Lecture Thirteen

Han Yu and the Late Tang

Scope: The An Lushan rebellion shook the Tang to its foundation, but the dynasty survived and remained in power for another century and a half. At the end of the 8th century and the beginning of the 9th, a new intellectual movement of Confucian thinkers and writers, perhaps represented best by the scholar Han Yu, began to call for a return to the ideals of good government and good writing that had characterized the first century of the Han dynasty a thousand years earlier. Blaming many of China’s troubles on the baleful influences of Buddhism and religious Daoism, Han Yu and others called for a kind of cultural renaissance. Their ideas did not immediately yield fruit but set the stage for the great cultural and intellectual changes of the 11th century, which we will consider later.


I. In the aftermath of the An Lushan rebellion, the Tang dynasty found its position weakened.

A. The emperors had to make deals with military leaders to ensure their support.

1. The rebellion mainly affected the northern and central provinces.

2. Generals in the south and southwest of the empire forced the emperor to agree to allow them to retain much of the tax revenues from their regions, thus reducing the fiscal resources for the central government.

3. Local strongmen began to dominate the provinces, and the imperial court directly ruled only the area immediately surrounding the capital.

B. Buddhist monasteries also became a major concern for the rulers.

1. Buddhism remained quite popular, and monks were often advisors at court.

2. The great monasteries built up large holdings of land donated by pious, or clever, donors, all of which was exempt from taxation.

3. This also led to a decrease in revenues for the state.

II. At the end of the 8th century and the beginning of the 9th, a cultural and political movement began to revive Confucian values and reduce the power and influence of Buddhism.

A. One of the chief figures in this movement was a man named Han Yu.

1. Han Yu lived from 768 to 824.

2. He represented a newly emerging kind of scholar-official.

3. He was not from the established aristocratic families that had long dominated the court.

4. He entered government service through the examination system, rather than through personal recommendation; this career pattern would become much more common later, in the Song dynasty.

B. Han Yu developed a literary and political theory called guwen, meaning “old-style” writing.

1. He advocated simple, straightforward expository prose, in the style common during the early Han dynasty.

2. He argued that the flowery literature that had become dominant in China undermined clear thinking and promoted false values.

3. In such texts as his famous essay “The Origin of the Way,” he blamed Buddhism, and to some extent religious Daoism, for the problems of China’s cultural and political life.

4. In another essay, “On the Bone of the Buddha,” he opposed plans for the emperor to pay homage to a Buddhist relic on display in the capital.

5. He believed that a return to basic Confucian values of humanity and compassion would restore China to greatness.

III. The guwen movement pushed for political reform and a revival of the imperial state.

A. Han Yu and other like-minded junior officials wrote essays and memorials seeking to promote their views.

1. In some limited ways, they acted like a political faction within the government.

2. Many of them, including Han Yu, were criticized and punished for their views.

3. Han Yu was exiled to the south for several years but returned to the capital.

4. The activities of this group set a standard for later Confucians in standing up for their beliefs.

5. Although they did not succeed in becoming the dominant group, the guwen thinkers set the stage for major cultural and intellectual developments in the 10th century and afterwards, as we will see in later lectures.

B. In 845, a purge of Buddhism greatly reduced the power of monasteries.

1. This was, in part, a response to the critique of Buddhism set forth by the guwen school.

2. Most monasteries were closed down, and monks and nuns were ordered to return to lay life.

3. This suppression lasted only a few years, and Buddhist monasteries resumed their activities from the 850s onward, but they never held as much land, or as much power, as they had previously.

4. By late in the 9th century, the Tang began to face serious problems again, and it entered a period of rapid decline, which ushered in an age of great changes in China; we turn to this period in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Charles Hartman, Han Yu and the T’ang Search for Unity.

Supplemental Reading:

Jacques Gernet, Buddhism in Chinese Society.

Jo-shui Chen, Liu Tsung-yuan and Intellectual Change in T’ang China, 773—819.

Questions to Consider:

1. Why would a particular style of writing have been seen as important in itself, rather than as merely secondary to the message contained in a literary work?

2. For Han Yu and like-minded scholar officials, criticizing the shortcomings of the emperor was a moral duty. This often resulted in exile or execution. Why would individuals have risked such punishments by speaking out?

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