Tang Dynasty
Society & Culture
The Tang Capital

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 rectancle. ... 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 estimatd 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 sacrficie 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 citys 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]

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]
The 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 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]

Quiet Night Thoughts

Jng Y Sī
[quiet] [night] [think]

Bright moonlight before my bed;
Chung qin mng yu guāng
[bed] [front] [bright] [moon] [light]

I suppose it is frost on the ground.
Y sh dshng shuāng
[suspect] [is] [ground] [on] [frost]

I raise my head to view the bright moon,
Jǔ tu wng mng yu
[raise] [head] [look] [bright] [moon]

then lower it, thinking of my home village.
Dītu sī gxiāng
[lower] [head] [think of] [old] [home village]

In commoner’s robes, a man of Duling,
As he ages, his ideas fall deeper into naivet 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 decived 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 Houshold Guard. ...
Around Vermillion 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.

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 Merchants
According to 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 Changan 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
Bai Xingjian (776-827)
A short story written in 795, but set in pre-755 Changan, 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]
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 Hsan-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 Hsan-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, Hsan-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 Hsan-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 empitome 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]

The 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 thrunder, 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 jumpted 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]
After 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 Tathatgata 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 avarious 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]