China’s shift towards commericialisation also resulted in cultural exchange between nations, though this will be explored later in the essay. It is important to understand that the changes and their repercussions were often interlinked and should not be seen as inherently separate. During the first half of the Tang dynasty, China began re-establishing political connections to ‘barbaric’ states as they fostered policies of expansion. This included marrying princess off to noble families living on the steepe to create the Sino-Altaic alliance with Central Asian nations. This progress was arguably only possible due to similar diplomacy, political networks and ideologies between the Tang ruling family and other surrounding aristocrats.

The Tang Empire also lead wars of expansion into neighbouring states like Korea, Japan and North Vietnam in an attempt to retrieve the territory held by the Han dynasty. The Tang emperors desire to emulate the Han dynasty is a reoccurring theme throughout their rule combined with the attempt to solidify their perception as one of authentic ‘Chineseness.’ This is also reflected in the Tang’s support of Daoism, an unmistakably Chinese dogma which was given the title of the state’s highest religion in 625 and 637. At this stage Buddhism had yet to undergo sinification and thus the stigma of being culturally foreign had not faded; a stigma that the Tang tried to avoid. The Tang’s decision to change their capital’s name from Daxingcheng to Chang’an; after the capital of the Han empire, further reflects the Tang’s desire to portray themselves as the rebirth of the Chinese nation.

The Tang was a period of transformation, the dynasty near the end of its reign was vastly different to the dynasty founded by Li Yuan in 618. Despite the Tang’s attempts to reassemble an empire similar to the Han in terms of size and cultural legacy, the Tang abandoned many policies and institutions whose origins could be found in the Han. Cultural exchange is a relationship that worked both ways and whilst the Tang Empire was exporting Chinese values to its neighbours, its society was also being shaped by external forces.

A few of these changes included eliminating the practice of periodically redistributing state owned land to families and eventually curbing the prominence and power of elite families. Generally these trends resulted in greater freedom for individual, families and business which opened the possibility of increased international trade, which was partly responsible for rising levels of urbanization. On a smaller scale, horse riding and the adoption of the lute into Chinese culture reflects blurring of barriers between the ‘barbarians’ and authentic ‘Chinese.’ Though the Tang family tried to hide their alien connections, steepe practices such as levirate marriage and the killing of one’s kin for the throne were often practiced, much to the shock of their ‘Han’ Chinese subjects. It is often argued that the Sui and the Tang dynasties were the processors of the Yuan, apart from their ‘barbaric’ heritage amongst all three dynasties; they all lead China through a period of capitalism through expansionist policies like warfare and increased trade.

During the Tang, the cultural and economically heart land of China shifted southwards, thus allowing the eventual perceptions of being ‘Han’ or ‘Chinese’ to be firmly associated with the geography under the Yellow River. This is partly responsible for the interpretation of southern Chinese values and beliefs as the quintessential foundation of ‘Han’ identity even during the Qing Empire, when the Manchus were the ruling minority. Part of the shift was due to the Sui dynasty opening up the Yangzi River’s drain basin and after the marshy low lands were drained, the southern China’s agricultural productivity increased dramatically. The prototype of a distant but militarily superior northern capital controlling the south and using its agricultural output to support the government and foster trade became the standard for many empires afterwards.

As the ‘silk’ roads which allowed trade between Central Asian and Eastern Asia were disrupted by the rise of a Tibetan state and the growing influence of Islam on the western regions of China, the Tang government turned towards exchanging goods through sea trade. Because many of the southern cities were located along the coast, moving into sea based trade was a natural and effort method of trade. These rekindled trade links lead many foreigners to settle in China and vice versa, an important step for the further distortion of traditional Chinese identity.

The urbanization and commercialization of the Tang Empire created the perfect conditions for China to enter its most prestigious and respected era of literature since artistic production had shift away from the static nature of the courts into the increasingly wealthy urban cities. The poems and stories reflected their place of origin and were usually located within a metropolitan, with reoccurring themes like leisure and relaxation found within brothels and other pleasure establishments. Ironically a lot of China’s greatest texts emerged not during a period of isolation where Chinese values were allowed to seep into society without foreign contamination, but during a period where the boundaries and distinctions of society were challenged and altered.

The Tang dynasty more than any Chinese government before them were successfully in spreading the foundations of Chinese culture to the surrounding nations. Though increased international trade to countries such as India, Korea and Japan played a significant role for this exchange. A defining trait of the Siu and Tang was their cultural inclusiveness, no doubt partly due to their non-Chinese lineage. Whilst China still considered itself the benchmark for civilization and the centre of the world, her condescending attitudes to surrounding barbarians had softened. Many East Asian states often sought some form of recognition within China’s arrangement of world order even if it meant their country would be placed in a position of submission. States like Vietnam, Korea and Japan adopted traditional Chinese calligraphy as their official written language and paid tribute to the more powerful Tang government as vassals. Similarly elite Chinese fashion and music became the norm for other Asian courts which were quick to attach their name to the mystique and grandee of the established Chinese culture. Confucian principles like the patriarchy and filial piety are just some of the lingering elements found in many East Asian countries spread through contact with the Tang Dynasty.

It was during the period of Tang rule that Buddhism evolved into a belief system embedded with traditional Chinese beliefs, thus shattering the foreign label which had followed it since its conception in India. Whilst Daoism was the state endorsed religion, Buddhism was arguably more influential and popular and it’s politically, culturally and religious significance was cemented during the Tang dynasty. Unlike Daoism, Buddhism was much intertwined with the commoners and monasteries played a noticeable part in society, sometimes acting as a hostel, hospital or orphanage depending on its context. It could be argued that Buddhism thrived in the subsequent chapters of Chinese history because unlike Daoism it seemed more approachable and relatable to the majority of Chinese citizens.

Buddhism experienced two periods of change where its teachings and philosophies were reinterpreted until it underwent intense sinification and thus emerged as Chinese Buddhism. From the time Buddhism entered China around the Han dynasty to the year 400; specific elements of Buddhism were emphasized only if they were synchronized with existing Chinese beliefs. From 400-600, Buddhism in China was reinterpreted without cultural bias, Chinese thinkers sought to understand the faith from its origins which often meant embracing an Indian or Central Asian perspective. This shift in thinking coincided with India entering its ‘golden age’ under the Gupta government, which saw India make advancements in many fields like science, philosophy and engineering, allowing India to rise as the cultural and intellectual heartbeat of Asia.

However as the Tang rose to prominence in the 6th century, the imbalance of power tipped in favour of China, creating the ideal situation to nourish a Chinese interpretation of Buddhism that rejected external readings. The first signs of India losing its grip upon Buddhist dogma occurred in 601 and 602 when the Sui emperor Wen ordered a large festival to celebrate China’s possessions of the Buddha’s remains. This claim legitimized China’s influence on the changing nature of Buddhist teachings. Emperor Wen also ordered texts recording the festival to be translated into Sanskrit symbolically reversing the movement of religious writings and ingraining a uniquely Chinese perspective into Buddhism.

As the Tang Empire started to rule China, India began to transition out of its golden period of discovery and innovation and increasingly Central Asian was experiencing Islamification. This influx of foreign culture into India eventually resulted in the Muslim conquest by the 9th century which drove Buddhism out its stronghold; the Ganges. Reinforcing the relocation of Buddhism into China was the belief that by the 6th century Buddhism was slowly fading into obscurity within India and the Asian continent in general. Thus when Buddhism was re-established in Tang China, there was a belief that the new age of the religion required new texts to spread a modern approach to the dogma. As stated before, there are vast differences between the more tradition variants of Tibetan and Indian Buddhism in contrast to the Chinese version: These included a stronger focus on deities and the importance of master-disciple lineages in the latter. The sinification of Buddhism is clear as the significance of the master-disciple lineages is a direct link to Confucian ideals such as a hierarchical male-eccentric society and beliefs such as filial piety. Other examples of sinification include the assimilation of famous Indian Buddhist figures like King Manjusri which by the 11th century it was widely accepted that he was born in the western regions of China.

This sinification of Buddhism is a key element of the Tang dynasty which had major repercussions in following chapters of Chinese history. Even today the perception of Buddhism as a belief system which originated not from India but rather East Asia still persists. The breakdown of trade routes from China to Central Asia due to the rise of Islam meant that China looked towards the East for trade and expansion, another factor why Chinese Buddhism contains many unorthodox concepts in comparison to Indian or Tibetan variants.

The rise of Buddhism in China was partly responsible for Mongolia’s eventual adoption of the belief and thus planted the seeds for a very complicated Tibet and China relationship; one which has originally started from that of a priest and master respectively. Likewise as the popularity of Daoism faded particularly in the Yuan dynasty, Buddhism gradually became more intertwined with politics with rulers like the Tang Empress Wu stating she was the reincarnation of Maitrya, an action which was not uncommon.

The Tang dynasty was a period of immense change in Chinese culture and identity, however underlying this transformation, aspects of Chinese society was becoming progressively more distinct, particularly in the second half of the empire. The three elements of change, Buddhism, commercialization and the adoption of nomadic practices, discussed within this essay is highly interwoven and their impact on society should be acknowledged as a whole instead of being analysed as separate factors.


Without the Tang terminating some customs like the annual division of government owned land or restricting the influence of the elite families, trends like capitalism or urbanization would not have happened. The exchange of goods and products would later lead to the spread of Chinese philosophy amongst East Asia and it is argued part of the reason why Buddhism first appeared in China was because of the demand of silk in India. Similarly the rise of the Tang and the adoption of horse riding and assimilation of levirate marriage into court signified the blurring of Chinese identity. The Tang dynasty was and is regarded as the model for a perfect Chinese state, which was economically and militaristically successful whilst still being fundamentally Chinese. Ironically, on a closer examination the Tang Dynasty was also responsible for incorporating many cultural values which was considered alien to many of its subjects; forever changing the dichotomies of ‘Chineseness’.