The story of An Lushan has been told so many times that it qualifies as Tang Dynasty slash fic. There is the aging emperor, his sensual concubine, and the exotic foreign warrior who comes between them. But this story is far more Byzantine than an 8th-century love triangle gone horribly sideways. An Lushan, and the rebellion he launched against the emperor, was representative of a complex interplay of forces between Tang China and the civilizations of Central and North Asia. While the Tang Empire managed to survive An Lushan’s challenge, Chinese culture would be forever changed. An outward looking state turned inward. A culture known for its openness and cosmopolitanism began to harbor deep anxieties about foreign elements in the culture. The state which emerged from the ashes of the An Lushan rebellion was brittle, defensive, and increasingly nativist.
We don’t know very much about An Lushan’s background. Best guess is that he was Sogdian, a people who emerged what is today Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. He first enters the official records around 740 AD, one of many foreign soldiers and mercenaries the Tang court employed to guard the borders of the empire.
By all accounts, An Lushan was a large man, a fierce fighter, and a cunning tactician. He was also a master at court politics, somebody who knew how to play to expectations. Sometimes it was as a Falstaffian clown, performing for the benefit of his cultural “superiors.” Other times, An Lushan cleverly cultivated close personal relationships with influential denizens of the court. His patrons included the chancellor, Li Linfu, a powerful official who all but ran the government. An also developed a close — some would say VERY close — bond with Yang Guifei, the emperor’s favorite concubine and one of the most famous women in Chinese history.
Whether or not Yang and An ever had anything more than a just-friends relationship is unknown. It would seem a terrible risk for both to carry on an affair. It also seems unlikely that the corpulent and, it was said, severely ulcerated An would have been a very tempting target for the celebrated concubine Yang. Even if their affection did not extend to the bed chamber, it was still an odd alliance. Some records indicate that Yang even adopted the older An Lushan, less as her child and more the way one would foster a stray dog.
Whatever their relationship, An Lushan used these connections to build his power bases. He was appointed to a series of important positions both in the border guards and at the capital. But beginning in 752, things started to go poorly for An Lushan. His patron Li Linfu passed away that year. Li’s successor as chancellor Yang Guozhong — who was the concubine Yang Guifei’s cousin — was not a fan. Yang Guozhong earnestly tried to convince anyone who would listen, particularly the emperor, that An Lushan was a grave threat to the security of the empire.
Whether or not An was secretly plotting rebellion, as Yang Guozhong feared, or was merely reacting to the chilly winds blowing his way from the throne, in 755 he threw off his allegiance to the Tang. Marching southeast from his power base near present-day Beijing, An and his armies quickly swept through and captured Luoyang, the eastern secondary capital of the empire.
The court in the primary capital, Chang’an, attempted to organize a response, but few of their top military officials were battle-tested. An and his men had spent years guarding the borders. They were hard men always ready for a fight. Now they faced conscripts led by men whose knowledge of war was gleaned as much from history books and epic poems as it was from battle. It was hardly a fair match.
In late 756, with An Lushan’s troops approaching the capital, the emperor and his court fled for their lives. But just a few hundred miles into their retreat, the imperial bodyguards refused to go further until justice was done. The soldiers had little love for An Lushan, but to a man they felt that the trouble had all started with Concubine Yang and her meddling cousin, the chancellor Yang Guozhong. The imperial officers informed the emperor that Yang Guifei and Yang Guozhong had to be executed before their troops would take another step. Distraught, but out of options, the emperor ordered the killing of both his beloved and his top advisor. It left the emperor a broken man for the rest of his days and the melodrama, full of death, romance, and pathos, became a staple of plays and opera, films and TV series.
Ultimately, the Tang doesn’t so much defeat An Lushan as allow An and his allies to implode. Less than a year after capturing the Tang capitals of Luoyang and Chang’an, An Lushan is murdered by his son. The allies who stood with An Lushan in the beginning of the rebellion began to get ideas of their own. An’s successors were unable to muster the support needed to finish off the Tang and consolidate their own empire.
But the damage was done. By the time the An Lushan Rebellion came to an end seven years later, the empire was severely weakened. The rebellion cost the Tang its control of the western regions of the empire including the valuable trade routes to Central Asia. Increasingly, power devolved to military governors in charge of the border provinces, weakening the central government’s authority.
Moreover, there was a growing unease over the extent of foreign influences in Tang culture and politics. Before the An Lushan Rebellion, the Tang capital at Chang’an had been one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Buddhist monasteries, Confucian academies, and Daoist shrines shared their streets with mosques, Manichean temples, and even synagogues and Nestorian Christian churches. It was common to see foreign merchants and travelers in the markets of Chang’an and An Lushan was one of many non-Chinese who had considerable power at court and in the provinces. That all changed. Future Tang emperors and officials would be much more suspicious of non-native people and ideas.
Finally, the An Lushan rebellion accelerated a long-term demographic shift which forever changed the cultural and economic landscape of China. Up until the mid-Tang, the political and cultural heart of Chinese civilization was still the Yellow River basin. After the Tang, there is a shift southward toward the Yangtze River watershed, particularly the area known as “South of the River” (Jiangnan) centered on the rising urban cores of Suzhou and Hangzhou.
While An Lushan failed in his bid to topple the Tang and create his own state, his rebellion was a watershed moment in Chinese history. And his story, along with that of the doomed concubine Yang and the besotted emperor reverberates throughout the annals of Chinese history and literature down to the present day.
Cover image from Sina