Teaching the Tang Dynasty


Tang Dynasty Map

Map of the Tang Dynasty c.700

Image Source: Wikipedia

  • Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of subject guides aimed at world history instructors. These will start with a look at what popular textbooks have to say on the subject and describe a past lesson plan we have used in the classroom. The guide will then examine more specialized writing and offer some exercises aimed at “unpacking the textbook” or making the topic more engaging.

Getting Started

The Tang Dynasty (618-907) receives a great deal of attention in world history textbooks. Its “cosmopolitan culture”  is the main reason for this focus.1 However, there are significant disagreements over what aspects of this dynasty are most significant. Patterns of World History uses the Tang Dynasty as the first Chinese example of what it calls an “overtly religious civilization,” defined as a world region whose states are united by a shared monotheistic or monist faith.2 For this reason they look at connections between the Tang and the wider Buddhist world, primarily via the Silk Road. Traditions and Encounters focuses more on economic changes within China itself, primarily the impact of the Grand Canal (built earlier under the Sui), fast-ripening Champa rice, the equal-field system, and the growth of new industries. However, they start the chapter with a section on Xuanzang’s remarkable journey to India (from 629 to 645) to gather Buddhist relics and scriptures, an approach mirrored in Voyages in World History. Voyages in World History as well as Traditions and Encounters have excellent sections on changes to Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty, particularly the growth of the indigenous Pure Land and Chan forms. Voyages in World History also includes a document comparing the original Sanskrit story of Maudgalyayana with the translated Chinese form.

I would argue the best account of the Tang comes from Worlds Together Worlds Apart. It combines an excellent socio-economic summary with detailed looks at the exam system, Empress Wu, and the eventual resistance to Buddhism inspired by essayists like Han Yu. Worlds Together Worlds Apart suggests that the revised exam system, open to people from all backgrounds, ushered in a more egalitarian social order. It also states that Wuzong’s persecutions of Buddhism in 845 ultimately enabled the “triumph of homegrown ideologies (Confucianism and Daoism) over universalizing religion (Buddhism).”3

My Original Lesson Plan

I taught this subject during my first year as an assistant professor, and I was completely overwhelmed. Having neglected to prepare a formal lecture, I divided the class into groups and gave each a list of key terms. They were instructed to find them in “Chapter 10: New Empires and Common Cultures” of Worlds Together Worlds Apart, identify their significance, and then present these key terms to the rest of the class. Three of the eight total key terms dealt with the Tang Dynasty, and they were “The Battle of Talas River,” “Empress Wu,” and “Han Yu.” These key terms were accompanied by a question that the group had to answer as well – for Empress Wu this question read “Why did Empress Wu make civil examinations so crucial to career advancement? What impact did this have on China?” and for Han Yu I asked “Why is Han Yu significant to the history of the late Tang Dynasty?” That was it. These classes were always fun to teach, since I could spend my time circulating between the groups and responding to questions. The lesson also encouraged the students to rapidly analyze secondary sources and explain the historical significance of particular people or events, a useful historical skill. However, the class was entirely dependent on the textbook, and given my lack of knowledge of East Asian history prior to the 19th century, I could add little to what my students were reading. I understood that the Tang Dynasty was important, but I knew very little about what was happening beneath the surface.

Small Wild Goose Pagoda

Small Wild Goose Pagoda, built c.709 in Chang’an

Image Source: Wikipedia

The Specialist Literature

To get a better sense of the scholarly debates on the Tang Dynasty, I read China’s Cosmopolitan Empire by M.E. Lewis. This book is part of a series focused on imperial China, and reinforces the textbooks on a number of crucial points. First, he confirms that Empress Wu, as the first female Chinese ruler to rule in her own name, is badly misrepresented by the Confucian historians of the period. Second, he argues that Tang China was part of a larger Sinicized world linked by both a non-alphabetic script and Mahayana Buddhism. And third, he notes that Buddhism became an integral part of Chinese spirituality at this time, even among people who may not have seen themselves as Buddhists. As the title of the book indicates, he supports the general portrayal of the Tang as a thoroughly global and cosmopolitan society.

However, he diverged from the textbook accounts on several key points. Lewis contends that “the examination system cannot account for the decline of the great families in the Tang…” which is a significant departure from the textbooks cited above.4 He also demonstrates in real terms what Buddhism meant to ordinary people and how they reshaped (or indigenized) the religion. Like Voyages in World History and Traditions and Encounters, he argues the Chan and Pure Land schools “represented a new willingness to discover Buddhism’s truths and ultimate ends in personal experiences…rather than in the textual legacy of an alien land.”5 However, Lewis accompanies this with a detailed account of The Scripture on the Ten Kings, a set of rituals which developed during the Tang. These incorporated Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian elements into a form of purgatory where the souls of the deceased are judged before being reborn.6 The final aspect of the Tang Dynasty that Lewis analyzes more effectively than the textbooks is the architecture of the imperial capitals Chang’an and Luoyang. Lewis includes numerous maps to provide a real sense of what life in the city would have been like, the most impressive of which is a map of major religious establishments of Chang’an which places Buddhist, Daoist, Zoroastrian, and Nestorian Christian sites all across the city.7

Other scholars have addressed the artistic contributions of the Tang Dynasty. MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects contains a chapter on figurines from the tomb of a Tang-era official named Liu Tingxun. He uses these to demonstrate how materials and trade wealth from all around the world reached China along the Silk Road, but he also mentions Chinese conceptions of an underworld where bureaucrats would present a “case” for the deceased to supernatural judges. This can be linked to The Scriptures on the Ten Kings and religious changes set in motion by the arrival of Buddhism along the Silk Road.

A final aspect of the Tang Dynasty of interest to world historians is the controversial rise to power of Wu Zetian.8 There is general agreement between Lewis and the textbooks that despite the hatred evident in many Tang-era sources, she was a capable and fair ruler.9 However, an additional source which reveals the continuing ambiguity of her legacy in China is Dash’s article for the Smithsonian Magazine. He notes that her tomb, erected during her life, contains a giant stone memorial upon which she expected a magnificent epitaph to be carved. However, after her death it was left blank, and remains so today. As with many powerful women, it is a struggle for historians to find the real person underneath the layers of hostility in the sources.

Empress Wu

Empress Wu Zetian (624-705)

Image Source: Wikipedia

Suggested Classroom Exercises

Exercise on Chang’an and Luoyang – Divide the students into small groups and then give each group a set of seven maps from Lewis.10 Ask the students what these maps can tell us about the Tang Dynasty, and then give them some time to discuss possible answers. They will likely mention the numerous and diverse religious institutions, the highly restricted market areas, the grid pattern in Chang’an, and the waterways bisecting Luoyang. Use these answers as a starting point for a brief lecture on the origins of Chang’an, the Sui construction of the Grand Canal, the establishment of the Tang, the growth of long-distance trade (with other parts of China as well as along the Silk Road), and the presence of an effective administration (which was able to force people to live in walled neighborhoods within the city itself).

Historical Skill11 = Evaluating Evidence

Global Theme = The Significance of Architecture

Lewis Map Chang'an

Map of major religious establishments of Chang’an

Image Source: Lewis, China’s Cosmopolitan Empire, 93

The Tang Tomb Figures and Buddhism – Have the class discuss their homework, which is episode 55 of A History of the World in 100 Objects (available as a podcast). They should be asked to determine what the tomb figures tell them about the Tang Dynasty. They will likely mention the influence of the Silk Road and the great wealth on display, but may not pick up on the theme of the underworld. Use this to start a brief lecture about the arrival of Buddhism in China, including a description of Xuanzang’s journey to Nalanda to obtain original Sanskrit Buddhist texts for translation. However, note that the closing of the Silk Road in the later Tang as well as the encounter of Buddhism with other Chinese forms of spirituality (especially Confucian rituals and Daoism) led to unique patterns of spiritual development. In order to demonstrate this religious syncretism, explain how the underworld was a combination of Buddhist ideas of rebirth with Chinese ideas of judging the deceased, and how these were combined in new ways in The Scripture on the Ten Kings

Historical Skill = Identifying Continuity and Change

Global Theme = World Religions

Tang Tomb Figures

Tang Tomb Figures, c.728 AD

Image Source: British Museum

The Tang Tomb Figures and the Examination System

Note the presence of bureaucrats among the tomb figures, and explain that Tang China had a far more sophisticated system of administration than anywhere else on earth. After describing the selection process via exams, provide the students with a brief primary source describing (in humorous terms!) the stresses of the exam system.12 Ask the students whether they think impartial, standardized exams enable social mobility. Using the textbook, they will probably say that they do, but be sure to caution them that Lewis and other scholars feel the impact of these exams was minimal. primarily because the best prep schools only accepted the children of high-ranking officials, papers were not presented anonymously, students often had powerful patrons who lobbied for them, and the most important section of the exam was lyrical poetry (an art-form extremely popular among the Tang elite). It might be possible to use this section to start a discussion on how well standardized tests like the SAT and ACT encourage social mobility.

Historical Skill = Establishing Significance, Historical Empathy

Global Theme = Class Conflict

The Rise of Wu Zetian – Mention Empress Wu greatly expanded the exam system, primarily because she was reviled by most Confucian scholars as both a powerful woman and a major Buddhist patron – have them read Dash’s article in class and ask them to work in groups to write the missing epitaph on her tomb. Be sure to limit them to a relatively small word count so they have to think hard about what to include, and finish with a discussion of ways historians can try to piece together a representative account when the sources are so obviously biased.

Historical Skill = Evaluating Evidence, Assessing Progress and Decline

Global Theme = Gender and Society

Empress Wu Tomb

The “Uncharactered Stele” at the Qianlong Mausoleum, built to honor Wu Zetian

Image Source: Wikipedia


  1. Tignor et al, Worlds Together Worlds Apart, 3ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 340
  2. von Sivers et al, Patterns of World History, 2ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 352
  3. Tignor et al, WTWA 3ed, 348
  4. M.E. Lewis, China’s Cosmopolitan Empire, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009), 202
  5. Lewis, China’s, 223
  6. Lewis, China’s, 191-194
  7. Lewis, China’s, 86-101
  8. Dora Shu-Fang Dien, Empress Wu Zetian in Fiction and in History, (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2003) covers this issue in great detail.
  9. Lewis, China’s, 35-38
  10. Lewis, China’s, 87, 89, 93, 96, 98, 99, 100
  11. These skills are based on Stephane Levesque, Thinking Historically, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009) and include evidence, continuity and change, progress and decline, historical empathy, and significance. These will be described in further depth in a future post.
  12. Tignor et al, WTWA, 3ed, 393 has an excellent example that I have used in several versions of my HST 101 class.  It reads “In the Southern Court they posted the list. (The Southern Court was where the Board of Rites ran the administration and accepted documents. All prescribed forms together with stipulations for each degree category were posted here.) The wall for hanging the list was by the eastern wall of the Southern Court. In a separate building a screen was erected which stood over ten feet tall, and it was surrounded with a fence. Before dawn they took the list from the Northern Court to the Southern Court where it was hung for display. In the sixth year of Yuanhe (AD 811) a student at the University, Guo Dongli, broke through the thorn hedge. (The thorn hedge was below the fence. There was another outside the main gate of the Southern Court.) He then ripped up the ornamental list (wenbang). It was because of this that afterwards they often came out of the gateway of the Department (of State Affairs) with a mock list. The real list was displayed a little later.” Other examples can be found in Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, ed. P.B. Ebrey, (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 128-131.

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