Jun 182014


On this date in 618 Li Yuan became Emperor Gaozu of Tang, initiating three centuries of Tang Dynasty rule over China. Under the failing Sui dynasty, Li Yuan was the governor in the area of modern-day Shanxi, and was based in Taiyuan. In 615, Li Yuan was assigned to garrison Longxi. He gained military and administrative experience by dealing with the incursions of Göktürks from the north. Li Yuan was also able to gather support from these successes and, with the disintegration of the Sui dynasty in July 617, Li Yuan – urged on by his second son Li Shimin (the eventual Emperor Taizong) – rose in rebellion. Using the title of “Great Chancellor” (大丞相), Li Yuan installed a puppet child emperor, Emperor Gong, but eventually removed him altogether and established the Tang Dynasty in 618 as Emperor. His son and successor Li Shimin honored him as Gaozu (“high founder”) after his death.


Emperor Gaozu’s reign was focused on uniting the empire under the Tang see map). Aided by Li Shimin, whom he created the Prince of Qin, he defeated all the other contenders, including Li Gui, Dou Jiande, Wang Shichong, Xue Rengao and Liu Wuzhou. By 628, the Tang Dynasty had succeeded in uniting all of China. On the home front, he recognized the early successes forged by Emperor Wen of Sui and strove to emulate most of Emperor Wen’s policies, including the equal distribution of land amongst his people. He also lowered taxes. He abandoned the harsh system of law established by Emperor Yang of Sui as well as reforming the judicial system. These acts of reform paved the way for the reign of Emperor Taizong, which ultimately pushed Tang to the height of its power, and a cultural golden age.

In 626, Li Shimin, in a dispute with his brothers Li Jiancheng, the Crown Prince, and Li Yuanji, the Prince of Qi, ambushed Li Jiancheng and Li Yuanji at Xuanwu Gate, killing them. Fearful of what Li Shimin might do next, Emperor Gaozu passed the throne to him and became Taishang Huang (retired emperor). He died in 635.

Both the Sui and Tang Dynasties turned away from the more feudal culture of the preceding Northern Dynasties, in favor of staunch civil Confucianism. The governmental system was supported by a large class of Confucian intellectuals selected through either civil service examinations or recommendations. In the Tang period, Daoism and Buddhism reigned as core ideologies as well, and played a large role in people’s daily lives, as did indigenous folk religion.

tang foreigners

The Tang capital of Chang’an was the largest city in the world at its time, the population of the city wards and its suburban countryside reaching 2 million inhabitants. Chang’an was very cosmopolitan, with residents from Persia, Central Asia, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, India, and other places. With widely open access to China via the Silk Road, many foreign settlers were able to move east to China; the city of Chang’an itself had about 25,000 foreigners living there. At first under the Tang, foreign men could marry Chinese women, but they were required to remain in China. Eventually segregation laws were passed requiring foreigners to wear their ethnic dress at all times, and forbidding marriage with Chinese women.


The Tang period was a golden age of Chinese literature and art. There are over 48,900 poems written by around 2,200 Tang authors that have survived until modern times. Skill in the composition of poetry was required for those wishing to pass imperial examinations. Poetry was also heavily competitive; poetry contests amongst guests at banquets and courtiers were common. Poetry styles that were popular in the Tang included gushi and jintishi, with the renowned poet Li Bai (701–762) famous for the former style, and poets like Wang Wei (701–761) and Cui Hao (704–754) famous for their use of the latter. Jintishi poetry, or regulated verse, is in the form of eight-line stanzas of seven characters per line with a fixed pattern of tones that required the second and third couplets to be antithetical (all of which is lost in translation to other languages).


The Classical Prose Movement was spurred on in large part by the writings of Tang authors Liu Zongyuan (773–819) and Han Yu (768–824). This new prose style broke away from the poetic, or ‘piantiwen’ style, begun in the Han dynasty. Although writers of the Classical Prose Movement imitated ‘piantiwen’, they criticized it for its often vague content and lack of colloquial language, focusing more on clarity and precision to make their writing more direct.

Short story fiction and tales were also popular during the Tang, one of the more famous ones being Yingying’s Biography by Yuan Zhen (779–831), which was widely circulated in his own time and by the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) became the basis for plays in Chinese opera. Love tales were exceptionally popular, following a basic plot design of quick passion, inescapable societal pressure leading to the abandonment of romance, followed by a period of melancholy. Unlike Western classics such as Romeo and Juliet, love always bows to social pressure.

There were extensive encyclopedias published in the Tang era on a variety of subjects. The Yiwen Leiju encyclopedia was compiled in 624 by the chief editor Ouyang Xun (557–641) as well as Linghu Defen (582–666) and Chen Shuda (d. 635). The encyclopedia Treatise on Astrology of the Kaiyuan Era was completed in 729 by Gautama Siddha (fl. 8th century), an ethnic Indian astronomer, astrologer, and scholar born in the capital Chang’an.

tang star map

Chinese geographers such as Jia Dan wrote accurate descriptions of places far abroad. In his work written between 785 and 805, he described the sea route going into the mouth of the Persian Gulf, and that the medieval Iranians (whom he called the people of Luo-He-Yi) had erected ‘ornamental pillars’ in the sea that acted as lighthouse beacons for ships that might go astray. Confirming Jia’s reports about lighthouses in the Persian Gulf, Arabic writers a century after Jia wrote of the same structures, writers such as al-Mas’udi and al-Muqaddasi. The Tang dynasty Chinese diplomat Wang Xuance traveled to Magadha (modern northeastern India) during the 7th century. Afterwards he wrote the book Zhang Tianzhu Guotu (Illustrated Accounts of Central India), which included a wealth of geographical information.


Women’s social rights and social status during the Tang era were notably liberal-minded for the period, although urban women of elite status benefited the most. There were many women in the Tang era who gained religious authority by taking vows as Daoist priestesses. The owners of the bordellos in the North Hamlet of the capital Chang’an acquired considerable wealth and power. Their high-class courtesans, who probably influenced the development of Japanese geishas, were well respected. They were known as great singers and poets, supervised banquets and feasts, knew the rules to all the drinking games, and were trained to have impeccable table manners. Although they were renowned for their polite behavior, the courtesans were known to dominate the conversation amongst elite men, and were not afraid to openly castigate or criticize prominent male guests who talked too much or too loudly, boasted too much of their accomplishments, or had in some way ruined dinner for everyone by rude behavior (on one occasion a courtesan even beat up a drunken man who had insulted her). When singing to entertain guests, courtesans not only composed the lyrics to their own songs, but they popularized a new form of lyrical verse by singing lines written by various renowned and famous men in Chinese history.

tang9 clock

Technology during the Tang period advanced considerably, based on the work of former eras. Clockwork and timekeeping developed rapidly. Tang engineer, astronomer, and monk Yi Xing (683–727) invented the world’s first clockwork escapement mechanism in 725. He used this mechanism in conjunction with a clepsydra (water flow) clock and waterwheel to power a rotating armillary sphere to astronomical observations. Yi Xing’s device also had a mechanically timed bell that was struck automatically every hour, and a drum that was struck automatically every quarter hour. Yi Xing’s astronomical clock and water-powered armillary sphere became well known throughout the country, since students attempting to pass the imperial examinations by 730 had to write an essay on the device as an exam requirement. However, the most common type of public and palace timekeeping device was the inflow clepsydra. Its design was improved c. 610 by the Sui-dynasty engineers Geng Xun and Yuwen Kai. They provided a steelyard balance that allowed seasonal adjustment in the pressure head of the compensating tank and could then control the rate of flow for different lengths of day and night.


Woodblock printing made the written word available to vastly greater audiences. One of the world’s oldest surviving printed documents is a miniature Buddhist dharani sutra unearthed at Xi’an in 1974 and dated roughly from 650 to 670. The Diamond Sutra is the first full-length book printed at regular size, complete with illustrations embedded with the text and dated precisely to 868. Among the earliest documents to be printed were Buddhist texts as well as calendars, the latter essential for calculating and marking which days were auspicious and which days were not. With so many books coming into circulation for the general public, literacy rates improved, which meant the lower classes were able to obtain cheaper sources of study. Therefore, there were more lower-class people taking, and passing, the Imperial Examinations by the later Song dynasty. Although the later Bi Sheng’s movable type printing in the 11th century was innovative for his period, woodblock printing that had become widespread in the Tang era would remain the dominant printing type in China until the more advanced printing press from Europe became widely accepted and used in East Asia. The first use of the playing card during the Tang dynasty was an auxiliary invention of the new age of printing.

Since the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), the Chinese had drilled deep boreholes to transport natural gas from bamboo pipelines to stoves where cast iron evaporation pans boiled brine to extract salt. During the Tang dynasty, a gazetteer of Sichuan province stated that at one of these 182 m (600 ft) ‘fire wells,’ natural gas was stored in portable bamboo tubes which could be carried for considerable distances and still produce a flame.

The inventor Ding Huan (fl. 180 AD) of the Han dynasty invented a rotary fan for air conditioning, with seven wheels 3 m (10 ft) in diameter and manually powered. In 747, Emperor Xuanzong had a “Cool Hall” built in the imperial palace, which the Tang Yulin (???) describes as having water-powered fan wheels for air conditioning as well as rising jet streams of water from fountains.


During the earlier Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589), and perhaps even earlier, tea drinking became popular in southern China. Tea was viewed then as both a beverage for pleasure and as medicinal. During the Tang dynasty, tea became synonymous with everything sophisticated in society. The Tang poet Lu Tong (790–835) devoted most of his poetry to his love of tea. The 8th-century author Lu Yu (known as the “Sage of Tea”) wrote a treatise on the art of drinking tea, called the Classic of Tea (Cháj?ng).


In ancient times, the Chinese had codified the five most basic foodstuffs known as the “five grains” – sesamum, legumes, wheat, panicled millet, and glutinous millet. The Ming dynasty encyclopedist Song Yingxing (1587–1666) noted that rice was not counted amongst the five grains from ancient times because its cultivation was not fully developed in China until the 2nd millennium BCE. I guess the concept of “ancient” is relative!

During the Tang era, the most common vegetable cooking ingredients in addition to those already listed were barley, garlic, turnips, soybeans, pears, apricots, peaches, apples, pomegranates, jujubes, rhubarb, hazelnuts, pine nuts, chestnuts, walnuts, yams, and taro. Various meats included pork, chicken, lamb (especially preferred in the north), sea otter, bear (which was hard to get, but there were recipes for steamed, boiled, and marinated bear), and even Bactrian camels. In the south along the coast protein from seafood was the most common. Recipes include jellyfish with cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, cardamom, and ginger, as well as oysters with wine, fried squid with ginger and vinegar, horseshoe crabs and red crabs, shrimp, and pufferfish, which the Chinese called ‘river piglet.’ Some foods were off-limits; the Tang court encouraged people not to eat beef (since the bull was a valuable draft animal), and from 831 to 833 Emperor Wenzong of Tang even banned the slaughter of cattle based on his Buddhist beliefs.

From foreign trade by land and sea the Chinese acquired peaches from Samarkand, date palms, pistachios, and figs from Persia, pine seeds and ginseng roots from Korea, and mangoes from Southeast Asia. There was a great demand for sugar in the Tang era. During the reign of Harsha (c. 606–647) in North India, Indian envoys to Tang China brought two sugar specialists who successfully taught the Chinese how to cultivate sugarcane and produce sugar.

Methods of food preservation were important, and practiced throughout China. The common people used simple methods of preservation, such as digging deep ditches and trenches to contain brined and fermented foods. The emperor had large ice pits located in the parks in and around Chang’an for preserving food, while the wealthy and elite had their own smaller ice pits. Each year the emperor had laborers carve 1000 blocks of ice from frozen creeks in mountain valleys, each block with the dimension of 3 ft (0.91 m) by 3 ft by 3½ ft (1.06 m). There were many frozen delicacies enjoyed during the summer, especially chilled melon.


Here I give you Dong’an chicken (東安子雞) from the town of Dong’an in Hunan province. It is one of the signature dishes of Hunan cuisine. Recipes date back to the Tang Dynasty. Dong’an style chicken is unusual in that it uses parboiled chicken along with hot peppers, and spices, stir fried in vegetable oil and vinegar. Be sure not to overcook the chicken during the parboil stage, or it will be tough. A wok is preferable for this, but a good cast iron skillet works well enough. The chief problem for Western cooks is not having gas burners that are hot enough to reach desirable temperatures for proper stir frying.

Dong’an Chicken

chicken stock
¾ inch piece fresh ginger, unpeeled
3 scallions
1 fresh hot red pepper
3 dried peppers (optional)
2 tbsp Shaoxing wine
2 tbsp clear rice vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
4 tbsp lard or vegetable oil
½ tsp Sichuan pepper oil or ½ tsp whole Sichuan pepper
¾ tsp potato flour, mixed with 2 teaspoons cold water
1 chicken (about 2 ¾ lbs)


Rinse the chicken and remove the skin. Bring the stock to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Add the chicken and return the liquid to a boil, skimming the surface as necessary. Crush half the ginger and one scallion with the flat side of a cleaver or heavy object, then add to the pan with the chicken. Reduce the heat and poach the chicken for 10 minutes. Remove the chicken from the cooking liquid and allow it to cool; reserve the cooking liquid. The chicken should be about three-quarters cooked.

Remove the flesh from the carcass and cut into bite-sized strips, along the grain of the meat.

Cut the fresh hot pepper in half lengthwise and discard the seeds and pith. Then cut it into very fine slivers. Peel the remaining ginger and cut it into slices and then slivers. Cut the green parts off the remaining 2 scallions into slivers.

Heat the wok over a high flame until smoke rises, then add the oil and swirl it around. When the oil is warming up but before it is smoking hot, add the fresh hot peppers and ginger, along with the dried chilies and Sichuan pepper, if using, and stir-fry until fragrant, taking care that the seasonings do not take on color.

Add the chicken and continue to stir fry. Splash the Shaoxing wine around the edges of the chicken. Add the vinegar, Sichuan pepper oil, if using, and salt to taste. Add up to ½ cup of the chicken poaching liquid (if the chicken is very juicy no additional liquid will be necessary), bring to a boil and then turn the heat down a little and simmer briefly to allow the flavors to penetrate the chicken, spooning the liquid over it.

Add the potato flour mixture to the liquid and stir as the sauce thickens. Throw in the scallion greens and stir a few times. Remove from heat and stir in the sesame oil.

Serve immediately with steamed rice.

[As a small postscript for interested readers, I am planning to go to China in July and am learning some Mandarin Chinese in preparation.  I am using LearnChineseEZ and finding it very user friendly and helpful — especially with pronunciation. Here is the URL:

http://www.learnchineseez.com ]