A Call for Questions! (End of the Dynasty)

As we near the demise of the Tang Empire, it’s time once again to send out a call across the land asking for your China-related questions! Pretty much anything goes, doesn’t have to be related to this era (though that helps!)




25 thoughts on “A Call for Questions! (End of the Dynasty)

  1. I recently finished Sima Quian’s Basic Annals of Gaozu of Han. I was struck by the way in which he is portrayed; a drunk (the book says he was intoxicated when he started his rebellion in Pei), and a coward (children in the cart). Why would the Grand Historian risk his life to publish such a critical portrait of the Supreme Ancestor, and why was the book not suppressed? I do know he was castrated, but was that not for other offenses?

  2. I have recently watched the movie “House of Flying Daggers” which is supposed to be set during the Tang Dynasty. The question I have is that during the scene in the restaurant at the beginning of the movie the main character throws out what looks like miniature silver ingots as payment. What were these and why were they shaped that way? Why was it used as payment instead of regular coins, was this a result of the lack of coinage you have mentioned several times throughout the episodes?

  3. Who do you feel was the best emperor during the Tang Dynasty? If not the same person, what about throughout all of Chinese history up to the end of the Tang Dynasty? What makes a good ruler? Is a good ruler a father figure who spends treasury on the masses? Is a good ruler a conqueror? Would Socrates and Confucius agree on what a good ruler is, and if so, what drink would they share in such a bugging bromance?

  4. 1. The bureaucracy that was created during the Tang Dynasty was vast. Following the fall of the dynasty into the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period and then into the Song, how did the massive institution for the Middle Kingdom survive the test?

    2. It is clear when emperors that are only on the throne for a short period of time there is a troubling time in the empire. When Emperors that are on the throne for ten plus years or even twenty plus years that stability usually ushers in a time of prosperity. If the Tang had periods where rulers reigned for longer periods would the stability of the dynasty lasted longer or would have it still collapsed into itself due to the known issues in the latter periods of the dynasty?

    Finally episode 97, the opening that you did made me chuckle hard.

  5. What did military formations look like? What constituted the military units? How were they assembled, organized and commanded? What were they equipped with? How did they fight? How has ancient chinese military changed and evolved throughout its 5000 year history? What sources would you recommend for further understanding regarding these questions?

    1. I have been curious about ancient chinese military for a long time, but have never found any good sources to satiate my curiosity, and is relatively clueless about this matter. In contrast, I have a significantly better understanding of ancient western army composition, such as Alexander the Great’s solid blocks of phalanx multiple ranks deep equipped with small round shields and 16-18 ft long sarissas which allowed the first five ranks of soldiers to engage the enemy, flanked by more mobile sword carrying troops when he faced off against Darius in the plain of Gaugemela, or the more flexible composition of the roman legions 5000 strong, each subdivided into cohorts 80-100 men with the individual legionnaire equipped with gladius and pilum, and siege units armed with onagers; where the professional legionnaire served a term of 25 years, and would afterwards retire with land granted by the government as pension.

      With such legendary commanders as Sun Zi and Bai Qi commanding armies which often dwarfed all other contemporary armies of other civilizations, I would imagine the ancient Chinese military would be no less sophisticated than their Greek or Roman counterparts, and I hope History of China can give us a clearer picture of it.

  6. As I understand, the actual way the battles were fought and any tactics used weren’t recorded too thoroughly in Chinese history. As best you can, can you shed any light on the evolution of tactics or army composition from conscripted armies to professional forces over the centuries?
    Also, is there any data on how the soldiers of varying classes would be armed and armored and how that changed from the Warring States period to our current Tang period?
    Any advances in metallurgy or smithing techniques leading to different types of weaponry preferences?
    I know this is a lot, and a very broad topic, so feel free to pick what you want to answer.

    As always, thanks.

    1. For all you military buffs out there: PBS just released a NOVA episode “Chinese chariot revealed” http://www.pbs.org/video/3000902498/, detailing the reconstruction of a Zhou dynasty (700BC – maybe early Spring & Autumn?) chariot and reverse engineering its battlefield functions. There is some weaponry discussion, and it did touch tactics a little bit.

  7. In the latest episode, you mentioned the use of “peasant rebellion” as a traditional label. I wonder how far back was this phrase used? The modern phrase, 农民起义 (peasant uprising) is used throughout the Communist textbook from Chen Sheng and Wu Guang’s time, as the same text considers the First Empire also the formal beginning of feudal economy when a formal peasant class started to exist. (Before that, it was all “slave rebellion”.) But I cannot easily relate the phrase to an ancient form. As you mentioned, 亡命 and such were quite common but they do not convey the same connotations. Even when the righteousness associated with 起义 (uprising for justice) is replaced with violence, like in 农民暴乱, a four-syllable word still sounds modern. In classic historic fictions, the Romance of Three Kingdoms uses negative phrases such as 乱军 to describe Yellow Turbans, and Water Margin uses positive phrases such as 好汉 to describe Song Jiang. Later uprisings with a political ambition like Li Zicheng describe themselves as 义军. All of them use two syllables to which 农 is difficult to attach.

    Unrelated, thinking about the traditional Communist explanation of the Chinese history makes me wonder how is agricultural revolution related to the transition to feudal society. For some reason, maybe because of the Chinese word 农 appears in both agriculture and in peasantry, I had this strong impression that the feudal society began to form with the agricultural revolution. (Or perhaps my history teachers had said so. It was too long ago.) In formal history text I learned, although feudal economy had evolved since Spring and Autumn, the First Emperor was the one who formalised the system throughout China. But even if that is correct, the Yellow Emperor is supposed to have taught people how to farm. This would push the Chinese agricultural revolution very far before Spring and Autumn. So were farmland mainly in the hands of royalties before that time?

  8. What period/reign of Tang would you or most historians consider the apogee of the dynasty? I.E., who was the best ruler of Great Tang (including Empress Wu, ok so she’s my fav, nasty women and all)?

  9. Did ancient Chinese historians ever notice the trend of the China-unifying dynasty quickly usurped by a more long lasting dynasty? Thinking of Han usurping Qin, Tang usurping Sui, Jin usurping Wei. Did any following dynasty attempt to protect themselves from such pattern?

    1. They saw the pattern, and at least some of the emperors did attempt to stave off their own dynasty’s oncoming decline. However, the pattern that emerged typically either happened because to many of the emperors didn’t give enough of a damn to actually govern the realm and/or wanted to “Build the Wall and make the peasantry pay for it!” … Alternately, then there’s the upcoming conquest dynasties in which whether the emperor was virtuous or not, the Mongols were coming regardless.

      In terms of historiography, it was taken as a given that everything was fundamentally circular and bound to pattern… the Dynastic Cycle might turn quickly or slowly, but turn it would. Or, in the words of the wise king, Mufasa: “A king’s time as ruler rises and falls like the sun. One day, Simba, the sun will set on my time here, and will rise with you as the new king.”

  10. I have only gotten as far as Cao Cao reversing one of the two classic blunders, trying to NOT fight a land war in Asia, so maybe you’ve covered this already.

    What are the proper procedures for establishing a new dynasty, possibly by usurping a previous one? I don’t mean the practical bits like troops, money, a young and pliable Emperor in your control. I mean usual rites, rituals, and customs. I have the impression from Wikipedia that these were common ones:

    The nine bestowments.

    Taking possession of the Heirloom Seal of the Realm, but that was lost somewhere around the 900s C.E.

    Official history: “Typically, rulers initiating a new dynasty would employ scholars to compile a final history from the annals and records of the previous one.”

    I dimly recall hearing of titles, or perhaps a specific title, being given to a scion of a previous dynasty. (A title other than “the late”, that is. — Unlike the Byzantines, the Chinese didn’t do “the blinded and castrated” for former rulers, did they?)

    I saw a reference in one place to new dynasties “changing the new moon”, but it didn’t explain it at all. Wasn’t calendar maintenance rather important in the Chinese imperial system?

    Did the first emperor of a dynasty often posthumously name his father or others emperor?

    Are these accurate? Were there others?

    1. I see from the Facebook page that I missed the bus on the Tang Q&A. Well, maybe it’s interesting enough to be worth keeping for the next end of dynasty. There will always be another dynasty, right?

      Thank you for mentioning another sign: demanding and receiving the title of “duke” in an era that doesn’t use the title. (in #41, E. Han 8: A Farewall to Hans)

    2. You’ve got all the big ones. The possession of the imperial seal was crucial, as it legitimized what ever edicts and orders the “power behind the throne” wished implemented. That was omniuseful, even if overt usurpation was not the goal, but rather puppetry.

      The Nine Bestowments tend to be the biggest, most overt, and penultimate act that one could take to telegraph their intent to claim the throne. But prior to that would often be having the emperor ennoble them as a prince to make them a “legitimate” candidate to the throne. This didn’t always happen, to be sure, (neither did the bestowments). Sometimes the practicalities on the ground simply didn’t allow for such ceremonial shadow-dancing, and usurpers tend to be nothing if not pragmatic about how they come into their throne. All the more when you’ve come to power at the head of a peasant uprising, the success of which has already proven that the Mandate of Heaven has already been passed to you… meaning that while you’re not sitting in the chair yet, you’re already by default the emperor. Still, when possible, the optics of that formalized process apparently made the transition look “better”.

      When offered the throne by the emperor on the outs, it’s best to decline, essentially look around and say, “who? Me? I couldn’t possibly! There must be someone better qualified!” That should be done three times. Wouldn’t want to look like you want the top job in the universe, or anything.

      Once enthroned and with new dynastic name in mind, first thing to do is give the former emperor a new title, the Prince of Suchandsuch… and then have him carted off under heavy guard to his new “palace” with such luxuries as high walls, a guard corps personally loyal to you, and no visitors allowed. Only the best for former royalty. Once the huh-bub has died down a bit… well, having a living scion of the previous dynasty for potential ingrates to rally around is just asking for trouble… but that’s nothing a dose of poison, a noose, or a good old fashioned blade from one of those loyal guardsmen can’t remedy.

      Then you’ve got to get down to business, which means issuing edicts declaring that there’s a new sheriff in town. Typically this is promulgated alongside an “Act of Grace”, which declared a new reign era (if you emperor long enough, you’ll have several), starts the calendar over, issues new laws, and issues blanket pardons for most of the people locked up in jail (at you discretion, of course). The calendar bit is extremely important because, as the Son of Heaven, it is you ceremonial right and duty to function as the prime astronomer/astrologer, and thereby intuit the will of heaven. This was taken extremely seriously, and there were few duties considered more important than imperial maintenance of the calendar. Then, as you mentioned, you’ll likely wish to posthumously declare your ancestors as emperors… typically Mom and Dad, though sometimes going back to grandparents if they were seen as having begun the struggle you just won.

      The compilation of the previous dynasty is an important undertaking as well, but not one that needs to be done right away. Histories, after all, take time… plus your officials will need further time to review the work of the historians and make sure that they’ve painted the former dynasty as suitably terrible, and yours as appropriately glowing. That work might not even really get going under the first emperor (though it might) and it will often be two or more emperors into a dynasty before the tome is completed.

  11. Perhaps I am blind, but on the Web site, I do not see the name and the lineage of our illustrious and learned teacher, much less any interesting bits of his own history (might he be a lecturer? an advanced student? an independent student?). May I ask for a one-paragraph introduction on the Web site?

  12. You use a picture labeled: “Hanchariotwarfare”. It has been used many times on the internet, but I’ve been unable to identify the artist / owner. I’d like to use it in a trailer to advertise a novel. Would you provide me with the source you used to license the picture?

    Thank you.

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