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READ: China Under the Tang and Ming Dynasties

China’s Tang Dynasty gave rise to a new “golden age” by trading along the Silk Road routes, and the later Ming Dynasty built on that with expansion across most of Afro-Eurasia
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How did belief systems influence communities in China during this period?
  2. What were some of Empress Wu’s accomplishments?
  3. How did increased trade affect China?
  4. How did oceanic trade change under the Ming? How was it different from European oceanic exploration?
  5. What was agricultural production like under the Ming, and how did this affect the population?
  6. What caused the fall of the Ming dynasty?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. In Era 4, China was one of the most populous, powerful, and wealthy empires in the world. What might China’s history suggest about the broader trends of recovery and decline across Afro-Eurasia?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

China Under the Tang and Ming Dynasties

Painting shows an emperor being carried on a throne. Others surrounding him are holding great fans. Two men have come to meet the emperor.
By Bridgette Byrd O’Connor
China's Tang Dynasty gave rise to a new period of expanded growth by trading along the Silk Road routes, and the later Ming Dynasty built on that with expansion across most of Afro-Eurasia.


Over the course of much of China's 4000-year history, a series of emperor-led dynasties ruled the area. The same basic structure existed from the Shang Dynasty, founded in 1600 BCE, to the last dynasty of China, the Qing (Manchu). When the last Qing emperor fell in 1911, the Republic of China was created. Under a dynasty, the emperor had supreme control and Chinese territory was divided into different provinces with a large bureaucracy to govern the area more efficiently. Agriculture was the primary economic activity and was essential to feed China's large and expanding population. Trade made Chinese goods desirable in far off regions of Afro-Eurasia. Each dynasty went through a classic cycle of rise, flourish, decline, and fall. In most of the periods between successful dynasties, different factions of rebels or warlords fought for control of the region. This pattern often played out between the rise of the Tang Dynasty in 618 CE to the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644 CE. Each dynasty, however, differed in how well they maintained control over such an expansive area and for how long. Some maintained their control for over 100 years, which allowed for times of economic growth. Others failed after only a few decades.

The rise of the Tang

The Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE) secured China's borders after one such period of unrest and the region came together somewhat peacefully after years of turmoil. Eventually they would lose control in a rebellion that gave rise to the Tang Dynasty. The first emperor of the Tang, Li Yuan (Emperor Gaozu1), was from a noble family that lived in the northwest border area of China. To justify his overthrow of the Sui, Gaozu highlighted his noble heritage. He even claimed to be a direct descendant of Laozi, the founder of Daoism. Gaozu's son would later force his father off the throne and murder his two brothers to become Emperor Taizong. He embraced Buddhism and spread this philosophy throughout China. Even though Taizong had defied the rules of Confucian filial piety by murdering his brothers, this philosophy also played a significant role in the organization and hiring of bureaucrats in the government.
Map of the region ruled by the Tang dynasty.
*Tang dynasty under Wuzhou rule, c. 700. By Ian Kiu, CC BY-SA 3.0.
The mixture of these three main belief systems—Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism—along with the traditional Chinese beliefs of ancestor veneration (respecting and celebrating one's ancestors after death) explains how people could be members of several of these communities at the same time.

Empress Wu and China’s “Golden Age”

Twenty years into Taizong's reign, he fell in love with one of his concubines, a woman of noble birth named Wu Zetian. After Taizong died, Wu became a concubine of his successor and son, the Emperor Gaozong. Wu Zetian was both intelligent and by some accounts ruthless in how she took and maintained power at court. When Gaozong fell ill, Wu ruled from behind the scenes until finally declaring herself emperor in 690 CE. The only woman to take this title in China's history, Empress Wu stated that a new dynasty was in control, the Zhou. The name linked her reign with the famed dynasty that had ruled China for 800 years from 1022 to 256 BCE. She also claimed to be the reincarnation of a Buddhist monk in order to justify her position of power. Some historians note that she promoted Buddhism over Confucianism, painting her as a negative figure who disregarded traditional teachings and philosophy. However, she did use Confucian principles in many of the changes she brought about. Empress Wu reformed the education system by making sure that teachers were well qualified. In addition, she started exams for the military to ensure officials were intelligent and well trained. She was also responsible for reopening the Silk Road trade routes after disease and raids stunted trade. No doubt she upset traditional roles by becoming the first woman to reign in her own right. But her ability to seek advice from her people and inspire fear in her opponents certainly contributed to the successes during her reign.
Painting of an empress. She is wearing an ornate and colorful headdress and clothing.
Empress Wu (Wu Zetian). Image taken from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. By British Library, public domain.
The increase in trade along the Silk Road allowed for foreign goods and ideas to influence Chinese culture. In turn, Chinese traditions, goods, and ideas spread to other areas of Afro-Eurasia. Turkish and Persian fashion and music became popular. Buddhism thrived and spread as monks made pilgrimages to India and translated Buddhist texts. With the advances in woodblock printing of the written word, the Tang also saw a rise in the popularity of poetry.
As the economy grew, so did the population. From the seventh to the tenth century, the Chinese population went from 50 to 100 million. China under the Tang also established a strong trading presence on the seas and maritime trade increased. Exchanges on overland routes such as the Silk Road and the Grand Canal, the system of canals that connected inland Chinese waterways, also helped the Chinese economy. Inventions such as gunpowder and advances in printing increased the appeal of Chinese goods in other areas of Afro-Eurasia along with more traditional items such as tea and silk. Spices from India and Persia were trendy products as more exotic recipes were introduced and gained popularity.
Many people call this period a "golden age" in Chinese history, and there's lots of evidence to support the idea that this was a time of great learning and prosperity overall. Of course, just as we have to question the idea of "dark ages", we should question the idea of golden ages. This was not a great period for everyone, and especially not for some conquered people who were forced to change their cultures and pay tribute.

Decline and fall

By the ninth century, however, cracks began to appear in the dynasty's hold over the region. Over time many traditionalists became worried about the power and influence of foreigners. After attacks on port cities, the Tang leaders began to restrict both foreigners and trade. Thriving businesses controlled by Buddhist monasteries where shut down, and Buddhist monks and nuns were persecuted. This conflict, among others, led to the downfall of the Tang emperors. In keeping with the pattern, the fall of the Tang Dynasty was followed by a period of warring factions and instability known as the Five Dynasties (907-960CE). As a result, the Tang Dynasty came to an end. But was this really a collapse, or was it a transition?

The creation of the Ming Dynasty

China would face more ups and downs as the centuries progressed. The Song Dynasty kept control of China from 960 to 1269 CE before nomadic Mongols gained control. Some scholars view the Mongols as outsiders (non-Chinese) who simply took over. Other historians would say the Mongols blended their traditions with Chinese culture. This second viewpoint suggests that the Mongols can't be seen simply as invaders who harmed China, but instead as a transformative power that brought diversity to the country. In 1368, the Mongols were defeated by the last Han (East Asian) dynasty—the Ming (1368-1644 CE).
If you ask a non-historian to name an ancient Chinese Dynasty, Ming is probably the one they can name. This is due to the celebrated porcelain and ceramics produced and traded during this time. But the Ming achievements extend far beyond the beautiful dishes and vases. Ocean trade was greatly expanded, with the Yongle Emperor supporting the voyages of Zheng He in the Indian Ocean. His ships were much larger than those of Christopher Columbus, with one ship carrying 500 people along with goods for trade. These journeys differed from those of the Europeans, who later would colonize the Americas. Chinese explorers sought only to increase trade and tributes (payments) to the Ming emperor, not to establish colonies or expand the Chinese empire.
Map shows the large number of cities ruled by the Ming empire.
Ming Empire c. 1580, by Michal Klajban and Jann (derivative work). By Michal Klajban, CC BY-SA 3.0 cz.

Expansion of agriculture and trade

Ming emperors also wrote laws and strengthened the government with the use of experienced civil servants, who were hired based upon abilities rather than family lines. They increased farming production with massive irrigation projects and produced iron at an amazing rate, producing durable tools and weapons. Advances in printing allowed for the common use of paper currency and the printing of books that even commoners could afford to purchase. This was also the period when most of the construction of the border protection known as the Great Wall was completed.
The first Ming emperor, Hongwu, was born into a poor family before leading a successful rebellion against the Mongols. He redistributed land to the poor and gave soldiers land so that in times of peace, they would farm. Agricultural production went way up, as did the population of China, growing from 65 million at the start of Ming reign to 160 million at its end. Hongwu believed that farming should be the basis of the economy, and he restricted foreign trade. However, these harsh limits were lifted by his successors. After the European expansion of trade with the Americas, new crops and goods were introduced into China such as peanuts and sweet potatoes. European merchants and governments also wanted desperately to open up more of China's ports to their trade. Initially, the Chinese were not too interested in what the Europeans were selling. That is, until the Spanish found tons of silver in the Americas. The Chinese economy was based upon silver after the printing of paper currency was halted due to concerns about inflation. Finally, the Europeans had a way into China and in turn, the Chinese became dependent on Spanish silver. When the Spanish began reducing the supply of silver, an economic crisis hit the region. These economic problems coupled with famines weakened the region and the Ming emperors struggled to maintain control. People were starving and rebellions were increasing in number. These factors would lead to the end of the Ming Dynasty's rule in China.
Photo of a ceramic vase. The vase is glazed in white and painted with an intricate design in blue.
A Ming dynasty (c. 1430) imperial blue and white vase, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. By anonymous potter from the Jingdezhen imperial kilns. Public domain.
Author bio
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, World History, and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the past ten years at the high school level. She is also a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course World History and U.S. History curriculums.

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user JJ999
    ”The Song Dynasty kept control of China from 960 to 1269 CE before nomadic Mongols gained control.“ I thought the Song dynasty is from 960 to 1279 CE?
    (4 votes)
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