The Soft Power of Tang Dynasty – China’s Golden Age

At the invitation of the Editor of Life! Section of Singapore’s The Straits Times newspaper, this article, under the above caption, was submitted to him for publication. An edited version, under the caption Only the Tang dynasty came close to having influence, appeared as the Cover Story of Life! on 26 October 1996. Below is the original article.

In a recent speech delivered at the 21st Century Forum in Beijing, Singapore’s Senior Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, spoke optimistically of the renaissance of East Asia which would re-invigorate the world. His optimism was buttressed by the progress made by East Asians in the last 30 years. He predicted that, barring major unforseen events, “… China will quicken the pace of its development by using inputs from the industrial and newly industrialising countries to catch up with and become first, a fully industrialised, and next, a high-tech society – if not in 50 years, then in 100 years”.

“If the present concentration of economic growth and cooperation prevails in East Asia for another 10 to 20 years, Asia will be transformed… By 2020, East Asia’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product), at present rates of growth, extrapolated for 25 years, will be 40 per cent of the world’s total GDP in PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) terms, as compared to North America’s 18 per cent and EU 15 countries’ 14 per cent …”, he added.

The Senior Minister said that, as Asia develops, its people would master the media. Asian documentaries would interpret world events to us from an Asian perspective. This would take several decades to achieve.

While China could acquire economic and military strength (hard power) in 30 years, he believed it would take it much longer time to attain cultural influence (soft power ). This would come about “… only when other nations admire and want to emulate aspects of that nation’s civilisation. Before others will want to do so, that civilisation must be seen to be superior and it has to be open, receptive and generous, allowing easy access to its knowledge and culture. American aid and investments helped many developing countries. This was the difference between the soft power of America and that of the former Soviet Union …”

The development of East Asia, he stressed, would lead to a re-affirmation of Asian culture, its traditions and values. To appraise China’s future prospects to become both a hard and soft power, it is instructive to comb through Chinese history, to ferret out the periods where Chinese influence was at its greatest. Was China ever an international soft power in the sense described by Senior Minister Lee?

The Dynastic Contenders

Throughout its 5000 years of history, four periods stand out for the purpose of our investigation. The first period when Chinese civilisation and military might reached a high point was the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220). During this period, China established trade relations with countries in Asia, the Arab world, Iran, Turkey ,and through them, with the Roman Empire. Other nations were greatly attracted by Chinese silk and other luxury goods, which were symbols of an advanced and gracious society.

While China was undoubtedly rich and powerful, Han’s ascendance, 2000 years ago, came too early for its influence to be widely transmitted to other Eurasian civilisations. Transportation and communications technology of the period did not permit much cultural transmission, beyond the osmotic impact of mercantile trade. Also, while Han was rich and powerful, so was the contemporaneous Roman Empire. Proximity to the ancient centres of the Middle East ensured that the Romans were the dominant civilisation throughout much of antiquity.

Another period to consider was the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). Its Mongolian rulers created the most powerful empire in the 13th Century, with its territories spread over Asia and Europe. While this was one of the largest empires the world has ever seen, it was essentially a Mongolian rather than a Chinese empire. Also, while it was clearly a hard power given the Mongol’s military prowess, it was not a soft power in terms of cultural influence.

Indigenous Chinese prestige was briefly rekindled during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when Admiral Zheng He’s fleets sailed through Southeast Asia, India to Arabia and East Africa. Many countries from all over Asia came to China to seek trade or protection against their stronger neighbours.

From the mid-15th century onwards, however, Ming China had lapsed into a self-imposed isolation from the outside world due to its Court intrigues. Its once powerful navy was drastically reduced in strength until it ceased to be a force to be reckoned with. A cocooned society, the late Ming Empire was a force primarily within its own boundaries.

The Splendours of Tang

Only the Tang Dynasty (618-906) came close to possessing soft power, in the sense defined by Senior Minister Lee. What then were this dynasty’s contributions to China’s internationalisation?

Historians generally agree that China was, in the 7th and 8th Centuries, the strongest, most advanced and the best governed country in the world. It possessed a then unprecedented population of over 50 million. Its capital Changan (now Xian), with an estimated population of one million, was the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the world. In both cultural and material terms, the country was better endowed than anywhere else.

The splendours of China were a magnet which drew a continuous stream of visitors to its capital. They came to China via the “Silk Road”, which was at its busiest. during Tang time. This began at Changan, on to the neighbouring states along its northwestern border and through to Central and South Asia, Middle East, Iran, Turkey and ended in Rome.Official foreign envoys came to pay tributes at the Chinese Court. Foreign traders brought their exotic merchandise to exchange for Chinese luxury items which could be sold for huge profits back home. Students and officials came to learn what made China tick. Monks,too, came and spread Chinese religious cults to their own people.

Tang China had official relations with some 70 countries and states, a feat unsurpassed by other countries. The foreign community, which numbered more than 10,000 in Changan alone, were generously treated and had special quarters set aside for them. Every assistance was extended to them in order to make their stay a successful and happy one. Many stayed for years, or even decades, while a few were appointed Court officials and took up Chinese nationality.

The Tang government was liberal and receptive to foreign ideas and culture. These enriched Chinese life and contributed to its intellectual development. Two-way trade was of mutual benefit. Most coveted among the Chinese quality goods were silk, textiles and porcelains. The Chinese, in turn, were fascinated by novel foreign products like grapes, cotton, precious stones, exotic arts and crafts and the famed sturdy stallions.

Culturally prodigious, Tang China’s painting, sculpture, calligraphy, poetry, literature, music and dance reached a new high. Important scientific innovations, such as woodblock printing on paper and silk, helped to speed up knowledge and literacy. With peace, prosperity and an efficient bureaucracy, life was orderly and pleasant. The Tang elite were refined and accomplished, their lifestyle cosmopolitan and elegant. The game of polo, introduced from Iran, became the favourite sport of the Emperor and his Court.

The glory of Tang has been so deeply implanted in the collective folk consciousness of the Chinese, especially those of the coastal South, that, even to-day, they still call themselves “ Men of Tang”. Chinese quarters in overseas countries, ungrammatically called “Chinatown” by Westerners, are habitually referred to by the Chinese themselves as “Tang Quarters”.

The Emergence of East Asian Civilisation

It was during this period that the Chinese language, culture, and the distinctively Chinese creed of Confucianism were firmly transplanted in Korea, Japan and Vietnam, providing East Asia with a common cultural heritage.

The Japanese, whose first contacts with China date back to Han times, were the greatest admirers of Tang culture and society. Their scholars and Buddhist monks who came to Changan were awed by the powers and magnificence of the Tang Court and the efficient way the country was governed. They perceived Chinese civilisation to be superior to Japan’s. On their return, they spoke glowingly of what they saw and this created excitement about China.

The Japanese government decided to send official missions to China by arduous sea journeys, with the prime objective of observing and studying exhaustively all aspects of its system of government and society that Japan could draw upon for its own development. The envoys and their subordinates were the creme de la creme of the Japanese elite who were carefully handpicked in accordance with their rank, learning, technical or vocational skills. The size of each mission varied between 100 and 500. Many remained in China for years or even decades in order to accomplish their assigned tasks.

The Tang government was favourably impressed by the sincerity and humility of the Japanese in their desire to learn from China and gave them unstinting help and guidance to make their quest a fruitful one.

Between the years 618 and 894, numerous such study missions came to China. As a result of their strong recommendations, the Japanese government finally decided to overhaul its society by adopting the Chinese language, its government structure, the tenets of Confucianism, its cultural and religious practices, in order to propel the Japanese nation forward.

Through the above process, coupled with the Japanese genius for imitating and improving on their imported models to suit their own needs, the country was irreversibly transformed into a sinicised culture underpinned by Confucianism. After the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 906, the Japanese stopped sending official missions to China as they started to build up their own public institutions and culture more independently, with new found national confidence.

Soft Power After Tang: Confucianism and Art

The dynasties after Tang – Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing, had their high points, but none could match Tang in terms of its international prestige and influence. Nevertheless, two aspects of Chinese soft power have achieved widespread interest and admiration down to modern times: Confucianism and art.

In traditional China, the Confucian precepts were the bedrock upon which government and the social structure were built upon. Among its admirers were European rulers and philosophers such as King Louis XIV of France and the philosopher Voltaire. The latter regarded the sage as a “precursor of Eighteenth Century rationalism” and the Chinese government as an “Utopian” role model worthy of emulation.

As for Chinese art, its products rapidly became the prized possessions. First introduced into Europe during the Middle Ages, perhaps after the publication of Marco Polo’s travels in China in the early 14th Century, Chinese porcelains were in great demand from kings and nobles, and were often depicted in Renaissance paintings.

The West’s love affair with Chinese porcelains and other works of art such as carved jades, lacquers, furniture and paintings continued unabated during the Renaissance, and into modern times. Large quantities were imported and sold in Europe at highly inflated prices, especially between the 16th and 18th Centuries. These gave Europeans a glimpse of the unsurpassed Chinese standards of elegance and delicacy, and greatly enriched their life.

So highly esteemed had Chinese porcelains become that the German Elector of Saxony was reputed to have bartered a regiment of his grenadier guards in exchange for a set of Famille Verte vases of the Kangxi reign (1662-1722 )!

Europe’s insatiable appetite for Chinese art ushered in an era of “ Chinoiserie” during the 18th Century. Fanciful European notions of China were reflected in its arts and crafts. “Chinese taste” was also reflected in European gardens and architecture. Pagodas and palaces were erected all over Europe and embellished with dragons, mandarin figures and Chinese genres. Prominent examples of these can be seen in London’s Kew Garden and the Chinese Pavilion in Brighton.

Today, Chinese art continues to fascinate foreigners. The country’s objects d’art are among the most keenly collected in the world. Ms. Jessica Rawson, Editor of “Chinese Art” and Keeper of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, said, “…Day to day life in the West was transformed by the introduction of Chinese silks, teas, spices and porcelains…In addition, Chinese technology – printing, the making of gunpowder, iron casting and methods of mass-production – altered the West beyond recognition. By contrast, Western products, technologies and ideas had very little impact on China before the twentieth century.”

Soft Power in Today’s World

There is a direct correlation between a nation’s cultural influence and the state of its political and economic fortunes. Great Britain provides a classic example. At its peak, the proud boast was that “the sun never set” on the British Empire. However, by the end of 1960s, the British colonies had virtually disappeared as that country became weaker and nationalism re-emerged everywhere.

With the British decline, world leadership passed to the Americans. It inherited from the British, and built upon, the all-pervasive soft power of the English language. Even one of the most august and admired of British institutions, Oxford and Cambridge, have lost some of its gloss over the years. By contrast, the image and prestige of the better endowed and equipped American universities, such as Harvard, Yale, MIT and Stanford, have risen. They are increasingly attracting many of the world’s best talents into their folds. In my native Singapore, both the National University of Singapore and the National Technological University now look to Harvard and MIT for inspiration in their quest for world status.

It is a truism that one can best imbibe and appreciate a country’s culture and civilisation if one is familiar with its language. In this respect, both Britain and United States have a tremendous advantage over China in that English is an international medium of communication. Also, unlike China, both these countries have efficacious adjuncts, such as the Voice of America, United States Information Service, British Broadcasting Corporation and British Council, and a powerful print media, which are well placed to spread their respective cultures and to influence the world opinion accordingly.

I agree with Senior Minister Lee that for China to acquire soft power, the road ahead will be a long and difficult one. Much needs to be done before it can again achieve the well-deserved fame of the Tang era. Nevertheless, as China’s economy expands further, more foreigners will see the palpable benefits of being familiar with its language and culture, if not for its intrinsic value, at least for economic advantage. In this regards, more and more foreigners are now learning Chinese in their own countries or in China itself.

Whether or not China will ever acquire the soft power which the United States now has over other countries, only time will tell.

Lam Pin Foo

52 thoughts on “The Soft Power of Tang Dynasty – China’s Golden Age

  1. Many thanks for your comments. My answers to your questions are:

    (1) The lightly edited version of this article in the Straits Times is in their archives and is not available to the public unless you pay a fee. You can get its registed address and website from the Internet, and

    (2) as I am keenly interested in China’s history, current affairs, art and culture, Including its past and growing present soft power, I have continued to update my limited general knowledge on these from many different sources. However, my article reflects my own amateurish views on its soft power mentioned therein.

    Lam Pin Foo

  2. Dear Lam Pin Foo,

    Thank you for sharing this great article!
    I am a Chinese lanugage and culture lecturer in Denmark, I plan to teach a lesson about China’s soft power in ancient time, and have searched books and articles on this topic in many academic website, but didn’t find much relevant. This article will help me a lot. Thank you for sharing it again.
    Here I have some questions for you. Do you know where I can find the original newspaper on internet? And do you have any sources, writer or researcher in this area to recommand? Thank you in advance!
    Best wishes,
    Selene Ruan

  3. Happy 75th Birthday and wish you good health!
    I come from china, and Thank you for your interest in China culture。

  4. I thank you all warmly for your kind comments and best wishes and your generous support for my blog. Grateful if you will continue to support it. I have made so many new friends in all of you. How wonderful!

  5. wish you many more happy returns of the day…. May u get Soothing Showers of Joy,Love and Happiness on your Special Day and Success and Smiles throughout your Life.Happy Birthday. and awesome blog

  6. Brilliant article! Happy 75th Birthday!!! I plan to travel to China in a couple of years, I’ll be sure to bookmark your website! So much information, I’m sure it’ll make some great reading for me! 🙂

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