China: Tang dynasty (AD 618-906)

The Tang dynasty, founded by a general of the Sui dynasty (AD 581-618), spanned three centuries of Chinese history. It is regarded by the Chinese as one of their most glorious periods, when the country was a single, unified empire. It was an era of cultural brilliance, territorial expansion and great prosperity for much of the time. By the reign of Xuanzong (AD 712-56), China was the richest and most powerful political unit in the world. The dynasty was also a golden age for poetry and the arts in general.

As China's territory expanded, so did its economic and cultural relations. Trade flourished along the Silk Routes, overland and by sea. Large numbers of foreigners, including many merchants and artisans, lived in Chinese cities. Chang'an (present day Xi'an), the Tang capital, was one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth. Buddhism, a foreign religion, was an extremely important influence in the early part of the dynasty.

The reign of Xuanzong was one of China's most brilliant eras. He was a scholar and a great patron of the arts. He fell in love with a courtesan known as Yang Guifei, who brought about his downfall, in the rebellion of AD 755-63 led by General An Lushan.

The dynasty was never to recover its former heights. Foreign incursions and internal corruption led to a weakening and gradual disintegration of the empire. Peasant rebellions increased and finally, an army commander deposed the last Tang emperor, beginning the chaotic Five Dynasties (AD 918-960).

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