The Emperor & the Consort
Although Emperor Xuanzong (reigned 712-756) is credited with
restoring the Tang dynasty after Empress Wu’s interregnum, and although he
ruled over a prosperous and powerful empire for more than forty years, his own
reign ended ignominiously when his once-loyal general An Lushan rose up against
him. Sometime in the 740s, as Emperor Xuanzong was nearly sixty, he fell in
love with the wife of one of his sons. She left her husband and temporarily
became a Daoist adept. ... After a brief period of ostensible devotion, the woman
joined Xuanzong’s household and was given the title Precious Consort Yang (Yang
and his consort were very close, but she was also drawn to a part-Turkish,
part-Sogdian general named An Lushan, whom she adopted as her honorary son in
751. ... Later historians presume that the foreign general and Precious Consort
Yang had an affair, but there is no clear evidence that they did. ... In the decade leading up to
755, An Lushan became so involved in court intrigue that one faction at
court plotted to murder him for his disloyalty to Emperor Xuanzong.
Meanwhile, the emperor continued to support him and in 754 even
proposed naming him chief minister; his enemies, however, argued that
his illiteracy disqualified him. The emperor compromised by appointing
him Commissioner of the Imperial Stables, a position that allowed An to
purchase many new horses for his army. This was a dangerous position to
give to someone whom others suspected of plotting a revolt.
The situation at court worsened,
and in 755, when the emperor summoned An Lushan to attend the wedding of one of
his sons, General An refused. The emperor sent an envoy, but the general
refused him even the most basic courtesy of standing in his presence. Four
months later the general rebelled. The advantage lay with his powerful army,
and his forces took the eastern capital of Luoyang with ease. A few months later, after
a particularly disastrous defeat, the emperor, accompanied by a few troops and
Precious Consort Yang, fled Chang’an for Sichuan. Blaming Precious Consort Yang for their predicament, the troops mutinied and
refused to go on unless the emperor killed his beloved concubine. Giving in to
the mutineers’ wishes, the emperor ordered his chief eunuch to strangle her. (The Open Empire, 201-4)
... It was early spring. They bathed her in the Flower-Pure Pool,
Which warmed and smoothed the creamy-tinted crystal of her skin,
And, because of her languor, a maid was lifting her
When first the Emperor noticed her and chose her for his bride.
... And the Emperor, from that time forth, forsook his early hearings
And lavished all his time on her with feasts and revelry,
His mistress of the spring, his despot of the night.
... The Emperor’s eyes could never gaze on her enough —
Till war-drums, booming from Yuyang, shocked the whole earth ...
The imperial flag opened the way, now moving and now pausing —
But thirty miles from the capital, beyond the western gate,
The men of the army stopped, not one of them would stir
Till under their horses’ hoofs they might trample those moth-eyebrows ...
Flowery hairpins fell to the ground, no one picked them up,
And a green and white jade hair-tassel and a yellow-gold hair-bird.
The Emperor could not save her, he could only cover his face.
And later when he turned to look, the place of blood and tears ... (OE, 206)
- What is the historical value of this poem?
Suppressing the Rebellion
Internal schisms surfaced following the rebels’
early success in 755, and after the assassination of their commander An
Lushan in early 757, the rebel forces split into two factions, one led
by An Lushan’s son, the other by a rival general. ... After a long
stalemate, the rebellion finally ended in 763, following the suicide of
the rebels’ leading general. ... The violence of the rebellion and its suppression destroyed
the cities that lay in the rebel’s path and wrecked the equal-field system.
During the years it took the court to put the rebels down, the government had
neither the manpower nor the funds to carry out the triannual land and
population surveys the equal-field system demanded. The number of registered
households in the Tang Empire dropped from nine million in 755 to two million
in 760 — not because the population diminished but because the system of
household registration was not enforced. After the rebellion, the tax base of
the empire shrank to less than one-third of what it had been.
& its Aftermath
rebellion forced the emperor to share power with the military governors who
ruled both the frontier provinces and those in the interior. These newly
empowered governors commanded their own armies, which they funded from the tax
revenues of the areas they governed. In 763, at the end of the rebellion, the court
named four rebel generals to serve as the military governors of Hebei, one of the richest provinces in China’s
heartland. When these newly appointed military governors seceded by refusing to
pay taxes, the center lost over one-quarter of the empire’s population and the
tax revenues they produced. Hebei and Henan were the first
areas to drop off, but over the next century and a half, as more and more
provinces followed suit, the Tang succumbed to a diminution it was powerless to
combat. (OE, 207)
The Salt Monopoly
The desperate court appointed special commissioners
for taxation, whose task was to raise revenues in any way possible.
They tried selling offices, speculating with the money supply, and
taxing trade; they soon found that the salt monopoly could produce the
highest revenues with the least manpower. Salt was produced in only a
few areas, either along the
coast or in Sichuan,
where salty brine could be mined. In both places, saltwater was poured into
large pans where it was allowed to evaporate. As long as the state maintained
direct control over the area of production, it could buy up all the salt
produced there and sell it to merchants. The populace at large could then buy
the salt, a crucial element in their diet. The merchants
who distributed the salt all over the empire were responsible for collecting
the salt tax for the state. This was a genuine and lucrative innovation. In
779, the salt monopoly produced half the central government’s revenues. (OE,
The state continued to collect the tax on agricultural
production but it was forced to develop a new method of taxation. In 780, it
launched the two-tax system, a twice-yearly collection of taxes in summer and
autumn, as the replacement for the defunct equal-field system. Each province
was assigned a quota, which the military governors paid to the center, and then
local government officials distributed the tax burden among the local
population as they saw fit. (OE, 208)
|The only things that are certain in life are
death ... and [twice-a-year] taxes!
The Twice-a-Year Tax
The way to handle all government expenses and
collections is first to calculate the amount needed and then to
the tax among the people. Thus the income of the state would be
governed according to its expenses. All households should be registered
in their places of actual residence, without regard to whether they
are native households or non-native. All persons should be graded
according to their wealth, without regard to whether they are fully
adult or only half adult. Those who do not have a permanent residence
and do business as traveling merchants should be taxed in whatever
prefecture or subprefecture they are located at the rate of
one-thirtieth [of their capital holdings]. It is estimated that the
amount taken from them will be the same as that paid by those having
fixed domicile, so that they could not expect to gain from chance
avoidance of the tax. The tax paid by residents should be collected
twice a year, during the summer and autumn. All practices that cause
annoyance to the people should be corrected. The separate land and
labor tax, and all miscellaneous labor services, should be abolished,
and yet the count of the able-bodied adults should still be kept. (SCT,
Yang Yan’s Memorial
were the advantages of the Twice-a-Year tax system?
were its defects?
did this change in the system of taxation affect the relationship of power
between the central government and the regional elite?
When the Tang dynasty developed the new
two-tax system and the salt monopoly in response to the rebellion ... the direct
bond between the central government and the producer was snapped. The
government no longer maintained any records concerning the landholdings or
output of any individual cultivator. ... The central government’s withdrawal from
direct management of the economy after 755 marks a major turning point in
Chinese history. Before the rebellion, despite some evasion, the central
government knew how much land everyone had and who worked it. After the
rebellion, the central authorities lacked those records and were forced to rely
on locally powerful families to collect taxes for them. They were permanently
weakened as a result. (OE, 221-2)
to Dynastic Decline
The Poet Bai Juyi
|In 799, Bai passed the local examinations and so earned the
right to sit for the national exams, but still he faced many obstacles. … Those
grading the examinations knew all the candidates, and the chief examiners often
rewarded the sons of powerful official families with high scores. Even though
Bai’s father and grandfather had been officials, he saw himself as being
outside the privileged classes. …
| [However, in] 800, for once, the exams
were graded on the basis of merit, not social connections, and Bai
received a first-class literary degree. ... [After sitting for two more high-level
examinations] Bai won a very low-ranking and low-paid post in the Palace
Library that required him to go to the library only one or two times a month.
It was at this time that Bai published a collection of one hundred judgments on
different topics, which were then sold in bookstores, presumably to other
examination candidates. (OE, 208-9)
The Exam System
When all the candidates are known to
one, how can one possibly reject the ones with the most outstanding talents.
Since the only valid objection to merchants is that they are petty and low, how
can you reject one of them who proves to be excellent and outstanding? If you
found gold among gravel, you surely would not refuse to pick it up just because
it was found mixed up with worthless material. … There is ample proof to be found
in past experience that it is possible to select officials from among the
children of mean traders. (OE, 210)
Palace Marketing System
“An Old Charcoal-Seller”
Cutting wood and burning charcoal in
the forest of the Southern Mountain.
His face, stained with dust and ashes,
has turned to the color of smoke.
The hair on his temples is streaked
with gray: his ten fingers are black.
The money he gets by selling charcoal,
how far does it go?
It is just enough to clothe his limbs
and put food in his mouth.
Although, alas, the coat on his back is
a coat without lining,
He hopes for the coming of cold
weather, to send up the price of coal!
Last night, outside the city, — a whole
foot of snow;
At dawn he drives the charcoal wagon
along the frozen ruts.
Oxen, — weary; man, — hungry: the sun,
Outside the Gate, to the south of the
Market, at last they stop in the mud.
Suddenly, a pair of prancing horsemen.
Who can it be coming?
A public official in a yellow coat and
a boy in a white shirt.
In their hands they hold a written
warrant: on their tongues — the words of an order;
They turn back the wagon and curse the
oxen, leading them off to the north.
A whole wagon of charcoal,
More than a thousand catties!
If officials choose to take it away,
the woodman may not complain.
Half a roll of red silk and ten feet of
The Courtiers have tied to the oxen’s
collar, as the price of a wagon of coal!
(The Open Empire, 1st Edition, 232-3)
- What do these critiques tell us about the
evolving role of the Confucian scholar-official?
- How was Bai Juyi “rewarded” for his attempts to
serve the empire as a loyal statesman?
- How might they signal a more fundamental shift
in the Confucian tradition itself?
[Although Bai Juyi was drawn to Buddhism in the later years
of his life], many officials criticized it. In 819, Bai’s friend Han Yu most
famously denounced Buddhism as a foreign religion. ... [Han Yu was deeply dismayed
by an imperially sponsored elaborate procession of relics from the Dharma Gate Monastery to the
capital], prompting him to write an official document, or memorial, to the
emperor in protest …
| A Critique of Buddhism[They] burn the crowns of their heads
and roast their fingers in groups of tens or hundreds. They untie their
clothing and scatter coins from morning till evening. They do so in mutual
emulation, fearing only to fall behind. Young or old, they ceaselessly rush to
sacrifice their patrimony. If an end is not called to these manifestations
forthwith and further transfers of the relic from monastery to monastery take
place, then there will certainly be some who shall consider severing their arms
or pieces of their bodies [as] a form of veneration. (OE, 215-6)
the traditions of the Zhou dynasty declined and Confucius passed away,
there was the burning of the books in Qin and the rise of Daoism in the
Han and of Buddhism in the Jin, Wei, Liang, and Sui dynasties. During
these times those who spoke of humaneness and rightness, of the Way and
its power, were either followers of Yang Zhu or Mozi, Laozi or Buddha.
To adopt one of these, one had to reject the others; so when believers
took these men as their masters and followed them, they despised and
defamed Confucius. And those of later ages who might wish to hear of
the teachings on humaneness and rightness, the Way and its power, had no
one to listen to. ... In antiquity there were four classes of subjects;
now there are six. In antiquity only one class were teachers; now there
are three. For each farmer there are six people that consume his
produce. For each craftsman six use his products. For each merchant,
there are six people who must live off his profits. Under such
conditions, is it any wonder the people are impoverished and driven to
brigandage? ... [What I call the Way] is not what the Daoists and
Buddhists have called the Way. Yao passed it on to Shun, Shun to Yu, Yu
to Tang, Tang to King Wen, King Wu, and the Duke of Zhou; then these
passed it on to Confucius, who passed it on to Mencius. But after the
death of Mencius it was not passed on. (SCT, 570-3)
The Transmission of the Way