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An Lushan Rebellion
Tang Dynasty circa 700 CE.png
Tang Dynasty c. 700
DateDecember 16, 755 to February 17, 763
LocationNorthern China
Result Tang defeat of Yan Dynasty of An and Shi, although with Tang Dynasty greatly weakened
Tang Empire Yan
Commanders and leaders
Tang Xuanzong
Tang Suzong
Tang Daizong
Feng Changqing
Gao Xianzhi
Geshu Han
Guo Ziyi
Li Guangbi
Zhang Xun
An Lushan
An Qingxu
Shi Siming
Shi Chaoyi
c.600,000-700,000 at peak c.200,000–300,000 at peak
Casualties and losses
Heavy Heavy

The An Lushan Rebellion was a devastating rebellion against the Tang Dynasty of China. The rebellion overtly began on December 16, 755, when general An Lushan declared himself emperor in Northern China, thus establishing a rival Yan Dynasty, and ended when Yan fell on February 17, 763 (although the effects lasted past this). This event is also known (especially in Chinese historiography) as the An–Shi Rebellion or An–Shi Disturbances (simplified Chinese: 安史之乱; traditional Chinese: 安史之亂; pinyin: Ān Shǐ Zhīluàn), as it continued after An Lushan's death under his son An Qingxu and his deputy and successor Shi Siming, or as the Tianbao Rebellion (天宝之乱), as it began in the 14th year of that era.

The rebellion spanned the reigns of three Tang emperors before it was quashed, and involved a wide range of regional powers; besides the Tang dynasty loyalists, others involved were anti-Tang families, especially in An Lushan's base area in Hebei, and Arab, Gokturk, and Sogdian forces or influences, among others. The rebellion and subsequent disorder resulted in a huge loss of life and large-scale destruction. It significantly weakened the Tang dynasty, and led to the loss of the Western Regions.



Sogdians donors to the Buddha (fresco, with detail), Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, eastern Tarim Basin, China, 8th century.

Beginning in 742, Eurasia entered a thirteen-year period of major political turmoil, with the regional empires generally suffering "a major rebellion, revolution, or dynastic change."[1] In this year, the Türk dynasty of the Eastern Steppe was overthrown and then replaced by Sogdian-influenced Uighur rulers.[1] This was apparently the first of several revolutionary events either led by or intimately connected with the merchants and tradespeople involved with the international commerce often referred to as the Silk Road.[2] The Abbasids began a rebellion against the Umayyad Caliphate, beginning in 747, in Merv, Khurasan, and resulting in the proclamation of a new Abbasid Caliph in about 750.[3] This rebellion also seems to have been organized by merchants and persons identifying themselves as merchants.[3]

Western expansion of the Tang Empire was checked in 751 by the defeat of a large expeditionary force led by General Gao Xianzhi in the Battle of Talas in the modern Fergana Valley, with the Arab victory attributable to the defection of the Karluk Turks during the midst of the battle. Further, southern expansion of the empire was limited by the ineffective, and even disastrous, campaigns against the Kingdom of Nanzhao. However, the concurrent Tang campaign against the Tibetan Empire was proceeding more successfully, with the campaign to capture the Tibetans' Central Asian territories appearing to be near to success. With the assassination of the Tibetan emperor Me Agtsom in 755 in the midst of a major rebellion within the Tibetan polity, final Tang victory over the Tibetan Empire seemed all but assured. But, meanwhile, back in the increasingly financially challenged Chinese heartland, the Sogdian-Turkic general An Lushan had worked himself into a position of greatest trust with the Tang emperor Xuanzong and his consort Yang Guifei.

General An Lushan

Tang Dynasty sancai pottery camel and man

An Lushan was a general of uncertain birth origin, but thought to have been adopted by a Sogdian father and Tujue mother;[4] eventually, he managed to become a favorite of the reigning emperor of China. His success in this regard is shown, for example, by the luxurious house which Emperor Xuanzong had built for him in the capital Chang'an, in 751, furnished with such things as gold and silver objects and a pair of ten foot long by six foot wide couches appliqued with rare and expensive sandalwood.[5] He was appointed by Emperor Xuanzong (following the suggestion of Xuanzong's favourite concubine Yang Guifei and with the agreement of chancellor Li Linfu) to be commander (节度使) of three garrisons in the north—Pinglu, Fanyang and Hedong. In effect, An was given control over the entire area north of the lower reaches of the Yellow River, including garrisons about 164,000 strong. He took advantage of various circumstances, such as popular discontent with an extravagant Tang court, the synchronous Sogdian-involved Abbasid Rebellion against the Umayyad Dynasty,[6] and eventually the absence of strong troops guarding the palace coupled with a string of natural disasters. He was a favorite in the Tang court, even calling himself the adopted son of Yang Guifei. He was thus protected from criticism, even when her relative the chief minister, Yang Guozhong, demanded his dismissal.

Course of the rebellion

The An Lushan Rebellion signaled a period of disorder spanning the reigns of three Tang dynasty emperors, beginning during the final (Tianbao era) period of the reign of Xuanzong (8 September 712 – 12 August 756), continuing through the reign of Suzong (12 August 756 – 16 May 762), and ending during the reign of Daizong (18 May 762 – 23 May 779), as well as spanning the four imperial claimants of the Da Yan.

Revolt and capture of Luoyang

Camel with rider, earthenware, Tang Dynasty

At the end of 755, An Lushan revolted.[7] His army surged down from Fanyang (near modern Beijing). Along the way, An Lushan treated surrendered local Tang officials with respect. As a result, more and more local officials joined his ranks. He moved rapidly along the Grand Canal and captured the "Eastern Capital" city of Luoyang within the year, defeating the poorly supplied General Feng Changqing. There, An Lushan declared himself Emperor of the new Great Yan dynasty (大燕皇帝). His next steps would be to capture the Tang western capital of Chang'an and then to attempt to take the rest of southern China.

Battle of Yongqiu

However, the horrific Battle of Yongqiu, in the spring of 756, went badly for An Lushan. Although his army, under Linghu Chao, was numerous, it was unable to make further territorial gains due to the failure to wrest control of Yongqiu (modern Qi County, Kaifeng, in Henan) and (later) the nearby Suiyang District from the Tang defenders led by Zhang Xun. This prevented the Yan forces from quickly conquering southern China, before the Tang were able to recover. The Yan army did not take control of the Suiyang District until after the Siege of Suiyang (January–October 757), almost two years after their initial capture of Luoyang.

Advance on Chang'an

Yang Guifei Mounting a Horse, by Qian Xuan (1235–1305)

Originally, An Lushan's forces were blocked from the main imperial (or "Western") capital at Chang'an (modern Xi'an), by loyal troops placed in nearly impregnable defensive positions in the intervening high mountain passes of Tongguan. Unfortunately for Chang'an, the two generals in charge of the troops at Tong Pass, Gao Xianzhi and Feng Changqing, were executed due to a court intrigue involving the powerful eunuch Bian Lingcheng. Yang Guozhong, with grossly inept military judgment, then ordered the replacement General, Geshu Han, who was in charge of the troops in the passes, together with reinforcement troops, to attack An's army on open ground. The Tang forces were defeated, and the road to the capital now lay open.

Flight of the emperor

This painting, in the manner of Li Zhaodao, from the 11th century, shows Emperor Xuanzong of Tang fleeing to Sichuan province from Chang'an to escape the violence. Later artists produced numerous versions of this painting, including one by Qiu Ying in the Ming Dynasty.

With the rebel forces clearly an imminent threat to the imperial seat of Chang'an, and with conflicting advice from his advisers, Tang emperor Xuanzong determined to flee to the relative sanctuary of Sichuan, with its natural protection of ranges of mountains, which would allow for the Tang forces to reorganize and regroup. Together with the emperor went the bulk of his court and household. The route of travel from Chang'an to Sichuan was notoriously difficult, requiring hard travel on the way through the intervening Qin Mountains.

The Chinese beauty Yang Guifei, by Hosoda Eishi

However, the geographical features of the terrain were not the only hardships which this journey involved: there was a matter which first had to be settled, involving the relationship between Xuanzong and the Yang family, especially the emperor's beloved Yang Guifei. So, before progressing more than a few kilometers along the way, an incident occurred at Mawei Inn, in today's Xingping in Xiangyang, Shaanxi: Xuanzong's bodyguard troops demanded the death of the much-hated Yang Guozhong, and then of his cousin and imperial favorite, Yang Guifei. With the army on the verge of mutiny, the Emperor had no choice but to agree, ordering the suicide of Yang Guozhong and the strangling of Lady Yang. Meanwhile, the crown prince, Li Heng, fled in the other direction to Lingzhou (today called Lingwu, in Ningxia province). Later, in 756, after reaching Sichuan, Xuanzong abdicated (becoming Taishang Huang), in favour of the crown prince, who had already been proclaimed emperor.

Fall of Chang'an

In 756, An Lushan and his rebel forces captured Chang'an, an event which had a devastating effect upon this thriving metropolis. Before the revolt, estimates put the population within the city walls at around 800,000–1,000,000. Including small cities in the vicinity forming the metropolitan area, the census in 742 recorded 362,921 families with 1,960,188 persons. Much of the population fled at the approach of the rebels. Then city was captured and looted by the rebel forces and the remaining population put in jeopardy.

A new emperor

In 756, the (3rd or 4th) son of Xuanzong, Li Heng, was proclaimed Emperor Suzong at Lingzhou (modern-day Lingwu), although another group of local officials and Confucian literati tried to promote a different prince, Li Lin, the Prince of Yong, at Jinling (modern-day Nanjing). One of Suzong's first acts as emperor was to appoint the generals Guo Ziyi and Li Guangbi to deal with the rebellion. The generals, after much discussion, decided to borrow troops from an offshoot of the Turkish Tujue tribe, the Huihe, or Huige, also known as the Uyghur Khaganate (ancestors of the modern-day Uyghurs, but then located in Mongolia), who were ruled by Bayanchur Khan until his death in the summer of 759. Over 22,000 Arab mercenaries were sent by the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur to join the Tang in 756, staying in China after the war.[8][9][10][11] Possibly some of these mercenaries intermarried with the Hui people.

With this assistance, the Tang Imperial forces recaptured both Chang'an and Luoyang in 757.[6] However, they failed to capture or subdue the rebel troops, who fled to the rebel heartland in the northeast.

Siege of Suiyang

In the beginning of 757, and continuing through October of that year, a protracted stalemate between the Yan and Tang forces occurred in Suiyang. This significantly blocked the Yan forces from attacking the extensive areas south of the Yangzi River, which remained relatively untouched by the An–Shi disturbances.

Implosion of Yan Dynasty and end of the rebellion

Tang Dynasty – Archer in the act of shooting

The imperial forces were helped by internal dissent in the newly formed dynasty. An Lushan was killed by his son, An Qingxu, in late January 757. (His father's violent paranoia posed too much of a threat to his entourage.) His son was then killed by a subordinate, general Shi Siming, An Lushan's childhood friend and follower. Shi recaptured the city of Luoyang soon after. However, in 761 Shi Siming was killed by his son, Shi Chaoyi, who then promptly proclaimed himself emperor, although failing to get general support from the other Yan generals.

In 762, Emperor Suzong had become seriously ill. The combined forces of the Tang and their Huige allies were led by the eldest son of Suzong. This son was at first named Li Chu, then renamed Li Yuin, in 758, after being created crown prince; and, eventually renamed again as Emperor Daizong of Tang, on 18 May 762. In the period before his final victories over the rebel forces, he was also confronted with a wide variety of threats; for example, the port of Canton was pillaged in 758 by sea-borne Arab and Persian forces, probably pirates based on Hainan.[12] However, by this time it was clear that the new Yan Dynasty would not last long, and Yan officers and soldiers began to defect to the Tang side. Finally, the eastern capital Luoyang was taken by Tang forces for the second time, in the winter of 762. Yan Emperor Shi Chaoyi attempted to flee, but was intercepted in the spring of 763. Shi Chaoyi then chose suicide to avoid capture. Thus ended the eight years of the rebellion.

However, the end of the rebellion was only part of a long process of rebuilding and recovery for the Tang. In part due to the weakened condition of the Tang, other disturbances continued to evolve. The Tibetan Empire under Trisong Detsän, taking advantage of the Tang's weakness during the rebellion, had reconquered much of their Central Asian territories, even going so far as to take the city of Chang'an in late 763.


Death toll

Emperor MingHuang with his concubine Yang Guifei and various attendants on a terrace, by Kano Eitoku, 16th century

There is no doubt that the rebellion resulted in a major death toll, in general, and that the Tang empire's population was greatly reduced. The devastation of the population was not only a direct result of the combat casualties and civilian deaths as a direct result of warfare, but due to the widespread dislocations of the social and economic system, especially in the north and middle areas of China, mass starvation and disease also resulted in death by the millions. However the number of deaths is difficult to estimate even in approximate terms.

Censuses taken in the half-century before the rebellion show a gradual increase in population, with the last census undertaken before the rebellion, that of 755, recording a population of 52,919,309 in 8,914,709 taxpaying households. However a census taken in 764, the year following the end of the rebellion, recorded only 16,900,000 in 2,900,000 households. Later censuses count only households, but by 855 this figure had risen to only 4,955,151 households, little over half the number recorded in 755.[13] Some scholars have interpreted the difference in the census figures as implying the deaths of 36 million people, about two-thirds of the population of the empire. This figure was used in Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature, where it is presented as proportionally the largest atrocity in history with the loss of a sixth of the world's population at that time,[14] though Pinker noted that the figure was controversial.[15]

Historians such as Charles Patrick Fitzgerald argue that a claim of 36 million deaths is incompatible with contemporary accounts of the war.[16] They point out that the numbers recorded on the post-war registers reflect not only population loss, but also a breakdown of the census system, as well as the removal from the census figures of various classes of untaxed persons, such of those in religious orders, foreigners, and merchants.[17] For these reasons, census numbers for the post-rebellion Tang are considered unreliable.[13] Another consideration is the fact that the territory controlled by Tang central authority was diminished by the equivalent of several of the northern provinces, so that something like a quarter of the surviving population were no longer within the area subject to the imperial revenue system.[18]

Weakening of Tang

The Small Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an (formerly Chang'an)

The rebellion of An Lushan and its subsequent aftermath greatly weakened the centralized bureaucracy of the Tang Dynasty, especially in regards to its perimeters. Virtually autonomous provinces and ad hoc financial organizations arose, reducing the influence of the regular bureaucracy in Chang'an.[19] The Tang Dynasty's desire for political stability in this turbulent period also resulted in the pardoning of many rebels. Indeed, some were even given their own garrisons to command. Political and economic control of the northeast region became intermittent or was lost, and the emperor became only a sort of puppet, set to do the bidding of the strongest garrison. Furthermore, the Tang government also lost most of its control over the Western Regions, due to troop withdrawal to central China to attempt to crush the rebellion and deal with subsequent disturbances. Continued military and economic weakness resulted in further subsequent erosions of Tang territorial control during the ensuing years, particularly in regard to the Uighur and Tibetan empires. By 790, Chinese control over the Tarim Basin area was completely lost.[20]

The political decline was paralleled by economic decline, including large Tang governmental debt to Uighur money lenders.[21] In addition to being politically and economically detrimental to the empire, the rebellion also affected the intellectual culture of the Tang Dynasty. Many intellectuals had their careers interrupted, giving them time to ponder the causes of the unrest. Some lost faith in themselves, concluding that a lack of moral seriousness in intellectual culture had been the cause of the rebellion.[22] However, eventually a political and cultural recovery did occur within Tang China several decades after the rebellion, until about the year 820,[23] the year of the death of Emperor Xianzong of Tang. Much of the rebuilding and recovery occurred in the Jiangnan region in the south, which had escaped the events of the rebellion relatively unscathed and remained more firmly under Tang control. However, eventually, due in part to the warlord system, the Tang Empire by 907 devolved into what is known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.[24]

Cultural influence

The events involved with the An Lushan rebellion had and have an immense cultural influence both in China and beyond. For instance, in China itself, events were reflected through the verses of those contemporary poets who were all caught up in events of the rebellion.

  • The great poet Li Bai (also known as "Li Bo" or "Li Po", who lived about 701–762) avoided the rebels, but at the cost of getting involved in the wrong side of a power struggle between the princes of the royal family. He was convicted of involvement with rebellion, and sentenced to exile, although later reprieved. His surviving poems reflect the golden days before the An Lushan rebellion, his lengthy and deliberately protracted journey toward exile, together with his hardships, wandering, and his disillusionment as the Tang re-consolidated control after the rebellion. He died in 762, before the final defeat of the rebel forces in 763.
  • Li Bai's colleague Du Fu (712–770) had finally attained a minor appointment in the imperial bureaucracy when the rebellion broke out. He spent the winter of 756 and the summer of 757 as a captive in rebel-occupied Chang'an,[25] but later managed to escape and join with Suzong's side, and thus avoid charges of treason. Living until 770, his subsequent poetry is a primary source of information about the massive upheavals of the period.
  • Wang Changling (698–756?), was another Tang official and renowned poet who died in the rebellion, in about 756.[26]
  • Wang Wei (approximately 699–759) was captured by the rebels in 756 and sent to Luoyang where he was forced to serve as an official in their governmental administration, for which he was briefly imprisoned after his capture by loyalist forces.[27] Dying before the end of the rebellion, somewhere between 759 and 761: Wang Wei lived his last years in retirement at his country home in Lantian, secluded in the hills.
  • Wei Yingwu (737–792) of Three Hundred Tang Poems fame is credited with writing the poem "At Chuzhou on the Western Stream": a poem apparently written in response to the seemingly helmsless ship of state of the times.[28]

Later poets, such as Bai Juyi (who was not born until 772, and died 846) also wrote famous verses about the events of the period of the Anshi affairs. The tragic events were epitomized in the story of Xuanzong and Yang Guifei, and generations of Chinese and Japanese painters depicted various iconic scenes, such as Yang Guifei bathing or playing a musical instrument or the flight of the imperial court on the "hard road to Shu" (that is, the royal progress to Sichuan). These artistic themes were also a major source of inspiration in Japan, in regards to the Tale of Genji, partially inspired by the story of Yang Guifei.[citation needed]

Popular culture

In April 2010, author Guy Gavriel Kay published a historical fiction novel taking place in the time leading up to and the beginnings of the An Lushan Rebellion titled Under Heaven. The story takes place in a fictionalized China and as such is not to be taken as a historical work, but it does incorporate many of the main events that took place during this period.

See also


Specific citations

  1. 1.0 1.1 Beckwith, 140
  2. Beckwith, 141
  3. 3.0 3.1 Beckwith, 143
  4. Beckwith, 145, note 19
  5. Schafer, 137
  6. 6.0 6.1 Beckwith, 146
  7. Beckwith, 145
  8. Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa (2002). Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa. ed. The religious traditions of Asia: religion, history, and culture (2, illustrated ed.). Psychology Press. p. 375. ISBN 978-0-7007-1762-0. 
  9. Charles Patrick Fitzgerald (1961). China: a short cultural history (3 ed.). Praeger. p. 624. 
  10. Everett Jenkins (1999). The Muslim diaspora: a comprehensive reference to the spread of Islam in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. 1 (illustrated ed.). McFarland. p. 61. ISBN 978-0-7864-0431-5. "Arab troops were dispatched by Abu Gia-far to China." 
  11. Stanley Ghosh (1961). Embers in Cathay. Doubleday. p. 60. "During the reign of Abbassid Caliph Abu Giafar in the middle of the 8th century, many Arab soldiers evidently settled near the garrisons on the Chinese frontier." 
  12. Schafer, 280 (note 19)
  13. 13.0 13.1 Durand, John D. (1960). "The Population Statistics of China, A.D. 2–1953". pp. 209–256. JSTOR 2172247. 
  14. Pinker, Steven (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature. Penguin Books. p. 194. ISBN 978-1-846-14093-8. 
  15. Pinker, 707
  16. Fitzgerald (1985), China: a short cultural history, p. 314.
  17. Schafer, 280 (footnote 18)
  18. Fairbank, 86
  19. DeBlasi, Anthony (2001). "Striving for Completeness: Quan Deyu and the Evolution of the Tang Intellectual Mainstream". Harvard-Yenching Institute. pp. 5–36. Digital object identifier:10.2307/3558586. JSTOR 3558586. 
  20. Beckwith, 157
  21. Beckwith, 158
  22. DeBlasi (2001) p. 7
  23. Schafer, 9-10
  24. Fairbank, 86-87
  25. Cotterell and Cotterell, 164
  26. Rexroth, 132
  27. Davis, x
  28. Wu, 162

General sources

  • E. G. Pulleyblank, The Background of the Rebellion of An Lu-Shan, London: Oxford University Press (1955).
  • E. G. Pulleyblank, "The An Lu-Shan Rebellion and the Origins of Chronic Militarism in Late T'ang China", in Perry & Smith, Essays on T'ang Society, Leiden: E. J. Brill (1976).
  • Denis Twitchett (ed.), The Cambridge History of China, Volume 3, Sui and T'ang China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1979). ISBN 978-0-521-21446-9.
  • Beckwith, Christopher I. (2009): Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-13589-2.
  • Davis, A. R. (Albert Richard), Editor and Introduction,(1970), The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse. (Baltimore: Penguin Books).
  • Schafer, Edward H. The Golden Peaches of Samarkand. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. ISBN 978-0-520-05462-2.
  • Cotterell, Yong Yap and Arthur Cotterell (1975). The Early Civilization of China. New York: G.P.Putnam's Sons ISBN 399-11595-1
  • Fairbank, John King (1992), China: A New History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-11670-4
  • Rexroth, Kenneth (1970). Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese. New York: New Directions.
  • Wu, John C. H. (1972). The Four Seasons of Tang Poetry. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E.Tuttle. ISBN 978-0-8048-0197-3

External links

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