Tuesday, August 12, 2014

An Lushan’s Rebellion (755–763)

An Lushan’s Rebellion (755–763)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: The renegade general An Lushan
vs. China’s Tang (T’ang) dynasty



MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Factions at court, vying
for power and influence, prevented An Lushan from
assuming the position of prime minister; the incensed
An Lushan sought to topple the Tangs, declare a new
dynasty, and place himself on the throne; Loyalists
fought to defend the Tang dynasty and restore its
ousted emperor.

OUTCOME: An Lushan was murdered, the six-year
rebellion was at length quelled, and the Tang returned to
power. The revolt, however, signalled the decline of the
Tang dynasty, not only highlighting the civil and military
deficiencies of the dynasty but becoming an instrument
in its decline.

Rebels, est. 200,000; imperial troops, unknown



In China during the middle of the eighth century, the Tang
dynasty reached new heights during the long rule of
Xuanzong (Hsuan-tsung) (685–762). Under his patronage
China experienced an explosion of literature and the arts.
The Middle Kingdom seemed truly the center of the universe,
as the Chinese had always imagined it to be, and to
the emperor’s court in Changan there flocked not just Chinese
historians, scholars, poets, dramatists, and entertainers,
but foreign envoys, clerics, and traders offering tribute
from countries all over Eurasia. For the first time in its
history, China seemed to be truly opening itself to the outside
world under the man the Chinese people had begun
to call informally Ming Huang, “the Brilliant Emperor.”
Opportunities abounded for the talented, the clever,
and the ambitious, and not merely among the highborn.
Neither were all foreign visitors to North China official
dignitaries. Arab pearl divers, Mesopotamian adventurers,
Turkish princes, Indian merchants, Japanese pilgrims,
Malay pirates, and Tibetan youths all came to Tang China
seeking glory or riches or freedom. Some found what they
were looking for. A Sogdian merchant became the protector
of Annam, then under Chinese hegemony. An Oman
gem dealer returned home with a gold-lidded, black
porcelain vase containing a single goldfish with ruby eyes
that smelled of musk and brought him 50,000 dinar. And
an obese Turkish soldier of fortune joined the Tang army as
a mercenary, rose to the rank of general, and was made military
governor of three important outposts in the northeast.
His name was An Lushan (703–757), and it would one
day soon be written in Chinese blood.
The relative openness of China at the time helps to
explain how a Persian-born nomad raised in Mongolia
could rise to military prominence in the provinces, but to
understand how An Lushan suddenly vaulted to center
stage in Tang history, one needs to know something about
the inner workings of the Chinese government and the
peculiar power enjoyed by its generals. When Xuanzong
first became emperor, he appointed members of China’s
ancient northwestern aristocracy to be his close advisers,
principally because he needed their support in order to
rule. But like the Tang emperors before him, he never
trusted the arrogant nobles, and once he had consolidated
his position he quickly reduced their numbers, relying
instead on a corps of young, low-ranking scholars
recruited directly through palace examinations to administer
his government. The power struggles that ensued
between the aristocrats and the examination graduates
increasingly disrupted the civil functions of government.
The emperor did nothing to stop the disputes.
Instead, he made matters worse by using eunuchs from his
harem as personal agents to circumvent both the scholars
and the nobles. As the day-to-day operation of the government
deteriorated, a weary Xuanzong withdrew altogether
from the affairs of empire, seeking solace in the pleasures
of the harem and in mystic religious studies that he
believed held the secret to earthly immortality. A few leading
ministers ran the state, occasionally assuming dictatorial
powers. To complicate the situation even further,
various of the emperor’s wives and concubines—the only
ones who saw him with any frequency at all—began to
meddle in public policy. The most persistent of them was
Yang Guifei (Yang Kuei-fei; 703–757), who had been Xuanzong’s
son’s concubine before the emperor took her for
himself. And Yang Guifei looked to the emperor’s soldiers
for her allies.
A century before, when China had expanded into
Central Asia, the Tang dynasts had reorganized their
armed forces in order to deal more effectively with the
hard-riding tribes of the steppes, creating a professional
standing army and giving the field generals fighting distant
battles the autonomy they needed to ensure victory.
In the heady times of triumph, no one paid much attention
when the generals recruited to their ranks nomads to
help fight their former tribesmen, nor did Tang leaders
stop to consider that the reforms would also give the generals
tremendous personal power. In the eighth century
the power of the field generals grew greater still as a result
of the domestic disarray. The emperor had appointed as
his official adviser Yang Guozhong (Yang Kuo-chung)
(d. 757), a favorite cousin of his omnipresent concubine,
Yang Guifei. To check the growing influence of the new
adviser and his concubine cousin, the powerful Chinese
prime minister, Li Linfu (d. 752), from the old northwestern
aristocracy and then the dominant figure in the Chinese
government, began to court favor with the generals
of the northern armies, especially those of foreign descent,
hoping they would prove more tractable than Chinese
officers. One of those generals was An Lushan.
In 751 the Khitan Mongols invaded China. Chiefly
through the efforts of An Lushan, the Tangs were able to
repel the barbarians, thereby earning him notice at court
and leading Li Linfu quickly to invite him to the capital. A
capable enough soldier, An Lushan was, or pretended to
be, something of a social buffoon. Corpulent and loud, he
cut quite a figure in sophisticated Changan. A favorite of
both the emperor and his consort, Yang Guifei, who
enjoyed his clowning, he was once, three days after his
birthday, sneaked into the harem wrapped in an enormous
baby diaper. Such hanky panky led to rumors that he and
Yang were lovers, but it was hardly likely Xuanzong would
have shared her, or that An Lushan would have risked the
emperor’s ire. Not that Yang was beyond intrigue, especially
if she could have seduced An Lushan away from Li
Linfu’s influence. But whatever the nature of the intrigues
she engaged in with the crude general, they came to an
abrupt end when Li Linfu died. Immediately, An Lushan,
the emperor’s favorite general, and Yang Guozhong, Yang’s
cousin and the emperor’s closest personal adviser, began a
bitter fight for the vacated prime minister’s post. The court
seethed with subterfuge and dirty politics, while the aging
emperor merely looked the other way.
Meanwhile, the country was falling apart. Onerous new
taxes had been imposed to raise the enormous amounts of
money needed to defend China’s borders against the Turks,
Tibetans, and other northern tribes who threatened the seriously
overextended empire. But the taxes were hardly
enough to defray defense spending, and the shortfall in
public funds made the overheated bureaucratic conflicts
even worse. Given the hothouse harem atmosphere and the
absentee emperor, no one was sure who ran the country.
That was the situation when Yang Guozhong won the
palace battle for the prime minister’s post, probably because
An Lushan, whatever else he might have been, was still a
foreigner. The enraged general launched a rebellion.
The fighting lasted more than seven years, from
December 755 to January 763, and it tore China asunder.
An Lushan first returned to his minions in the north, planning
to raise forces and march on Loyang, Xuanzhong’s
capital in the east, near present-day Beijing. Though Yang
Guozhong could attack and undermine the general at
court, Yang did not fare so well with members of the military.
Many of them flocked to An Lushan’s banner, especially
after he claimed to have received a secret command
from the emperor to get rid of the new prime minister.
With 200,000 troops he quickly overran the Yellow River
Valley and seized Loyang. An Lushan, seriously ill, perhaps
with diabetes, remained in Loyang while his army marched
on Changan, the imperial capital. The general in charge of
defending Changan, Ko Shuhan, and prime minister Yang
were bitter rivals, and fearing a coup, Yang goaded Ko into
taking the field against the rebels. The Tang army was
routed, and the way to the city lay wide open. After a sixmonth
siege, Changan fell to the rebels in 756. Xuanzong
had already fled with his entourage, escorted by a contingent
of imperial guards. In a mutinous mood, the guards
halted on the road and forced Xuanzong to execute both
Yang Guifei, his concubine, and Yang Guozhong, her
cousin the prime minister. Then, Xuanzhong made his way
to Chengdou (Ch’engku) in Sichuan (Szechwan) province,
where he set up a court in exile. Back in Loyang, An
Lushan declared himself emperor of what he called the
Greater Yen dynasty, and a number of prominent Tang officials
rushed to offer their support.
In the spring of 757, the imperial army counterattacked,
retaking the imperial capital. In Loyang the rebel
general, now nearly blind and extremely irascible, so
ranted and raved that his attendants feared for their lives.
Soon thereafter he lay dead, murdered by a eunuch slave
with the connivance of his own son, An Qingxu (An
Chingsu), who took command of the rebellion. There followed
a bewildering series of assassinations and successions,
of resurgent loyalist attacks and rebel counterattacks,
and of mayhem and pillage across the face of North China.
At one point Tibetan raiders, emboldened by the Chinese
chaos, swept into Changan and occupied the city for two
weeks, looting and raping before they burned to the
ground the former metropolitan center of Asia. It was a
bitter civil war, one of the most violent in Chinese history
and one whose outcome was in doubt almost to the end.
Finally, government forces were able to subdue the rebels,
and Xuanzong, nearing 80, exhausted, and wracked with
grief over the loss of Yang Guifei, returned to Changan to
die in 762 while his son Taizong (T’ai-tsung; 762–779),
now emperor, struggled to rebuild an empire that existed
in name only.
The struggle would go on for another century, during
which the great generals who had helped crush the An
Lushan rebellion would become warlords ruling over the
provinces they had recovered and fighting constantly
among themselves. The rebellion had permanently damaged
the prestige of the Tangs, establishing for good the
influence of strong military leaders, rather than scholars,
at court. Though the Tangs would cling to the throne,
their dynasty had begun its long decline, and their once
rich, stable, far-flung empire had become a troubled,
divided state spinning into decline.


Further reading: Howard S. Levy, Biography of An Lushan
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960); E. G.
Pulleyblank, The Background of the Rebellion of An Lu-shan
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1955).

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