China: A Short Cultural History

By C. P. Fitzgerald; C. G. Seligman | Go to book overview

Chapter XIV
SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC CONDITIONS

THE T'ang period is well known as one of the great creative epochs in the history of Chinese civilisation. The poetry of this age has never been surpassed, and in the arts the work of the T'ang masters, particularly the sculptors and painters, stands on a par with anything produced before or since. T'ang art and poetry are becoming increasingly known to the West through the work of collectors and translators, but as yet little has been done to illuminate the social background against which the artists and poets passed their lives.

Fortunately the highly organised civil service of the T'ang Empire has left records, which, incorporated in the official history of the dynasty, provide valuable information on social and economic conditions in the 7th and 8th centuries, when the empire was at the height of its material prosperity. These two centuries, the greater part of which were peaceful, were also the years in which the most famous T'ang poets lived and in which new artistic influences took shape.

The empire founded and stabilised by the great T'ai Tsung was the largest and almost certainly the most populous state in the world at that date. It was governed from Ch'ang An by a civil service, which, though based on the Han model, was both more effective and more powerful than its prototype. The T'ang Emperors had no need to disguise their rule under a façade of feudalism. The empire was theirs to govern as they chose, no tributary or vassal kings rivalled their authority, no feudal lords could organise opposition in distant provinces. Until the rebellion of An Lu-shan ( A.D. 755) weakened the imperial authority and diminished the prestige of the throne, the whole empire was under the direct control of the central government, administered by a hierarchy of officials chosen by public examinations.

At its greatest extent, as left by T'ai Tsung at his death, the empire measured from north to south 16,918 li, and from east to west 9,511 li,*

____________________
*
T'ang Shu. The official history of the dynasty, published in the Sung dynasty. All data in this Chapter are from this source.

-304-

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