An Shi Rebellion

11:16, April 06, 2010      

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The An Shi Rebellion (simplified Chinese: 安史之乱) took place in China during the Tang Dynasty, from December 16, 755 to February 17, 763. The common term for the rebellion takes the first names of the initiating rebel An Lushan, first ruler of Yan, and An's successor Shi Siming. It is also known as the An Lushan Rebellion or Tianbao Rebellion (天寶之亂), as it began in the 14th year of that era. The rebellion spanned the reign of three Tang emperors. The death toll of these events is estimated to be up to 36 million[1], though this figure is almost certainly exaggerated and is unsubstantiated due to the breakdown of the census system during the war.

Course of the rebellion


An Lushan was a general of Sogdian ancestry (i.e., non-Han). He was appointed by the Xuanzong emperor (following the suggestion of Yang Guifei and with the agreement of Li Linfu) to be commander (節度使) 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. With such power and land in his control (including garrisons about 164,000 strong), An Lushan planned a revolt, taking advantage of the absence of strong troops guarding the palace and of the popular discontent with the extravagant Tang court caused by a string of natural disasters. He avoided suspicion by pleasing the Emperor in as many ways as possible, even calling himself the adopted son of Xuanzong's favorite concubine, Yang Guifei. In this way, he was protected from criticism, even when the Chief Minister, Yang Guozhong, demanded his dismissal. (This version of events is disputed by some historians; see the articles about the Yangs, An and the emperor.)

Revolt and initial successes

In 755, An Lushan revolted under the pretense of punishing his tormentor Yang Guozhong. His army surged down from Fanyang (near Beijing in modern Hebei province). Along the way, An Lushan treated all surrendered local Tang officials with respect. As a result, more and more local officials joined his ranks. He moved rapidly along the Grand Canal of China and captured the city of Luoyang within the year. There, An Lushan declared himself Emperor of the new Great Yan dynasty (大燕皇帝). His next step would be to overtake the Tang capital and the rest of southern China.

However, the battle for eastern China went badly for An Lushan. Although his army was numerous, it was unable to take control of the Suiyang District (near modern-day Henan) from the Tang defenders. This prevented him from quickly conquering southern China, before the Tang were able to recover. By the time the Yan army took control of the Suiyang District, it was almost two years after the fall of Luoyang.

Advancing to the capital

Originally, An Lushan's forces were blocked from the main imperial capital at Chang'an by loyal troops placed in impregnable defensive positions in the intervening mountain passes. Unfortunately for Chang'an, Yang Guozhong, with grossly inept military judgment, ordered the troops in the passes to attack An's army on open ground. They were demolished, and the road to the capital now lay open. Seeing the imminent threat to Chang'an, Xuanzong fled to Sichuan with his household. On the way, at Mawei Inn, today Xingping in Shaanxi, Xuanzong's bodyguard troops demanded the death of the much-hated Yang Guozhong, and then of his cousin, Lady Yang. 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 modern-day Ningxia province). After reaching Sichuan, Xuanzong abdicated in favour of the crown prince.

This (3rd or 4th) son of Xuanzong, now called Suzong, was then proclaimed emperor, although another group of local officials and Confucian literati tried to proclaim a different prince 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 tribe (ancestors of the modern-day Uyghurs). In this way, the Imperial forces recaptured both Chang'an and Luoyang, though they failed to pursue the fleeing rebels.

The imperial forces were helped by internal dissent in the newly-formed dynasty. An Lushan was killed by his son, An Qingxu, not long after his ascent to the throne. (An's virulent paranoia posed too much of a threat to his entourage.) His son was then killed by a subordinate, general Shi Siming. Shi recaptured the city of Luoyang soon after. However, Shi Siming was killed in turn by his son, Shi Chaoyi. By this time, it was clear that the new dynasty would not last long, and generals and soldiers alike started to defect to the Tang army. Finally, after Luoyang was taken by the Tang forces for the second time, Shi Chaoyi committed suicide (in 763), thus ending the 8 year long rebellion.

Death toll, legacy, and historical implications

The rebellion spanned the reigns of three emperors, starting during the reign of Xuanzong and ending during the reign of Daizong. The toll of dead and missing, including those caused by suppression and famine, is estimated at up to 36 million, which would be 2/3 of the total taxroll population at the time. Total world population at the time is estimated at 207-224 million. Numerically, this was the highest toll for any event for nearly 1200 years, until World War II surpassed it. However, these figures should be viewed skeptically as the decline of 36 million was in registered population, due to the breakdown of the census system.

The rebellion greatly weakened the centralized bureaucracy of the Tang Dynasty. Virtually autonomous provinces and ad hoc financial organizations arose, reducing the influence of the regular bureaucracy in Chang'an. The Tang Dynasty's desire for peace after this turbulent period also resulted in the pardoning of many rebels. Indeed, some were even given their own garrisons to command. Economic control of the Northeast region became intermittent, and the emperor became only a sort of puppet, set to do the bidding of the strongest garrison. In addition, by borrowing troops from neighbouring tribes, the Tang Dynasty greatly lowered its prestige in the eyes of the "barbarians", who eventually began raiding Tang settlements again.

In addition to being politically and economically detrimental, the An Shi rebellion also damaged the intellectual culture of the Tang Dynasty. Many intellectuals had their careers interrupted, giving them time to ponder the causes of the unrest. They lost faith in themselves, concluding that a lack of moral seriousness in intellectual culture had been the cause of the rebellion.

Thus, the An Shi Rebellion is regarded by most Chinese historians to be the turning point in the Tang Dynasty's fortunes. For the next 144 years, the Tang ceased to exist in all but name, a far cry from the glory days under Taizong and Xuanzong.

Source: wikipedia


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