The An Lushan Rebellion
& the Decline of the Tang
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 Guifei).
The emperor 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]

Suppressing the Rebellion
& its Aftermath

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.
        The 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]

Raising Revenues
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, w
here 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, 207-8]
The only things that are certain in life are
death ... and [twice-a-year] taxes!
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 Twice-a-Year Tax
Yang Yan’s Memorial
The way to handle all government expenses and tax collections is first to calculate the amount needed and then to allocate 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, 555]
  • What were the advantages of the Twice-a-Year tax system?
  • What were its defects?
  • How 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]

Confucian Reactions
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. …

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]

[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]
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, already high;

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 damask,

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?

Han Yu
[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]
  • What are Han Yu’s objections to Buddhism in this memorial?
  • On what other grounds did Han Yu criticize Buddhism?
  • Was his critique successful?

The Transmission of the Way
After 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, wee 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]
  • What is the significance of Han Yu’s understanding of the “Transmission of the Way”?