I don’t hesitate to oversimplify when the subject is beyond effective summary. With that in mind I provide a graphic of that history below. It traces the dynasties and kingdoms in China from 2100 BC to the present. That date marks the beginning of the first of many long-lived dynasties, but it is well to remember that, in 2100 BC the people of the Middle Kingdom already looked back on 800 years of history. The Yan and the Yellow emperor were then already legendary figures.
Time in this chart runs both downward and from left to right. The regimes that held sway in China are shown in chronological order. The horizontal bars show how long each dynasty or era endured. I’ve colored red those periods in which no single dynasty dominated the Chinese territories and states contended or multiple kingdoms ruled parts. Notable in this drastic summary (a single Excel graph compressing 4000 years of history) is the long dominance of single dynasties and the recurring punctuations of disorder or disunity. Not that those long periods were quiet and without conflict—nor that periods marked in red were entirely chaotic. Parts of the Great Wall of China were built during the Warring States. Notable against this panorama of endurance is the puny aspect of the latest dynasty in China, call it the Mao or the Communist dynasty. Just a blip on the last line—but it certainly loomed and still looms large in our own parochial temporality.
Now for the Tang Dynasty. It was a period of exuberance, wealth, and cultural flowering. It lasted quite a long time, certainly for a dynasty, and long even when matched up against the period of a culture, say Christendom. The Tang Dynasty began roughly 300 years after Constantine established Christianity as the ruling religion of the dying Roman realm. The Tang rule broke apart into many competing regimes about 90 years before Christianity reached its peak in 1000 AD and clothed itself in a white mantle of churches.*
The most famous names likely to be familiar to Westerners long predate the Tang Dynasty. Confucius and Lao Tsu both date to the Spring and Autumn period, which is the concluding part of the Zhou Dynasty (722-481 BC); Chuang Tsu, probably the best known Taoist teacher and Lao Tsu disciple lived in the Warring States period. Sun Tzu, the general who wrote the world-famous The Art of War is placed either into the Spring and Autumn period or into the Warring States period by scholars. Buddhism was present in China by about 265 BC, but, looking at some pictures, it is obvious that the most inspiring statues of Buddha were created in Tang times.
The coexistence of what we would call an advanced, sophisticated era like the Tang on one side of the globe and what most people call the Dark Ages in Europe suggests to me that the environments we inhabit (will-ye, nil-ye) are above all cultural. With effort and imagination we can think and feel the airs beyond them, but what surrounds us and dominates our everyday is the creation of our own place and time.
*A phrase attributed to Raoul Glaber, an eleventh century monk of Burgundy: “It seemed as though the earth were shaking off the rags of its antiquity, to clothe itself anew with a white mantle of churches.” Quoted in Albert Guerard, France—A Short History, W.W. Norton, 1946, p.85.