Culture and Spirit During the Apex of the Tang Dynasty
(Clearwisdom.net) The Tang Dynasty is considered a golden age in Chinese history, a time when China was the largest and strongest nation in the world. The apex of the Tang Dynasty refers to the time between the "Reign of Zhen Guan" (i.e., the reign of Emperor Taizong of Tang) and the "Reign of Kai Yuan" (i.e. the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang.) During this period, China enjoyed a moral political system and flourished in all aspects including the economy, society, as well as literature and the arts.
Why was this so? It was because Emperor Taizong of Tang and his successors had caring and loving hearts for the people. They appointed virtuous and capable people to important positions, and were able to accept suggestions and even criticism from their appointees. Although supreme as an emperor, Taizong was humble, respectful, and tolerant. He even appointed those who had opposed him to important positions. Taizong had always been diligent and had lofty goals. Thus, he was not only the founder of the Tang Dynasty, but also a role model for future emperors.
The unique character of Tang can be summarized as "having an open and broad mind, combining the very best of all." It is precisely this spirit that forged this culturally diverse and splendid period in Chinese history.
I. Literature and the Arts
"The Complete Tang Poems," compiled during the reign of Emperor Kang Xi of the Qing Dynasty, is a collection of more than 48,000 poems written by over 2,200 poets. The number of accomplished poets and the diversity of their poetry was a shining star in the history of Chinese literature. The poems written during the Tang Dynasty were not only great in number, but were also high in artistic value.
The opening piece of "The Complete Tang Poems" was Taizong's ten poems of "The Imperial Capital." "My heart rose with the sun in clear sky; my aspiration as pure as the autumn chrysanthemum." (From "Re-visiting the Battlefield where I Defeated Xue Ju") Xue Ju was a warlord at the end of the Sui Dynasty. These pieces had an imposing spirit, which allowed the readers to experience the author's lofty realm and high ambitions.
The ensuing poems by the officials in Taizong's royal court also manifested open and broad vision. For example, high-ranking official Yang Shidao wrote in his poem "Waiting to See His Majesty in Early Autumn:" "In the clean air and clear sky, I felt my mind was broadened while reciting a poem." The upright, pure, and simple character of poems during the Reign of Zhen Guan had quite an impact on future generations.
The golden time of the Tang Dynasty produced countless renowned poets: "God of Poetry" Li Bai, "Saint of Poetry" Du Fu, Meng Haoran and Wang Wei who were both famous for poems describing natural scenery, Gao Shi and Cen Shen whose poems were mostly about life in border areas, "the Poetry of Confucius" Wang Changling, and so on. In the later years, Bai Juyi was typical of many poets in the mid-to-late Tang Dynasty. Their poems are profound, imposing, and far-reaching; they transcend the mundane and embody the spirit of the Tang Dynasty. "(My heart is so) inspired by lofty aspirations, as if we were about to fly to the blue sky to pluck the moon." This poem, written by Li Bai, is just one example of their skill with words.
In addition to poetry, Tang style essays, novels, and tales of marvels also reached a very high artistic level. Scholars of the Tang Dynasty wrote about people's lives and exposed the dark side of society, demonstrated acute insight, courage, sense of responsibility, great foresight, and broad vision. Between the lines we are able to see their high ambition of "saving the multitudes of people, and maintaining the peace and prosperity of society."
II. Calligraphy and Painting
Taizong paid great attention to calligraphy. He established Hongwen Palace and appointed renowned calligraphers to teach students. He issued an order that all officials whose rank was over the fifth grade must go to Hongwen Palace to study calligraphy. Taizong praised the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi, one of the greatest calligraphers, as "perfect in terms of both virtue and art," and advocated Wang's style of calligraphy. Calligraphy was thus on an orthodox path. Under the influence of Taizong, the later emperors such as Gaozong and Zhongzong also loved and advocated good calligraphy. As a result, calligraphy reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty. The Tang Dynasty also produced the largest number of calligraphers among all of the dynasties. For example, Ouyang Xun, Yu Shinan, Yan Zhenqing, and Liu Gongquan just to name a few. Their works still serve as prime examples for calligraphy lovers to emulate.
The painting circle was very active during the Tang Dynasty, and the range of subjects was broadened like never before.
"A True Portrait of Taizong" and "The Twenty-Four Officials of Great Merit" by painter Yan Liben looked true to life and vividly represented the images and expressions of Taizong and his officials, whose great feats laid the foundation for the prosperity of Tang. Yan was therefore acclaimed "a god-like painter."
Another painter Wu Daozi made over 400 Buddhist and Taoist mural paintings in temples at Chang'an and Luoyang. Each Buddhist and Taoist figure was different from the other; moreover, his paintings fully displayed the mighty dignity of Buddhas and deities, and the splendor of paradises. He was able to finish a painting with one flourish of the brush, and his paintings awed the entire Chang'an city.
Later generations respected him as the "Saint of Painting" and described his work as follows: "Waving the brush as a swirl of wind, as if a god is helping him." Painters and sculptors worshipped him as the "Founding Master." He was and remains quite influential.
Mural painting and sculpture also made great progress during the Tang Dynasty. They had outstanding composition and rich colors, sumptuous yet elegant, bright yet calm. They were truly magnificent and graceful. For example, "The Western Pure Land," one of the paintings in the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang, displayed the magnificent scene of a heavenly paradise with a multitude of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and sentient beings, each with a radiant look and vivid expression; it is truly awe-inspiring and enchanting.
III. Music and Dance
Tang era music and dance used the best movements of previous generations, and adopted the best from the many minorities as well as foreign nationalities in the west. The music and dance are a true reflection of a peaceful and prosperous society with hundreds of nations and a variety of nationalities in perfect harmony.
Tang music and dance are grand and magnificent. Poetry and prose are compiled into songs and odes; the instruments were very diverse including the zither, Chinese harp, and drums; the dances were graceful and smooth; the costumes were colorful and diverse. Among the Tang music and dance there was "Qingshang Music," which included traditional music starting from as far back as the Han Dynasty; there was also "Northwest Land Music" and "Goryeo Music," which were named after the places they originated. The original pieces compiled during the Tang Dynasty were a combination of music, dance, and poetry, often in the form of large-scale, multi-section presentations. One of the most famous productions created during the Tang Dynasty was "Li Shimin Defeating Liu Wuzhou," a grand and majestic showcase of music and dance that described and praised Taizong's virtuous feat of eliminating a vicious enemy, unifying the nation, and bringing peace to the people. The music became very popular, and was even widely spread in countries outside of China.
IV. Ideology and Beliefs
Tang Dynasty is a period when Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism continued to develop to their peak in popularity. The teachings of these three schools helped to regulate people's ideology and conduct, and permeated all aspects of society. As a result, the entire society was able to maintain a high moral standard. The Tang Dynasty thus reached a glorious level.
Taizong not only respected Confucianism, but also supported Taoism and Buddhism. During the Tang Dynasty, there was a complete system of worshipping heaven and earth, as well as worshiping deities. People respected heaven and believed in God. Scholars respected Taoism and promoted virtuous conduct, taking the well-being of the people and prosperity of society as their responsibility. Confucianism teaches peoples: "A Benevolent Person Loves Others;" the Taoist school teaches "Enlighten to Tao and Validate the Truth;" the Buddhist school teaches "Offering salvation with Compassion." These orthodox beliefs helped people understand the doctrines of life, so as to maintain their pure and benevolent nature. People of that time strived to seek truth and firmly maintain a virtuous heart.
Taizong issued an order to have some scholars compile the book "Five Classics of Confucianism," which became the standard textbook for students to study in preparation for the imperial examination. It remained a standard textbook for later generations as well. Confucianism then became the basic principles to discipline people's minds and conduct.
Taoist teaching was also widely promoted during the Tang Dynasty. Many scholars, such as He Zhizhang and Li Bai, sought the Tao. In fine arts, there was a special study dedicated to Taoist and Buddhist figures. Musicians compiled grand Taoist music pieces. The renowned Chinese Medicine doctor Sun Simiao was a Taoist cultivator whose lifetime endeavor was the cultivation of Tao and providing medical treatment for people. He saved the lives of countless people. Later generations worshipped him as "Taoist True Man Sun" and "the King of Medicine."
The Buddhist doctrine was also widely promoted. Large numbers of Buddhist scriptures were being translated and spread during this time. People believed in Buddha Dharma, and believed in karmic relationships. They cultivated the heart and strived to be compassionate. Society was in great peace and people's minds were pure and kind.
Accomplished monk Xuanzang, with his compassionate heart for all, was determined to go to India to obtain some Buddhist scriptures. He spent 17 years making a long and arduous journey to India and back, and returned with 657 scriptures. Upon his return, he translated all of the scriptures into Chinese at Ci'en Temple in Chang'an. Taizong greatly acclaimed the monk's feat and gave him tremendous support. Moreover, Taizong personally wrote the foreword for Xuanzang's translation collections. It began with an exposition on heaven and earth, yin and yang, transformation of the four seasons, the visible and the intangible, macroscopic and microscopic, then transitioned to the power of Buddhist teachings, and praised the incredible feat of seeking the Buddhist scriptures. The foreword was majestic in its momentum, yet elegant in its literary style.
V. Cultural Exchange with Neighboring Countries
Taizong proposed and adopted a friendly foreign policy: "Gently Embracing Thousands of Nations." The Reign of Zhen Guan was greatly admired by neighboring countries; over 300 countries and tribes regularly sent diplomatic envoys to China. The royal Tang court therefore set up numerous organizations to host foreign visitors and take care of bilateral relationships. Many countries in Asia and Africa sent envoys to China. Other countries adopted many of the policies of the Tang Dynasty. Among those who went to the capital Chang'an from abroad to learn from Tang culture were members of royal families, envoys, students, artists, and monks. Chang'an became the largest international capital of the world at that time. The Guozijian (Central Academy of Feudalist China) was the most acclaimed academy in the world. Japan had sent only 19 groups of envoys to China, totaling over 5,000 people. Students from overseas were admitted to Tang's highest educational institution Guozijian. After several years of study, the students might stay to work in an official capacity in China, or go back to their home countries to spread Han culture to their countrymen. Monks from other countries resided in temples, and worked hard to study the Buddhist scriptures. Some countries invited accomplished persons in China to teach in their countries. For example, Monk Jianzhen went to Japan six times, bringing Buddha statues and Buddhist scriptures to Japan and promoting Buddhism as well as Tang culture to Japan. He thereby made a significant contribution to the cultural exchange between Japan and China.
The Tang culture has glorious achievements that will shine forever in China's civilization. It has also become a treasure for the entire world with its profound substance and great influence on neighboring countries. It is a most splendid scroll in the annals of history. It will forever remain Chinese people's pride and glory. The prosperous, heaven-like kingdom and Taizong's upright, benevolent, and broad heart will never fade from people's memories.
In today's China, the Chinese communist party has distorted traditional moral values and traditional culture. The "Party Culture" has infiltrated people's minds and is characterized by "deceit, evil, and violence," thus taking people to a dangerous state of complete moral collapse.
There is a way out. Those who firmly believe in truth and uphold moral values and justice, are the hope of our nation.