The end of China’s golden age

Society & Culture

An Lushan's rebellion was one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history. He may have envisaged a bright new era when he crowned himself emperor, but his reign was short, and brought an end to China's golden age.

This Week in China’s History: February 5, 756

It has been some time since this column took the Tang dynasty as its focus. This week, the moment that some argue was the end of China greatest Golden Age: The An Lushan rebellion and, specifically, the moment that Ān Lùshān 安禄山 declared himself emperor.

On lunar New Year’s Day in what would have been the year 756 according to the Julian calendar, An Lushan proclaimed his new Yan dynasty, supplanting the Tang. The rebellion he led was just two months old, but had already captured the city of Luoyang, one of China’s ancient capitals that An now made his own, pending his planned advance against the Tang capital at Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an).

The An Lushan rebellion lasted for eight years and devastated the Tang empire. Estimating casualties is difficult; some place the death toll as high as 36 million, which, if true, would have been about one-sixth of the world’s population. Steven Pinker controversially uses this figure as his basis for calling the An Lushan rebellion the greatest calamity in human history. But — relying on census records that have been challenged as misleading and incomplete — this number is generally considered too high (and some of Pinker’s other methodologies have been challenged as well). Other census-based estimates are much lower, and many scholars reject using census records for this purpose altogether. Beyond the number of lives and buildings it destroyed — though there were certainly many of both — the An Lushan rebellion effectively ended the Tang dynasty, though it lingered on in name for 150 years after its end.

It’s risky to point to an event as having specific consequences hundreds of years later, but An Lushan’s rebellion may be one such case.

An Lushan is the Chinese name of a man who was born around 703. The surname “An” suggests that his family originated in the region around Samarkand: a Silk Road trading city, today in Uzbekistan, that in the 8th century was at the Western reaches of Tang influence. Historian Valerie Hansen, in her survey of traditional China, describes him as part Persian and part Sogidan, and notes that he would likely have been known by his Persian name, Rokshan (the root of the English name Roxanne), as well as the Chinese pronunciation.

An Lushan worked his way up through the ranks of the Tang military and found himself in a position of influence after the events of 751, when Arab armies defeated Tang forces at the Battle of Talas River. Considered for the post of chief minister, An Lushan instead gained the powerful position of Commissioner of the Imperial Stables, a lesser post but one that gave access to horses — and also the command of nearly a third of the Tang army.

The fight over his appointment as Chief Minister was just part of protracted court intrigue, much of which surrounded the emperor’s patronage of the Yang clan, especially Yáng Guìfēi 杨贵妃, his chief consort and also the adoptive (honorary) mother of An Lushan.

The traditional historiography of the mid-Tang has a vein wide of misogyny at its core. For one thing, centuries of historians, following the official histories, blamed the empress (really, female emperor, for her title was the same as male monarchs) Wǔ Zétiān 武则天 for weakening the empire through failed policies and lax morals. The story goes that her grandson, Xuanzong, managed to restore the dynasty’s luster only (again, in the official histories) to be distracted from his duties by the beauty of his consort, Yang Guifei — and if that weren’t enough, a quasi-incestuous affair between An Lushan and Yang Guifei is tabbed as the cause of the cataclysmic rebellion.

Hansen, among others, doubts whether such an affair ever took place, but more to the point, the blaming of a handful of women for the Tang’s decline defies rationality. Wu Zetian (or Wu Zhao) reigned during a period riven by dramatic shifts in power along lines of geography, religion, class background, and education. These, not murder, sorcery, and incest, help explain the structural changes and political tensions of the mid-Tang. An Lushan’s battles at court were part of these rivalries.

In 755, An Lushan revolted against the Tang court. He marched his forces from their base in Hebei, quickly captured the “Eastern Capital” of Luoyang, and crowned himself emperor on February 5, 756. It seemed, for a time, that this would be as far as it went. An Lushan’s rapid advance had left his supply lines thin, and Tang armies and loyalists appeared to hold an advantage that would prevent an advance on the Tang capital itself, Chang’an. Mark Edward Lewis, in his history of the Tang, points to a strategic error that led to a catastrophic defeat at the Tong Pass in the summer of 756, allowing An Lushan to take the capital and send the Tang emperor fleeing to Sichuan.

As rapid as his ascent was, An Lushan’s fall was just as fast. The capture of Chang’an was a signal event, but no further successes followed. Tang armies thwarted several rebel advances, and in early 757, just a year after becoming emperor, An Lushan’s own lieutenants assassinated him. The movement splintered and Tang forces recaptured the capital that autumn. Another six years of war followed, but the rebellion’s peak was passed, and the Yan dynasty ended in 763.

An Lushan’s rebellion and his dynasty were short-lived, but their shadows are long. Lewis puts it succinctly: “A recurrent theme in Chinese history is the tension between the centralization of authority and the forces of regional autonomy.” The An Lushan rebellion was only possible because power had devolved from the center, but even more important was the decentralization the rebellion set in motion.

With many of their own forces in rebellion, the Tang emperor turned to regional allies to support him. They were willing to do so, but at a price. Uyghur soldiers were hired to fight on the Tang’s behalf, asking both money and autonomy in return. The weakened Tang military was able neither to defeat the rebels completely nor to defend its borders, with the result that the rebels were pardoned by the emperor, and powerful neighbors, like Tibet, harassing the Tang state (Tibetan armies periodically ransacked Chang’an for two decades after the rebellion ended).

The rebellion’s financial consequences may have been even more profound, and overlapped with the military failures. Rebel generals, pardoned for their insurrection, were appointed as military governors in an effort to win their loyalty. To the contrary, these new governors, ruling some of China’s wealthiest provinces, refused to remit taxes to the central government, enriching themselves with what they collected. To compound matters, just when its coffers were exhausted from suppressing the rebellion, the Tang state was without the means to update its tax roles, and many of those who paid taxes had lost their lives or livelihoods. The Tang tax base shrank to just one-third of what it had been, because of death, migration, and inadequate record-keeping.

The tax changes went further. Unable to rely on a head tax, the Tang government changed its revenue structure. The new system collected taxes based on wealth, not just population, but also relied on the revenues produced by a state salt and iron monopoly. This innovation was lucrative, but further exacerbated regionalism. In the empire’s southern reaches, the Tang state turned over revenue collection to officials in the iron and salt monopolies. Unable to effectively control northern military governors or southern revenue officials, the Tang state was barely more than a name.

The regionalism within China cannot be placed at the feet of An Lushan. As I have written before, the very idea of China is one that has changed over time. Yet the divisions sown by the rebellion in 755 put an end to one of China’s golden ages, and a Chinese state would not approach the power or expanse of the Tang for another 600 years, when the Ming replaced the Mongol Yuan dynasty. But on this week in 756, An Lushan, enthroned as an emperor, must have felt that his future was bright indeed.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.