The Tang Capital
With the founding of the empire, Chinese society
assumed the contours it would retain for the next two thousand years.
During the Warring States period, social commentators envisioned a
society of two classes: the privileged aristocracy and the laboring
masses. But after 221 B.C.E., observers ranked society into four groups:
scholars, peasants, artisans, and merchants. (The Open Empire, 93)
During the Tang dynasty,
the city’s population may have reached one million people, with some
five hundred thousand inside the city walls and as many
outside. ... Changan was a large city, with the outer walls stretching
9.5 kilometers (5.92 miles) long along the east-west axis and 8.4
kilometers (5.27 miles) along the north-south axis. Five meters (5
yards) high, these walls were made of pounded earth covered with
bricks; they formed a perfect rectangle. ... The Changan planners placed the palace
flush against the north wall and allowed sufficient space for two
markets to the south of the palace. The emperor and the imperial family
lived in the palace in the north of the city; this was not open to the
public, but almost everything else in the city was.
South of the palace was the home of the central
government, which divided the task of governing among six ministries,
called the Six Boards: Revenue, Civil Appointments, Rites, Public
Works, Punishments, and War. These remained in use until the beginning
of the twentieth century. Supervising the Six Boards was the Department
of State Affairs, and the Secretariat-Chancellery, which drafted
documents, a key task in governing the empire. The chancellor, the head
of State Affairs, advised the emperor on policy, which his department
was charged with implementing.
The center of the foreign quarter was the Western Market, around which clustered Chang’an’s sizable foreign population — sometimes estimated at one-third of the city’s
total population. Non-Chinese residents built religious institutions
dedicated to the religions of their homelands. Sogdian merchants
continued to sacrfice live animals at Zoroastrian fire altars.
Travelers from Syria embraced the Christianity of the Church of the
East, whose teachings held that Christ had two different natures: the
human from his mother Mary and the divine from his father the Lord. ...
The visitor to Chang’an in
the seventh century would have been struck by the high number of
Buddhist temples. Resident monks conducted funerals, prayed for the
dead, and celebrated the various holidays of the calendar, including
Buddha’s birthday in the fourth month and the
festival of the dead in the eighth. Because Buddhist teachings also
stressed helping others, even strangers, the monks offered many
services to the city’s
inhabitants, including free dispensaries, pawnshops, hostels, and
public baths. The city hired Buddhists to run hospitals, and awarded
them bonuses if less than one-fifth of their patients died. (The Open Empire, 185-7)
officials, who commanded enormous sums of disposable
wealth, patronized the popular musical troupes of Central Asian women
who played new instruments, like the pipa, similar to a guitar, and who
performed at parties while seated on platforms carried by camels. The
city also hosted those who hoped to become officials, the exam
candidates. Of the five to seven thousand candidates (0.01 percent of
the population of sixty million) who arrived each year to take the
examinations, some came with large spending allowances while others had
to scrimp. ...Because the government
used [the examination system] to recruit men of good character,
examiners had to know the candidates. Those taking the examinations
made a practice of regularly visiting their examiners, giving them
samples of their writing (called warming-the-exam papers) and trying to
impress them. The exams themselves tested types of writing that only
those brought up in good families could be expected to know. Poetry was
a regular part of the advanced degree, and the poems that candidates
wrote had to follow a rigid form, not unlike an English sonnet, to get
full points. The examiners were much more interested in mastery of the
form, which indicated the right background, than in originality of the
poem. The importance of poetry in the curriculum of the educated
gentleman prompted an explosion in poetry writing. Some of China’s most
famous poets lived during the Tang period. (The Open Empire, 187-9)
|A Tale of Two (or Three) Poets
Last year we were fighting at the source of the Sangan;
This year we are fighting on the Onion River road.
We have washed our swords in the surf of Parthian seas;
We have pastured our horses among the snows of the Tian Shan.
The King’s armies have grown gray and old
Fighting ten thousand leagues away from home.
The Huns have no trade but battle and carnage;
They have no fields or ploughlands,
But only wastes where white bones lie among yellow sands.
Where the House of Qin built the great wall that was to keep away the Tartars,
There, in its turn, the House of Han lit beacons of war.
The beacons are always alight, fighting and marching never stop.
Men die in the field, slashing sword to sword;
The horses of the conquered neigh piteously to Heaven.
Crows and hawks peck for human guts,
Carry them in their beaks and hang them on the branches of withered trees.
Captains and soldiers are smeared on the bushes and grass;
The General schemed in vain.
Know therefore that the sword is a cursed thing
Which the wise man uses only if he must. (Sources of Chinese Tradition (SCT), 565-6)
Bright moonlight before my bed;
Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng
[bed] [front] [bright] [moon] [light]
I suppose it is frost on the ground.
Yí shì dìshàng shuāng
[suspect] [is] [ground] [on] [frost]
I raise my head to view the bright moon,
Jǔ tóu wàng míng yuè
[raise] [head] [look] [bright] [moon]
then lower it, thinking of my home village.
Dītóu sī gùxiāng
[lower] [head] [think of] [old] [home village]
In commoner’s robes, a man of Duling,
As he ages, his ideas fall deeper into naiveté and foolishness,
And the goals to which he vows himself — simpleminded —
In the secret heart comparing himself to Hou Ji, Zhou’s ancestor, to Jie, the Shang’s founder.
But he may be deceived and instead become a useless vacancy,
Hair now white and willing to meet long suffering:
When the coffin lid closes, the matter is done.
And yet my goals still and forever long for fulfillment. ...
It was year’s end; all plants shriveled and fell,
The rushing wind split the high hills,
The avenues of the capital were dark canyons
As the traveler set out at midnight.
His stiffened belt cracked in the harsh frost.
And fingers, stiff and straight, could not tie back the ends.
Then, by dawn’s breaking, I passed the Li Mountain Villa,
A royal bed set on towering heights
Where battle flags blocked a cold and empty sky,
Where slopes and valleys were worn smooth by the tramp of armies.
There from the hot springs, vapor curled upward past the clack and clatter of the Household Guard. ...
Around Vermilion Gates, the reek of meat and wine
Over streets where lie the bones of the frozen dead. ...
I had lodged my wife off in a different country, ten mouths to protect from the winds and snow.
Who could go long without looking to them?
I hoped now to share their hunger and thirst.
I came through the gate. I heard a crying out,
my youngest child had died of starvation. ...
And this thought obsesses me — as a father,
Lack of food resulted in infant death:
I could not have known that even after harvest
Through our poverty there would be such distress.
All my life I’ve been exempt from taxes,
and my name is not registered for conscription.
Brooding on what I have lived through, if even I know such suffering,
the common man must surely be rattled by the winds:
then thoughts silently turn to those who have lost all livelihood
and to troops in far garrisons.
Sorrow’s source is as huge as South Mountain,
a formless, whirling chaos that the hand cannot grasp. (SCT, 566-7)
During the Clear Brightness Festival, the rain was tumultuous and uneasy.
On the road, a traveler intended to sever his spirit.
He inquired where the tavern was.
The shepherd boy pointed in the distance to the apricot blossom village.
The moon sets, crows cry in the frosty air.
Under maple trees by the river, a fisherman’s light disturbs my sleep.
Outside Suzhou city, from Hanshan Temple
The midnight bell comes to my boat.
In subsequent centuries the examinations would become a
means of recruiting talent rather than men with suitable family
background. In the Tang, those men who failed the exams could still be
appointed to office, though they might not rise as high in the
bureaucracy as those with the prestige of having passed the
examinations. Most of those who passed the Tang examinations, however,
came from exactly the social class the system was designed to protect:
the scholar-officials. (The Open Empire, 189)
The merchants endured a
high degree of government supervision, but the life of the common
people in the city was just as regulated and not nearly as
comfortable. ... Thousands were employed in menial jobs running shops,
maintaining gardens, cleaning streets, tending horses, and peddling
goods. ... The life of the common people did have its compensations. They
could get medicine from Buddhist clinics not widely available elsewhere
in the empire. The lunar New Year marked the coming of spring and was a
time of great celebration. The fifteenth day of the first month was the
lantern festival, and in 715 the emperor erected a structure 45 meters
(150 feet) high laden with fifty thousand lanterns for the pleasure of the
city’s inhabitants. On this day people did not have to go to work and
they feasted, eating meat for perhaps the only time each year. The rest
of the year they ate a diet of wheat and millet gruel, supplemented by
vegetables. They also went outside the city on temple visits, which
provided welcome respite from the drudgery of their daily lives. (The Open Empire, 191-2)
the SPAM model, merchants ranked at the bottom of the society. They were banned from the civil service
exams in the years before 755. Although the SPAM model ranked merchants
below peasants and artisans, in actuality, merchants were much better off than those
who worked with their hands. A normative scheme, the SPAM model did not
describe the social reality of China. Many envied merchants’ wealth.
After all, their riches made Chang’an bustle, and they brought goods all
the way from Samarkand and India to the [west] and Japan to the [east].
Sumptuary laws restricted the size and type of decoration of merchant
houses, but many had the
means to circumvent these laws. (The Open Empire, 189)
The Tale of Li Wa
A short story written in 795, but set in pre-755
Chang’an, allows a glimpse of what life was like for the different
social groups in the city. ... It is the story of a young examination
candidate who goes from riches to rags and back again to riches. (The Open Empire, 192)
Bai Xingjian (776-827)
|What does “The Tale of Li Wa” tell us about social distinctions in the Tang capital?
The Journey to the West is a comic fantasy based on the pilgrimage of the monk Hsüan-tsang [Xuanzang]
(596-664), also known as Tripitaka (“Three Baskets,” i.e., the Buddhist
Canon), to India for the purpose of collecting Buddhist scriptures. ...
From the factual travelog written by the monk himself and a
biography of him written by his disciples, the story of Hsüan-tsang’s passage to India underwent a long period of development
through various forms of popular literature ... culminating in the
one-hundred chapter novel .... As portrayed in the novel, Hsüan-tsang is accompanied by four disciples of superhuman ability. Foremost among them is Sun Wu-k’ung [Sun Wukong] whose name may quite literally be interpreted as “The Monkey Who is Enlightened to Vacuity.” In many ways, the novel may be said to be more about Sun Wu-k’ung than about Hsüan-tsang, ostensibly the main character. Next comes Chu Pa-chieh [Zhu Bajie] whose revealing name may be rendered as “The Pig of Eight Prohibitions.” He is the epitome of sensuality, slothfulness, and gargantuan appetite. Sha Ho-shang [Sha Heshang]
(“Sand Monk”), a cannibalistic monster symbolizing the dangers of the
desert, is converted by Kuan-yin (Avalokitesvara), the salvific
Bodhisattva of Compassion. Lastly, there is the faithful white horse
who was originally a dragon prince. (The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, 966)|
two sages explained [to the Buddha] as follows: “Some time ago there
was born on the Flower-Fruit Mountain a monkey who exercised his magic
powers and gathered to himself a troop of monkeys to disturb the world.
The Jade Emperor threw down a decree of pacification and appointed him
a pi-ma-wen, but he despised the lowliness of that position and left in
rebellion. Devaraja Li and Prince Nata were sent to capture him, but
they were unsuccessful, and another proclamation of amnesty was given
to him. He was then made the Great Sage, Equal to Heaven, a rank
without compensation. After a while he was given the temporary job of
looking after the Garden of Immortal Peaches, where almost immediately
he stole the peaches. He also went to the Jasper Pool and made off with
the food and wine, devastating the Grand Festival. Half-Drunk, he went
secretly into the Tushita Palace, stole the elixir of Lao Tzu, and then
left the Celestial Palace in revolt. Again the Jade Emperor sent a
hundred thousand heavenly soldiers, but he was not to be subdued.
Therefore Kuanyin sent for the Immortal Master Erh-lang and his sworn
brothers, who fought and pursued him. Even then he knew many tricks of
transformation, and only after he was hit by Lao Tzu’s diamond snare
could Erh-lang finally capture him. Taken before the Throne, he was
condemned to be executed; but, though slashed by a scimitar and hewn by
an ax, burned by fire and struck by thunder, he was not hurt at all.
After Lao Tzu had received royal permission to take him away, he was
refined by fire, and the brazier was not opened until the forty-ninth
day. Immediately he jumped out of the Brazier of Eight Trigrams and
beat back the celestial guardians. He penetrated into the Hall of
Perfect Light and was approaching the Hall of Divine Mists when Wang
Ling-kuan, aide to the Immortal Master of Adjuvant Holiness, met and
fought with him bitterly. Thirty-six thunder generals were ordered to
encircle him completely, but they could never get near him. The
situation is desperate, and for this reason, the Jade Emperor sent a
special request for you to defend the Throne.” (The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, 972)|
the Buddhist Patriarch Tathagata had vanquished the monstrous monkey,
he at once called Ananda and Kasyapa to return with him to the Western
Paradise. At that moment, however, T’ien-p’eng and T’ien-yu, two
heavenly messengers, came running out of the Treasure Hall of Divine
Mists and said, “We beg Tathagata to wait a moment, please! Our Lord’s
grand carriage will arrive momentarily.” When the Buddhist Patriarch
heard these words, he turned around and waited with reverence. In a
moment he did indeed see a chariot drawn by eight colorful phoenixes
and covered by a canopy adorned with nine luminous jewels. The entire
cortege was accompanied by the sound of wondrous songs and melodies,
chanted by a vast celestial choir. Scattering precious blossoms and
diffusing fragrant incense, it came up to the Buddha, and the Jade
Emperor offered his thanks, saying, “We are truly indebted to your
might dharma for vanquishing that monster. We beseech Tathagata to
remain for one brief day, so that we may invite the immortals to join
us in giving you a banquet of thanks.” ... The Jade Emperor then
ordered the various deities from the Thunder Department to send
invitations abroad to the Three Pure Ones, the Four Minsters, the Five
Elders, the Six Women Officials, the Seven Stars, the Eight Poles, the
Nine Luminaries, and the Ten Capitals. ... Tathagata was asked to be
seated high on the Spirit Platform of Seven Treasures, and the rest of
the deities were then seated according to rank and age before a banquet
of dragon livers, phoenix marrow, juices of jade, and immortal
peaches. (The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, 975-6)|