10. Fun Facts About the Tang Dynasty in China
What Is so Interesting About the Tang Dynasty?
If you ask me what period of history I would like to have lived in, I would choose sometime during the Tang Dynasty in China.
The Tang dynasty was an amazing time. While Europe was suffering during the Dark Ages, people in China were doing things like playing polo. See the photo to the left? That is a polo player - the stick has disintegrated, but you can see how the polo player has their hand around it.
But it wasn't just about sports.
There were breakthroughs in paper making that allowed books to be produced in large quantities and the first "mass produced" book was printed.
Common people were permitted to take examinations that allowed them to become civil servants and leaders in government for the first time. This was a big change from the former emphasis on appointing aristocratic family members to government posts.
China had its only woman Emperor, who made it possible for women to receive government posts too.
Christianity became established in China in the atmosphere of religious openness.
Literature and poetry flourished. Poems from this dynasty are still considered some of China's finest.
1. The World's First Book Was Printed in the Tang Dynasty
The first printed book
The Year? 868 Ad, Almost 600 Years Before the West Began Printing Books
The method? Woodblock printing.
Characters were carved into wooden planks, ink spread over the plank, and paper pressed onto it to copy the characters onto the paper. Of course, you can only use these planks for a time, because they can break or split. But the method works. The challenge was that they had to cut the characters backward to get them to print properly. That is not easy!
The Book? The Diamond Sutra, which is a Buddhist scripture.
The Diamond Sutra teaches six practices:
I can see why they were anxious to make many copies. If you would like to see the whole thing in an HD page turning version, go to the British Library website, or to landmarks in printing page for more information.
2. To Print a Book You Needed Paper—Good Paper for Books Was Developed in the Tang Dynasty
Yes—many new forms of paper were invented in the Han Dynasty! And they were easier to make, so it is during the Han Dynasty that paper spread through Asia, although they didn't have paper mills in Europe until much later.
I tried making paper once. I put a bunch of fibrous grass and lint from the dryer in my blender and whizzed it up and tried to make paper from the fibers. It didn't work. I ended up with a really nasty lump of fibers that didn't stick together well. I am glad my mother found it amusing that I used her blender in this way. She liked experiments. Have you ever tried it?
What matters is the fiber you use. In the Tang Dynasty, they made lots of advancements in paper making using more bark. The paper became whiter and firmer. They also made things like waterproof paper and papers of different colors. The photo shows some fine colored paper that is now in the Imperial Treasure House Shoso-in at Nara, Japan.
The only difference between paper then and now is that we now add a filler to the fibers used to make the paper that makes the paper really smooth.
Wouldn't it be cool to go back in time and visit a paper maker in the Tang Dynasty?
Toilet Paper Was Invented in the Tang Dynasty Too!
3. The First Murder Mysteries May Have Been Written in the Tang Dynasty
People kept records of interesting court cases during the Tang Dynasty. In a way, they are the first murder mysteries.
If you like murder mysteries, you might like this book written by a Dutch diplomat and scholar, Robert Van Gulik, taken from historical records in Tang Dynasty times. They are not boring! They will give you a better feel for the times, and are very entertaining.
I have read everything he has written—they are all good.
4. The First Christian Churches Were Built in China During the Tang Dynasty
Christian Churches in China?
The Eastern Orthodox church sent monks to China in the Tang times. The Emperor was extremely open minded and welcomed them, along with other religions. He did not see other religions as a threat but welcomed them to share their understanding of spiritual things.
Christianity grew quickly during the Tang times, and soon there were many "Christian temples" spread throughout the Empire. It was called "The Religion of Light" in Chinese.
Why didn't it last?
So many people were trying to give big donations of gold and silver to temples that the government had very little gold left in its own treasuries. Closing temples was one way to get the gold and silver back, and that is what happened. There were massive closures of monasteries and temples at the end of the Tang Dynasty, not just the Christian ones. Monks were sent home to resume life as farmers.
This is a picture of the pagoda at the first Christian temple in China about an hour and a half drive outside of Xi'an. Inside the pagoda is a carving of a nativity scene and some other scenes from the Bible.
5. The Emperor Was in Charge of the Government
You might think that an Emperor would have an easy time of everything. Actually, it was a very difficult job. Why?
In modern day America, Presidents share power with the congress and senate, and there is not usually one person to blame for problems. But in Tang Dynasty China the person responsible for everything was the Emperor. And what happened if there was a disaster?
When locusts came and devoured all the plants and tree leaves, and there was nothing left to eat, the Emperor would take full responsibility. The Emperor would always blame himself, saying that he had "governed poorly" and "offended heaven." What was the solution?
The Emperor spoke some famous words: "Mankind depends on grains for life. If the people have committed sins, I am solely accountable for them. You should devour me only and not harm the people."
Another time when there was a bad drought, the Emperor stood in the sun praying at an altar for three days with no clothes on to encourage the gods to show sympathy for the country's plight.
6. But Even Common People Had the Chance to Get a Government Job...
As Long as They Were Very Smart
Before the Tang times, only noblemen and aristocrats had the chance to go to school and they were the ones to become civil servants and gain position and fame. This meant that a limited number of people kept hold of all the good government jobs. After the country began to expand to the West, there was a need for more government officials to govern the expanding number of cities in China.
To find good officials, the Tang government put more importance on the examination system, and education and talent became more important than whether you were of noble birth or not. Because of this, boys from families who had enough money to send their sons to school and hire tutors had a chance to become a civil servant, and moderately wealthy families began to share in the government.
What was school like then? School meant a lot of memorization. Little boys would begin memorizing characters at home beginning as early as 3 years old. When they were 8 they would go to school to study the Confucian classics, and this was their preparation for the civil servant exams. They also learned about poetry, "eight-legged essays" and calligraphy. If you weren't good at this, you would never get a post in the government.
Poetry gave women the chance to reach the highest level of civil service. Women from scholar's families mostly lived at home and did not get out much, but for lucky ones their families taught them as well. Women were not allowed to take the exams to receive government jobs except during the Tang Dynasty—another first! China's only female Emperor, Wu Zetian, made a ruling that permitted women to receive the highest degree of the civil service exam if they were successful at poetry exams. Does that tell you something about her? Yes, she was a very strong woman, and she loved poetry.
7. Government Officials Were Supposed to Be Good at Poetry
Because if you can write a poem in Chinese, you need to be very clever. Why?
One reason—you must also consider tones.
The Chinese language not only has all the usual nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, but it also has tones. Five tones are necessary in order to speak Mandarin properly. They are:
- First tone: Flat, no change up or down
- Second tone: Rising up
- Third tone: Falling, then turning the corner and rising
- Fourth tone: Falling
- Fifth tone: Short and neutral
When you write a poem in Chinese, not only do you have to consider the patterns of rhyme, but you also have to consider the tone patterns and the structure. The picture here is a picture of the tonal scheme of a poem, using symbols for the various tones, in this case, the tones for a seven line Lu poem.
Looks complicated, right? It is.
To write an elegant poem in Chinese is extremely difficult because you have to take so many aspects into account that we don't have in English. The difficult parts are: making the tones follow a pattern, and on top of that, the poems followed patterns of making the tones follow a pattern, and on top of that, the poems followed patterns of theme.
A Second reason: Poems often followed topical requirements
An example of a poem's topic requirements:
- 2 lines about nature
- 2 lines about history
- 2 lines about nature
- 2 lines about your feelings
Anyone who could make an elegant poem following all these rules and requirements had to be extremely intelligent, well versed in their classical literature, creative, and talented. This is what the government was looking for in their candidates for government posts.
8. In Tang Dynasty Times They Had Interesting Pets—Their Favorite Was the Cricket!
This is a quote from a Tang Dynasty historian:
"Whenever the autumn arrives, the ladies of the palace catch crickets and keep them in small golden cages, which were placed near their pillows so as to hear their songs during the night. This custom was also mirrored by common people."
The people of the Tang Dynasty were very romantic. They loved the sound of singing crickets and felt that the crickets could express what they were feeling very deeply, usually something very melancholy.
Keeping singing crickets was especially loved by the concubines. The Emperor often had thousands of ladies in his palace, and although they were well taken care of, they didn't have much contact with anyone other than themselves, and it was lonely. The crickets could be cared for like children, which gave the ladies something to do, and their singing helped them find a reflection of their sadness or other melancholy feelings. From that time on, it was common for Emperors and their palace retinue to keep singing crickets in the fall.
This photo is one of my songsters I kept in the fall. He sang quite loudly and is classified as a Beijing Fighting Cricket. I don't let mine fight, but they have a wonderful spunky spirit.
9. Fireworks May Have Been Invented in the Tang Dynasty—It's a Controversy...
No one knows for sure when fireworks were invented. It looks like they evolved slowly.
If you put a joint of bamboo in a fire, it will emit a loud pop when the steam that has built up inside bursts out of the joint. That is how fireworks began. After the invention of gunpowder, it was not a big step to load some into the bamboo joints and make a louder bang.
There are stories about a certain monk named Li Tian, who helped his neighbors scare ghosts away using fireworks. When the Emperor at the time heard about Li Tian and his fireworks, he summoned him to the Palace to help him recover from illness, which was thought to be caused by evil spirits.
When the Emperor recovered, Li Tian was given many honors, and became known as the "Father of Fireworks," and eventually he became known as the "god of fireworks" for the firecracker trade.
The photo here is taken of a picture representation of the "god of fireworks" who was worshiped by makers and sellers of fireworks in China throughout history.
10. They Loved Entertainment and Sports
In Tang times people loved entertainment. They developed new dances and even had dancers come from far away places like India and Korea to study their new dance forms and exchange ideas. The Emperor's Palace had special rooms given to the dancers for practice and training.
Everyone appreciated music. There were troupes of musicians who traveled the countryside to give performances and huge orchestras that gave concerts at the Palace to entertain the Emperor and his guests. There are stories of orchestras with as many as 700 instruments.
In this photo you can see from left to right:
A zither, a Chinese banjo, a percussion instrument of tiny cymbals, a bamboo flute and a mouth organ, made of a wooden base and bamboo pipes.
The music was not like Western music. It emphasized "harmony" between the instruments, so they all played the same notes! Since the music had Confucian influences, the point of the music was to influence people to respect authority, and to help people cultivate "composure and moderation." It does not sound like rock music! In fact, it sounds quite plain.