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The Tang Dynasty was the most glorious period in the Chinese record. It rose in 618 and fell in 907.
Chinese Empire in the sixth centuries, had two divisions namely the northern and southern nations because of the distinctive geographical reasons and because of this every empire came up with their own cultural rules.
During the Tang Dynasty, China was the strongest, wealthiest and most affluent empire in the world. At this era, there was production of more than 50,000 poems and sixty poets came up each with their own genres and styles1.
Establishment of the Dynasty was after the fall of Sui Dynasty (581-618), a period marred by chaos because of the tyranny of Emperor Yang, who was overthrown by Li Yuan. Li Yuan then christened himself officially as the Prime Minister of the Tang dynasty and Tang Wang became King of Tang.
After the killing of emperor Yang by his chancellor, Yuwen Huaji, Li Yuan grabbed the opportunity and declared himself as the emperor. He transformed the name of the state to Tang but Chang’an remained as the capital city.
The first period of prosperity was from 627 to 649.The Tang Dynasty had just recovered from the chaos and violence of the Sui Dynasty.
Tang dynasty at this time rose to become one of the greatest and wealthiest empires in the medieval times. It had strong and good leadership, economic prowess, excellent diplomatic association and a cosmopolitan culture that was diverse, rich and tolerant unlike any era that had existed before.
People across the world crowded the streets of Chang’an including traders, clerics and envoys in the world such as India, Persia, Arabia, Syria, Korea and Japan.
The other period of prosperity was when Emperor Xuanzong ruled. Under his rule, the Tang Dynasty continued to witness massive developments in its economy, culture and politics.
Chang’an city grew to become one of the largest cities in the world and it popularly gained the name ‘Heyday of Kaiyuan’, and the Tang Dynasty at this period reached the peak of its prosperity.
After this period of prosperity, the Tang Dynasty went through a period of destruction, war. Emperor Xuanzong had grown old and became contented and no longer cared about the affairs of his nation.
He became corrupt and appointed irresponsible leaders and wicked chancellors whose concern was to amass as much wealth as they could.
Meanwhile, as the leaders concentrated in their own affairs, troops gradually assembled and formed a strong army and in 755, An Lushan together with Shi Siming organized a revolt which was known as An-Shi rebellion.
This rebellion lasted for eight years and the Tang Empire was severely affected. In 859, an uprising launched by large-scale peasant farmers uprising led by Huang Chao further shook the dynasty and led to its decline.
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In the early period of the Tang Dynasty, poets like, Chen Zi’ang and the four outstanding poets, namely, Lu Zhaolin, Luo Binwang, Wang Bo and Yang Jiong came up.
Then in the middle period of prosperity there were more pre-dominant poets, such as Li Bai, Du Fu, Cen Shen and Wang Wei, with Bai Juyi, Li He and Han Yu; Li Shangyin and Du Mu who were representatives of the late Tang Dynasty2.
Their poems carried messages with boundaries in their lives with undisturbed fields and memorable events and false romantic attachment.
The style used in the literature of the Tang period was unique as it reached a level never attained before in the Chinese history. It was during these periods of the Tang Dynasty that great poets rose in China. Poets like Li Po, Tu Fu, Po Chul and many others came up as it was attributable to many factors. 3
During both the prosperous periods, the Tang Empire is known for its talented stories, literature, dancing, music and art. The lavish lifestyles acted as an inspiration for artists. In the Imperial palace, where the king resided, there was a special room where dancers and singers who came from India and Korea studied music performance and dancing.
There were massive music performers who performed in rooms with 700 instruments which performed at the Imperial court. It was also at this period that scroll painting became well-known. Associated with this era were artistic sculptures such as Buddhist sculptures and statues of Buddha, poetry and signs of zodiac.
Many parties took place in the palace and there was even tea drinking and ceremonies. Bird contests were present as friends and bird lovers gathered every morning to watch the birds.
Close to one million people inhabited Ch’ang-an the capital city. The design of the city resembled that of a check board, with city blocks and wide streets. Market places and that of worship appeared as their own villages.
The whole city was full of tea shops, candy shops, acrobats, story tellers and informative banners as well as bazaars. Ch’ang-an households had beautiful baths, heaters round the house as well as fans for air conditions, the rooms were ice-cooled and mirrors placed all round.
The musical instruments such as harp, ceramics, and spoons had decorations in both silver and gold. Men in the capital city shaved their hair except for the center of the top of the heads as they called it top-knot.
There was the use of Gold and hair pins to make the hair look colorful. On the other hand, women wore jewelry and used different types of cosmetics including lipsticks as well as decoration of eyebrows.
Owning shoes in the capital was a form of status among the rich as peasants wore straw sandals. Music and dance was popular as players enjoyed playing polo and football.
Helping and caring for one another was very important in all the families in the city and at that time boys would learn in school as girls do it at home.
Introduction of Buddhism from India was through Silk Road and during Tang time Confucianism and Taoism became the Three Doctrines.
This time of prosperity acted as an inspiration for most literary artists as the experience sharpened their artistic skills and motivated them to write as shown in their works.
Li Bai or Li Po who lived in the period 701-762 was a great romantic poet who wrote poems on different subjects ranging from political matters to natural scenery.
He lived at the period of great prosperity and the peak of the Tang period. Li Po was China’s most prolific writer and he wrote romantic poems that celebrated things like drinking, friendship and nature.
He was known as the “immortal poet” and he wrote as many as nine hundred poems. They regarded him as the greatest of all the ancient Chinese poets. He was a romanticist who wrote poems that were about the wonderful scenery that existed at this time.
The scenery around him inspired him and it became one of his favorite topics. He wrote about what he saw, enjoyed and experienced as shown in his poems. In his poem called “Bringing in the wine,” 4 he wrote:
Oh, let a man of spirit venture where he pleases
And never tip his golden cup empty towards the moon!
Here it is clear that environment greatly influenced his writing. At this era, poetry was usually created in the context of male social gathering where there was a lot of merry-making, drinking and dancing.
Many poems written at this time like Li Po’s poetry celebrated nature over society and even talked of romance out-of-wedlock. In the poem, ‘Chang’an memories’, he writes about a love story and in it he describes Chang’an and the memories associated with it. 5
Du –Fu also known as Tu Fu (712-762) was the greatest realist poet in the history of china. He lived during prosperity and the decline of the Tang dynasty and he saw both the good and bad times of the Tang Dynasty.
During the An Lushan Rebellion which started in December, 755, people suffered a great deal. This period served as the turning point in Du Fu life as it transformed him into a poet. He expressed his feelings through poetry and his poems reflected the hard realities of war, dying people living next to rich rulers and primitive rural life.
An example is when Du Fu wrote “The Ballad of the Army carts.” The poem writings was at a time of war and reflected the harsh realities associated with it. An excerpt from the poem reflects on the harsh realities of war. It says,
“If you have a daughter, you can at least marry her
off to one of the neighbors; but a son is born only to end up lying in the
grass somewhere, dead and unburied.”
In his poem, “On seeing a pupil of Kung-sun Dance the Chien-chi” he writes in praise of the “Chien-chi” dance and he says that watching the girl dance reminded him of when he was a boy.
He praises the costume worn by the dancers and says “where now is that lovely figure in its gorgeous costume.” 6
Drama which is another important literary form developed also at this period. Chinese drama was very popular with the common people because it mixed Chinese native languages with music and songs.
During the fall of the Tang Dynasty, literary arts like legends, musical rhythms and language became known and artists adopted the use of local dialects, idioms, poetry and many more in its structure. The writing of the White snake story was at this time.
During this period, the anthology of classic folk tales became popular and the White snake story was published in 981CE.The story is identified with the late period of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and it became known as Li Huang.
The leader of the drama in Chinese history was regarded as Xianzong the Tang emperor who ruled in 712-756.He formed the first royal acting and musical academy in the history of china named “the pear orchard.”
Another emperor who also showed interest in drama was emperor Zhuangzong of the late Tang period and he devoted his time to the arts. He even began to act himself since he loved drama so much
It was at this time also that many novels came up and concentrated on character development, adventure and supernatural happenings.
The political stability of the Tang Dynasty allowed goods as well as ideas to circulate along the silk road bringing with it prominent travelling preachers and wonderful storytellers who introduced a dimension to the novels of the era.
Interest in Taoism further inspired stories that talked of deities, ghosts and the supernatural world. Texts written at this time used a style where the native prose together with musical verse mixed to produce known “bianwen” which meant “texts of the unusual “and “tales of metamorphosis”
Such novels included the classic love story, Ming version of ‘Shui-hu chuan’ (The water margin).
The Tang prose was also developed at this time. In Chinese, it was known as ‘Shan wei’ and it dealt with various topics. This type of writing used realistic and straight forward language in many essays written.
The main prose writers of this period included Han Yu and Liu Zhong Yuan. Han Yu was a Confucianism writer whose works were revolutionary in style and ideas.
Liu Zhong was a strong supporter and follower of Han Yu and in his works he persistently argued that form should serve the purpose of content.
The novels of the Tang dynasty also became popular and were known as ‘marvel novels’ or Zhi Kuai in Chinese. During the late Tang period, storytelling forms changed though they still kept some aspects of the supernatural.
These new forms called “marvel tales” or “records of weird” things had more complex plots and tighter structures. The “marvel tales” were incorporated into the Chinese culture and served as reference for art, storytellers and Chinese opera plays.
They were strange and mysterious stories for satisfying the desires of man and to warn those who led immoral lives.
Block printing led to knowledge sharing and recording unlike other time before and it contributed to the printing of literary works. Economic and social stability grew due to the literature and art from the people.
Poetry, music and dance brought lots of success and happiness to the people. People became wealthy because of painting and sculptures as they did their best to produce quality things.
The civil exam undertaken before joining the empire as an official motivated men went to read and learn and this led to the rapid growth in education.
The lifestyles of people changed through what they wore and their tastes or characters in the articles that they used every day.
During Tang Dynasty, carvings and other sculptures became common in the city and this period was the most prominent time for cave sculpture. An artist such as Wu Daozi was the most important person as he painted both Buddhist and Taoist figures.
During this era, before one could be appointed to the royal court, they had to do a civil exam which tested their skills on literacy texts and knowledge of Confucian texts. Countries in modern world use the civil exam of the Tang Dynasty up to date.
In this exam, appointees needed to do an exam and this ensured appointment of skillful people into the civil service. This contributed to the surge in the number of literally text produced at this period.
In conclusion, it is quite clear that history indeed influenced literature of the Tang Dynasty. The events and the political and social environment of this era greatly influenced the literature and the political power of the Tang Dynasty brought impact on this literature. As a result, literature is dependent on the historic circumstances of the time.
Chou, E, Shan. Reconsidering Tu Fu: literary greatness and cultural context, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995
Hammond, Charles E. “Ultimate truths: Tang poetry as magical discourse”. Journal of Oriental Studies 29/1, (1991):19-44.
Owen, Stephen.“The formation of the Tang estate poem”. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 55/1 (1995): 39-59
Owen Stephen.The great age of Chinese poetry: the High T’ang .New Haven : Yale University Press, 1981.
Wagner, Marsha. The lotus boat: the origins of Chinese tzu poetry in Tang popular culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984
Wu, Fusheng. The poetics of decadence: Chinese poetry of the Southern dynasties and late Tang periods, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press1998
1 Fusheng Wu, The poetics of decadence: Chinese poetry of the Southern dynasties and late Tang periods, Albany, NY: State
University of New York Press1998
2 Marsha Wagner. The lotus boat: the origins of Chinese tzu poetry in Tang popular culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984
3 Shan Chou. Reconsidering Tu Fu: literary greatness and cultural context, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995
4 Hammond, Charles E. “Ultimate truths: Tang poetry as magical discourse”. Journal of Oriental Studies 29/1, (1991):19-44.
5 Stephen Owen.“The formation of the Tang estate poem”. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 55/1 (1995): 39-59
6 Stephen Owen. The great age of Chinese poetry: the High T’ang .New Haven : Yale University Press,1981