Although the Han had been destroyed, the ideal of a centralized empire had never disappeared; it was left to the shortlived, native Chinese dynasty, the Sui (581–618), to fulfill that ideal. But the labor and tax burden of the Sui public works projects — such as the reconstruction of the Great Wall and the fashioning of a Grand Canal> linking the northern capital region with the newly rich agricultural centers of the Yangtze River valley — compounded by ruinous military campaigns against northern Korea, generated popular rebellion and led to the speedy demise of the dynasty.
Yet the Sui laid the foundations for another glorious age, that of the Tang (T'ang; 618–906), which at its height controlled a pan-Asian empire stretching from Korea to the borders of Persia. Chang'an (Ch'ang-an) — now known as Xi'an — the Tang capital and the greatest city in all Asia, numbering 1 million inside its walls and another 1 million in the suburbs, welcomed tribute envoys, merchants, and devotees of religions from all parts of Asia and farther west. Not only was this the greatest period of Buddhism in Chinese history, but Islam, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Nestorian Christianity (see Nestorian church) all entered China.
At the same time, with the advent of a recentralized empire, the fortunes of Confucianism rose: the civil service examinations reintroduced by the Sui were significantly expanded, and during the reign of Taizong (T'ai-tsung; 627–49), a wide range of Confucian scholarly projects was undertaken under imperial sponsorship. Tang power and prestige reached a zenith during the reign of Tang Xuanzong (T'ang Hsuan-tsung; 712–56). Chinese lyric poetry reached a high point, and the world's first printed book was produced.
Eventually, however, military victories gave way to defeat, notably at the hands of the Arabs in 751; and in 755 the revolt of An Lushan (An Lu-shan), a semibarbarian general in the Tang employ, transferred considerable power from the central government to military governors in the provinces, dealing the dynasty a blow from which it never fully recovered. The persecution (841–45) of Buddhists was largely an effort to return revenues from tax-free temple lands to the state.
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