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Tang Dynasty: Government, Economy & Trade

Instructor: Margaret Moran
The Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) is often described as a Golden Age in China's history. How did they gain this reputation? This lesson will discuss three aspects of the Tang achievement: the government, the economy, and trade.

Background

One of the best known periods in Chinese history is the Tang dynasty, which ruled from 618 to 907 CE. The Tang dynasty is considered to be one of the high points in China's history due to their implementation of new forms of governance, as well as an approach to trade that included ideas, innovations and communication as well as material goods. The economy of China was dynamic during this time period, alternating between devastation and moments of new economic growth and possibilities. Tang policies helped to shape a period in time that saw increased stability, population, and happiness for those in China.

Tang dynasty influence in 700 CE.
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Government

Among the first things that the Tang dynasty did was to put forth a new legal code. The first Tang emperor, Gaozu, revised the previous dynasty's ideas and implemented the new changes as his own. The Tang legal system would become the model for its successors. Vietnam, Korea and even Japan would also use the policies of the Tang code to adjust their own systems of laws.

One innovation in the legal code was to determine the severity of punishment based on who committed a crime; for example, if a lord struck a servant as opposed to when a servant struck a lord. This system assigned punishment based on the social or political rank of the guilty party. This legal code would remain largely unchanged as far into the future as the early Ming dynasty of the 14th century.

Another innovation that allowed the Golden Age to blossom during the Tang dynasty was its new emphasis on Confucian studies as preparation for the Imperial Examination, a test which selected government officials. It had been a tradition since the Han dynasty for civil service candidates to read the rules and orders that had been crafted from Confucian philosophy. The Tang dynasty used the examination method to bring balance in the government between those who were of the noble houses, and those who were not. They broadened their selection system to ensure that no one noble house gained too much power, thus avoiding the possibility of a warlord who could take power from the Tang.

The Imperial Examination was opened to many new social circles, and introducing this form of competition into the government selection system allowed many well-qualified people to join the political structure. The new focus on Confucian texts helped to create a more cultured class of bureaucrats, who had studied poetry and philosophy rather than focusing on military training. However, this new process also led to government officials lacking a certain amount of practical knowledge, since the exam did not test for technical prowess.

Trade

The Tang dynasty prospered because of its open trade with the neighboring countries, both by sea and overland along the Silk Road, a route that was originally formed during the Han dynasty. The Tang dynasty reopened the Silk Road in 639 after securing the stability and safety of the route through conquest of hostile neighboring states along the route.

During this time long-distance trade did not just transport goods and luxuries; it was also a lifeline of ideas and innovation from Persia, India, and the countries of the Middle East and Central Asia. These innovations changed the ways of fashion, gave Chinese artists new forms of ceramics, and allowed them to learn stronger ways to craft silver, to give just a few examples.

An example of Tang dynasty-era art which features influences from India.
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