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The An Lushan Rebellion – A Simple Guide

    The An Lushan Rebellion began as a mutiny by the General An Lushan and soon grew to be a huge civil war. 

    Estimates for the numbers of death it caused vary from between 13 to 36 million.

    If the upper bound estimates are correct, it would be the most or one of the most significant losses of life (relative to the world’s population at the time) in human history.

    Either way, it caused great upheaval, displacement and suffering. And it was a turning point in Chinese history.

    China in the years leading up to the rebellion

    The Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD)

    Map of the Tang dynasty, with civil administration (dark red), military administration (dark pink) and briefly controlled territory (light pink) highlighted.
    Map of the Tang dynasty, with civil administration (dark red), military administration (dark pink) and briefly controlled territory (light pink) highlighted. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The timing of the An Lushan Rebellion is a big reason for its fame.

    It took place during the Tang dynasty. This is generally regarded as one of – if not the – greatest dynasties in Chinese history.

    The dynasty was and is admired for several reasons, including:

    • It unified China for the first time in almost 4 centuries
    • It was the largest Chinese empire up until that point 
    • It was cosmopolitan and highly cultured

    The High Tang

    Moreover, the rebellion didn’t just happen during a great dynasty. It happened at the end of greatest era of that dynasty: the High Tang (listed variously as between 650 – 755, or 713 – 755).

    During the High Tang, the empire was at its peak of power, territory, economic growth, and cultural achievements. 

    Chang’an (today’s Xi’an in north western China), its primary capital city, had a population of around two million people. This was likely the largest city in the world at the time. And Luoyang (in today’s Henan Province), the empire’s second capital, had around one million.

    Many of China’s greatest poets lived during this era, including its two greatest poets: Li Bai (701 – 762) and Du Fu (712 – 770).

    This was also a golden era for arguably China’s most highly esteemed fine art: Calligraphy.

    The Tang Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712 – 756 AD)

    Detail from Zhang Guo Having an Audience with Emperor Tang Xuangzong by Ren Renfa
    Detail from Zhang Guo Having an Audience with Emperor Tang Xuangzong by Ren Renfa (1254 – 1357 AD), handscroll, ink and colour on silk. 41.5 x 107.3 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Throughout the High Tang and the An Lushan Rebellion, Emperor Xuanzong (real name Li Longji) reigned.

    (All Chinese emperors were given a royal name, many Tang dynasty ones ended in zong [宗] which means ‘ancestor’ or ‘lineage’. ‘Xuanzong’ can be translated as ‘illustrious ancestor’.)

    He was the great-grandson of the co-founder of Tang dynastyTaizong (r. 626 – 649 AD) and therefore great-great grandson of its other co-founder, Gaozu (r. 618 – 626 AD).

    Xuanzong’s reign was seen as a stabilising one after decades of turmoil. Historians have also generally considered his ruling good for the first twenty years, too.

    However, from 736 AD onwards (the two decades leading up to the An Lushan Rebellion) he became less involved in ruling the empire. He became more interested in religion, art, and a young mistress…

    Yang Guifei (719 – 756 AD)

    detail from Yang Guifei Mounting a Horse by Qian Xuan
    Detail from Yang Guifei Mounting a Horse by Qian Xuan (Yuan dynasty), handscroll, ink and colours on paper, 29.5 x 117 cm. Smithsonian Institution, Freer Gallery of Art. Washington D. C. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Yang Guifei (her real name was Yang Yuhuan; ‘Guifei’ means ‘high imperial concubine’) was from an elite family in Yongle (in today’s Shaanxi Province).

    She is listed as one of the ‘four great beauties of ancient China’. And she was good at dancing and playing music. These were important skills for elite ladies in Tang dynasty China, the origins of Japan’s Geisha’s can even be traced back to them.

    She entered into the Tang royal family aged fourteen when she married Xuanzong’s son, the Prince of Shou.

    Yes, that’s right: she was originally the emperor’s daughter-in-law…

    When Xuanzong decided he wanted to take her as a concubine (a recognised type of secondary wife), he sent one of his eunuchs to kidnap her. 

    Next, he had her ordained as a Daoist priestess to try and disguise the scandal. She was then sent to a convenient place to carry out this new career: one of his mansions.

    Five years later, she left this career and officially became one of his concubines. 

    Before long, her political influence grew.

    The build-up to the rebellion begins…

    The events that led to the An Lushan Rebellion come down to three main figures (other than the emperor and his concubine).

    Here they are listed in order of importance to the outbreak of the rebellion…

    One: The powerful Chief Minister: Li Linfu (683 – 753 AD)

    When the emperor Xuanzong became less interested in politics, the Chief Minister Li Linfu was appointed to run the empire.

    To keep the Tang dynasties’ political and military power separate, Li ensured that almost all Tang military generals were of non-Han Chinese descent.

    However, one Han Chinese politician did gain military power. This young up-and-comer was based in the Southwest area of Shu (today’s Sichuan Province). From here, he began first subtly and then overtly challenging Li. 

    And when Li died in 753 (two years before the An Lushan Rebellion broke out), this politician took over Li’s position and powerbase (in the North West of China, near the capital of Chang’an).

    Two: The power-hungry politician: Yang Guozhong (? – 756 AD)

    This young politician was Yang Guozhong (formerly Yang Zhao, but Xuanzong had named him). He was a relatively distant relative to Yang Guifei – they shared the same great grandfather.

    He was said to have been a big drinker and gambler. And once he took over Li Linfu’s powerbase, he decided to gamble once more. 

    He wanted to take on one of Li’s former protégés, a general and politician who (like Yang Guozhong himself) enjoyed the favour of the emperor and Yang Guifei.

    However, this general was based in the north east of the empire, where he was in command of the largest concertation of forces in the empire…

    Three: The threatened Military General: An Lushan (703 – 757 AD)

    This general was, of course, An Lushan (安祿山 [Àn Lùshān]). He was the powerful military commander of the Tang empire before his rebellion against it.

    Like nearly all other generals at the time, he was not Han Chinese. He seems to have been Turkic (not Turkish!) origin, and was born and grew up in Central Asia, on the fridges of the Tang empire.

    And he is said to have spoken six languages, and worked as a go-between for merchants during his youth.

    He was greatly liked by the emperor and Yang Guifei. It is believed that the latter even officially adopted him(even though he was an adult).

    But despite his power and royal connections, An Lushan’s position wasn’t secure any more when his ally and mentor Li Linfu died.

    And afterwards, when the newly-powerful Yang Guozhong began to agitate against him, too, An Lushan decided he had to act…

    China During the Rebellion (756 – 762)

    An Lushan rises in revolt (756 AD)

    As he had with Li Linfu, Yang Guozhong began to agitate against An Lushan. He began to circulate rumours and accusations.

    In imperial China, this generally meant the accused official would be summoned to the capital, stripped of his power, and then punished (possibly with a death sentence).

    An Lushan was a connected and powerful man himself. So, he clearly heard about these rumours and anticipated trouble ahead.

    So, fearing this fate, he decided he needed to remove Yang Guozhong from power.

    On December 16th 755 AD, An Lushan made his first move…

    From his base in Hebei (near today’s Beijing), he marched westward with approximately 150,000 troops.

    He had great military success and within several weeks took control of the Grand Canal (an important economic network of canals and rivers), and the secondary capital of the empire Luoyang.

    An Lushan declares a new dynasty (756 AD)

    An Lushan knew there was no going back. And after his initial success, he declared himself the emperor of a new dynasty in early 756 AD, which he named the Yan dynasty.

    Yan was the name of a state based in north eastern China during the Zhou dynasty (1046 – 256 BC), and the name of the region where most An Lushan’s power was concentrated.

    The Tong Pass incident (756 AD)

    The Tong Pass was an area surrounded by mountains and heavily defended by imperial troops. It blocked An Lushan’s rebelling forces from advancing further west, to the imperial capital in Chang’an.

    By holding this area, the imperial government could also threaten the rebels supply chains.

    At this point, it looked like the rebellion would soon collapse… There was also a temporarily successful military defence of a city by the legendary Tang imperial official, general and calligrapher Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD).

    However, a series of poor decisions by the imperial leadership (namely, Yang Guozhong) threw away the strategic control of this area. These included:

    • The execution (by the imperial side) of two military men responsible for imperial troops there
    • The imperial side’s decision to advance on rebel troops in open ground (rather than stay put) 

    The Tang troops were defeated. Now, the road to capital in Chang’an was open to the rebels.

    The royal court flees the capital (756 AD)

    When news of the Tong Guo pass defeat arrived, the emperor and royal court secretly fled the Capital at night.

    They were heading to Sichuan in the Southwest of China to regroup.

    Yang Guozhong and Yang Guifei meet their fates (756 AD)

    A few weeks into their retreat from the capital, the soldiers escorting the emperor demanded took command of events.

    First, they executed Yang Guozhong, whom they accused of plotting with Tibetans to attack the dynasty.

    Next, they demanded the death of the emperor’s beloved concubine, Yang Guifei. 

    The emperor was left without a choice. He had her strangled to death by a Eunuch, then showed the soldiers her lifeless body.

    The emperor himself was forced to abdicate a couple of months later. He was replaced by his son, the emperor Suzong (r. 756 – 762).

    He spent much of the rest of his life in the royal palace. During this time, he wrote poetry that contained clear traces of his morning and regret.

    An Lushan’s rebels sack Chang’an (756 AD)

    Meanwhile, the rebels advanced took the capital and looted from it. 

    Although the rebels did not hold Chang’an for long (imperial forces regained it the following year), the attack was devasting for the large population of this sophisticated city. 

    Father killed by son killed by father killed by son… (756 – 763 AD)

    Meanwhile, An Lushan had become both tyrannical and ill. Large boils had appeared all over his body.

    His military lucky was running out, too. After taking Chang’an, his forces couldn’t get any further west.

    Then one evening, just when things seemed like they couldn’t get any worse, one of his eunuchs entered his text and stuck a sword into his guts. An Lushan died of blood loss soon afterwards.

    He was replaced by his son, An Qixun (? – 759 AD), who was likely complicit in his murder.

    An Qixun was in turn executed (along with four of his brothers) when An Lushan’s main ally, Shi Siming (703 – 761 AD), took over rebel forces in 759 AD. And then Shi himself was murdered and replaced by his son, Shi Chaoyi (? – 763 AD).

    What is the An Lushan Rebellion called in Chinese?

    In Chinese, the An Lushan Rebellion is called 安史之乱 [Ānshǐzhīluàn], which can be translated roughly to ‘The An and Shi Chaos’

    This is because An Lushan and Shi Siming both led the rebel forces together and ruled the self-proclaimed Yan dynasty at different points, too.

    The Rebellion ends (763 AD)

    Imperial forces eventually regained control of China. This was not before many destructive battles, sieges and other events took place.

    For example, in 763, imperial forces along with Uighur soldiers took back Luoyang for a second time during the Rebellion. 

    During their looting of the city, these government forces slaughtered thousands or tens of thousands of civilians. This included innocent people who were set on fire whilst taking refuge in monasteries.

    The An Lushan Rebellion’s toll

    There are many claims out there of just how many died in the An Lushan Rebellion. 

    In Steven Pinker’s bestselling book The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), he writes:

    The worst atrocity of all time was the An Lushan Revolt and Civil War, an eight-year rebellion during China’s Tang dynasty, that according to censuses, resulted in the loss of two-thirds of the empire’s population, a sixth of the world’s population at the time. 

    Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (London: Penguin Books, 2001)

    He also gives the figure of 36 million dead, and its 20th century equivalent as 429 million. 

    Pinker’s figure in turn comes from Matthew White, author of Atrocitology: Humanity’s 100 Deadliest Achievements (2011).

    However, many historians have pointed out the unreliability of this figure. To cut a long data discussion short, the real question is whether comparing census figures before and after the An Lushan Rebellion is a reliable way to tally its dead.

    After all, some historians believe that after the Rebellion, the loss of central control was a big reason for census figure disparities. In other words, the reduce in census size does not necessarily correlate with numbers of death.

    Whatever the true figure, the Rebellion clearly did cause death and untold suffering on a large scale.

    Cultural impact of the Rebellion

    To get a taste of the Rebellion’s impact, we can look to poems and writing from the time.

    Here is a section from poem by the great Du Fu that gives insight into both the impact of the Rebellion and how conscription worked:

    …That night, a pressgang came for men.
    An old man jumped the wall,
    while his old wife went through the gate to meet them.
    The furious officer cursed.
    The old woman cried bitterly.
    I heard her approach them and speak:
    “Our three sons went off in defence of Yecheng.
    Now one has sent a letter home,
    telling us that the other two were slain.
    He himself yet clings to life,
    but the others are gone forever.
    At home, there is no one else…”

    – Extract from ‘The Pressgang at Shihao Village’ (石壕吏) (759) by Du Fu

    The great official and general Yan Zhenqing also produced perhaps the most famous piece of Tang dynasty calligraphy during the Rebellion: Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew (958 AD).