China’s Tang Dynasty: A Cosmopolitan Golden Age

Under the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese Empire was more cosmopolitan than ever before or since; an impressive feat for an imperial dynasty that existed over one thousand years ago.

Mar 30, 2022By Olivia Barrett, BA & MA History
tang dynasty illustration painting and camel

 

Lauded as China’s “golden age”, the Tang Dynasty was epitomized by its economic, social, and political stability, a flourishing artistic and literary culture, and increasing interaction with the outside world. During the first half of the Tang Period, the empire’s triumphant military conquests pushed the empire’s boundaries to their widest extent.

 

By the height of Tang rule, many of China’s cities were cosmopolitan metropolises, and the capital, Chang’an, was home to over one million residents, including expatriates from across Central Asia and beyond. The Tang capital became the largest and most diverse city in the medieval world. And the empire’s influence stretched across Asia, advancing a commercial, culinary, artistic, religious, and intellectual exchange across the region. But by the end of the Tang period, the stability and unity that had characterized the seventh and early eighth centuries had all but deteriorated. Nevertheless, the period is admired as a time of incredible cultural richness and diversity — and with good reason.

 

The Tang Dynasty’s Multiethnic Beginnings

emperor gaozu tang dynasty
Portrait of Emperor Gaozu of the Tang Dynasty, unknown artist, 7th century, via study.com

 

The Tang Dynasty was, by all accounts, destined to become a period of cosmopolitanism from its very inception. The dynasty’s founder, Li Yuan (later to Emperor Gaozu), came from a proudly multiethnic background. The first Tang emperor was part of a northern aristocratic family, likely Hebei in origin, who had intermarried with the Xianbei tribal aristocracy.

 

Gaozu laid the foundations for a wide acceptance of a myriad of ethnicities that flourished within early-to-mid Tang society. Ethnic and/or racial identity did not seem to limit the extent to which a person could ascend to great heights of power and status under Tang rule. A profusion of non-Han Chinese elites operated at the highest levels of every field of the Tang administration, inclusive of military, trade, and governance.

 

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We should not, of course, take this to mean that Tang society was some kind of all-accepting, hand-holding utopia in which the empire’s subjects did not “see” foreigners as foreigners. Far from it. As historian Marc Abramson has pointed out, Tang Han elites were very much aware of ethnic differences, openly distinguishing themselves from ethnic Others and referring to different peoples as “not of our kind.”

 

That said, though the Han Chinese considered ethnic, geographic and class origins to be of great importance, this belief did not lead them to dismiss or distrust foreign influence. Quite the opposite; there was a ready acceptance of non-Han and non-Chinese people at every level of Tang society. Foreigners and ethnic others were, in fact, welcomed with enthusiasm owing to the perceived talents and skills that they were thought to bring to the empire.

 

court ladies zhou fang 8th century
Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair with Flowers, by Zhou Fanglate, 8th-early 9th century CE, via Google Arts & Cultures

 

Tang elites frequently alluded to the enriching effects of these cultural imports, differentiating between foreigners with regard to their various desirable talents, such as skill in warfare, technology, animal husbandry, and more entertaining pursuits like music, dance, fashion, and crafts.

 

The Tang did not just tolerate ethnic diversity, they considered it essential to the establishment of a strong empire. It was this attitude toward ethnic and cultural differences that underpinned the Tang Dynasty’s success.

 

Tang Dynasty Cities

luoyang pavilion li zhaodao national palace museum taipei
Painting of Luoyang Pavilion, by Li Zhaodao, early 8th Century, via the National Palace Museum, Taipei

 

In light of this appreciation for cultural diversity, the Tang Dynasty saw the influx of thousands of foreigners who came to live in Chinese commercial hub cities such as Canton and Chang’an. Expatriates spilled in from all over Asia and beyond, with a bounty of people from Persia, Arabia, India, Korea, and Southeast and Central Asia. Chinese cities became bustling epicenters of commerce and trade, abundant in foreign residents and the plethora of cultural riches that they brought with them.

 

Southern port cities such as Canton and Fuzhou swelled with foreigners as trade expanded in Southeast Asia and along the Chinese coast. A census taken in 742 CE showed that the foreign proportion of the registered population had massively increased from nearly a quarter in the early seventh century to nearly half by the mid seventh century, with an estimated 200,000 foreigners in residence in Canton alone.

 

With the influx of foreigners and the resulting cultural diversity, came a vogue for all things exotic that saturated every sector of Chinese society. The Chinese developed a penchant for foreign fashion, food, and music among many other things, all culminating in the glamorous cosmopolitan identity that epitomized the Tang Dynasty.

 

Exotic Influences on Tang Dynasty Fashion

horse female rider figurine tang dynasty
Figurine depicting a Horse and female rider, 7th century, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Turkish and Iranian styles seemed to have a particularly large impact on Tang Dynasty fashion. This became increasingly apparent in the seventh and eighth centuries, when Tang fashionistas adopted various forms of Middle Eastern headwear. In the early seventh century noble Tang ladies sported the mi-li (a hat-veil combination that covered the face and most of the body to ensure anonymity when traveling).

 

In the mid seventh century, the mi-li went out of style, only to be replaced by another middle eastern headdress; a kind of “curtain hat” with a veil that fell at the shoulders and could reveal the face. By the eight century, Turkish caps had become de rigueur and Tang women rode around their cities in their stylish new headwear or (shockingly) wearing no headdress at all.

 

The mid-Tang saw a surge of cosmopolitan fashions such as tight fitted bodices with pleated skirts favored by Iranian women, and similarly exotic hair and makeup styles such as the “Uighur chignon” worn by ladies at court.

 

Food

camel figurine tang dynasty met museum
Figurine depicting a Camel with Dionysian imagery on its saddle bags, late 6th–7th century, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

The Tang Dynasty also saw an equal enthusiasm among the Chinese for foreign foods. The influx of delectable new foods imported from across the land and sea ensured the increasing popularity of cosmopolitan cuisine. Exotic new ingredients found their way into Chinese cooking.

 

The Chinese acquired spices from the Indian subcontinent such as cardamom. New fruits were introduced; mangoes from Southeast Asia, ginseng root from Korea, and dates, figs, and golden peaches from Samarkand. Thanks to the influence of Central Asian and Middle Eastern imports, exotic meats like camel were also on the Tang menu.

 

There was also a huge demand in Tang China for another new import: sugar. Obligingly, Indian envoys from the court of Emperor Harshavardhana (who ruled northern India from 606-647 CE) brought two sugar-makers to teach the Chinese how to cultivate sugarcane. The sweet new staple led to a rising demand for various types of foreign cakes and in particular West Asian-influenced sweet pastries, often fried and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

 

Music & Dance

dancing girl figurine tang dynasty
Tomb figurine of a dancing girl, 7th century, via University of Cambridge Collection

 

The Tang Chinese also proved cosmopolitan in their passion for the music and dance of other countries. At the Tang court, there were a total of nine musical ensembles, playing all kinds of music from across Asia.

 

Several foreign musical instruments were imported including percussion instruments such as bells and cymbals from India. Meanwhile, oboes, miniature drums, and flutes were imported from Kucha (an oasis city in Central Asia). Instruments from Persia such as the pipa (a lute-like instrument, about three feet long with four strings) were given as gifts to envoys from Japan who visited China in the late seventh to early eighth centuries.

 

The dances of foreign cultures also became very fashionable in Tang China. This is discernible, for example, in a Tang period sculpture from Cambridge University’s collection that depicts a dancing lady with sensually swaying hips and undulating arm movements, which appear to be akin to a Middle Eastern Raqs (from which modern belly dance is descended).

 

Musicians and dancers from regions to the west of China appear to have been very popular in the Tang period. “Western twirling girls” were especially sought after; in the eighth century, Emperor Xuanzong received a gift of these particular dancers from the west via the Silk Road. The emperor was said to be entranced with the young women dressed in their scarlet tunics and red leather boots and their dancing as they “skipped and twirled on top of balls rolling around the dance floor…their feet never touched the ground.”

 

Foreign Religion in Tang Dynasty China

buddha amitabha 7th century tang dynasty
Buddha, Probably Amitabha, early 7th century, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Foreign religions such as Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism were all practiced among the thousands of foreign residents of Tang China. Although, as historian Patricia Ebrey emphasizes, these religious practices did not integrate as well into the lives of the Chinese as the music, foods, and fashions of foreign cultures, the presence of these foreign religions must be seen as evidence for the remarkably tolerant and cosmopolitan approach of Tang Dynasty rule.

 

The religious diversity of Chinese cities such as Canton and Chang’an were unparalleled by other cities across the world in the Medieval period. For example, a stele erected in Chang’an in 781 serves as tangible evidence for the presence of foreign religion in Tang China. The stele recorded (in Chinese and Syriac) facts about the Nestorian Church in China; having been introduced to China in 631 during the reign of Taizong by an Iranian named Olopan (or Alopen), the Nestorian church gained imperial permission for preaching and the erection of churches later in the seventh century.

 

li zhaodao emperor xuanzong tang fleeing 11th century
Painting, in the manner of Li Zhaodao (651–716), from the 11th century,  depicting Emperor Xuanzong of Tang fleeing to Sichuan province from Chang’an to escape the An Lushan Rebellion, via the China Museum

 

However — somewhat strangely — Buddhism in the early Tang dynasty, unlike the dynasties prior to the Tang, was regarded with a sort of tolerant distrust, uncharacteristic of the cosmopolitan attitude of the high Tang period. The first Tang emperor, early in his reign, reduced the throne’s reliance on Buddhism as a unifying force in China. He appointed Fu Yi (a Daoist priest who was known for his fierce criticism of Buddhism) as his chief astrologer and showed his own preference towards Daoism and Confucianism in an edict declaring them as “key pillars of the state.”

 

Similarly, Emperor Taizong (who reigned from 626 – 649 CE) displayed quite a hostile attitude towards Buddhism. In 637 he issued an edict in which he criticized the prominent position that Buddhism had come to hold in China, and decreed that Daoist clergy would hold precedence over Buddhist monks and nuns.

 

Although Taizong appeared to remain critical of Buddhism, in 649 (the year of his death), he did give an audience to the famous Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang — the emperor may have developed a late interest in Buddhism, or perhaps he was fascinated with Xuanzang’s travels abroad. In either case, it must be conceded that there was uneasy tolerance regarding Buddhism. In terms of religious integration and ready acceptance, the Tang were not as cosmopolitan in comparison with their eagerness to embrace the food, fashion, and music of other cultures.

 

Ethnic Tensions in the Tang Dynasty?

emperor taizong tang dynasty
Portrait of Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, unknown artist, 7th century, via Wikimedia Commons

 

In spite of the Tang Dynasty’s exceptional tolerance and cosmopolitanism, as with any period of human history, there must always be some unfortunate exceptions.

 

It is doubtful that there were no tensions between Han and non-Han members of Tang society, particularly in periods of conflict — the beginning of the eighth century, for instance, when the eastern Turks dominated the Steppe region from Manchuria to Ferghana, posing a formidable threat to the Tang Empire. And, of course, there was a notable change in attitude and policy after the An Lushan Rebellion that marked the second half of the Tang Dynasty, and its eventual decline.

 

Despite tensions such as these, there was clear enthusiasm for foreign cultures throughout the early-to-mid Tang period. Emperor Taizong for one was known for his love of Turkish culture. The emperor preferred to speak the Turkish language, wore the attire of a Turkish Khan, and even lived in a Turkish-style tent that he had erected on the palace grounds. A similar enthusiasm for Turkish culture was shared by the poet Bai Juyi (or Bo Juyi) who was said to have entertained guests in sky-blue Turkish tents.

 

Certainly, there was a popular enthusiasm for foreign cultures throughout the early and mid-Tang period in terms of foods, fashion, and even language. Therefore, while it must be acknowledged that intercultural tensions will surely have existed, historians have perhaps overestimated the effect of these tensions, which seemed to have had a limited effect on the cosmopolitan attitude widely taken, at least, when the empire was at the height of its power in the early to mid-Tang Dynasty.

 

The Tang Dynasty: Conclusions

tang dynasty map
Map of the Tang Dynasty, via the Chinesehistorydigest.com

 

It cannot be denied; the Tang Dynasty was a remarkably cosmopolitan age. The inpouring of different peoples and their cultures via the Silk Road and trade routes overseas were ardently embraced and integrated into the dynasty’s cuisine, fashion, entertainment, and the very fabric of Tang society itself.

 

While, inevitably, there were periods of unease and some aspects of foreign culture — most prominently religion — were not so easily integrated into Chinese society, the remarkable acceptance and tolerance with which foreigners and foreign customs were treated in early-to-mid Tang society is nothing short of outstanding for such an early era.

 

The Tang typified a period of open-mindedness and a liberal attitude that was unique to its time, and the dynasty continues to be regarded as a golden age of cosmopolitanism in China.



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By Olivia BarrettBA & MA HistoryOlivia holds a BA from University College London and an MA in History from the University of Manchester, England. She specializes in histories of gender, sexuality and religion, with a particular interest in how the beliefs, folklore and mythologies of the past manifest in the present.