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An Shi Rebellion (China, 755–763)

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An Lushan Rebellion

The An Lushan Rebellion took place in China during the Tang Dynasty from CE December 16, 755 to CE February 17, 763, beginning when general An Lushan declared himself emperor, establishing the rival Yan Dynasty in Northern China. This event is also known (especially in Chinese historiography) as the An-Shi Rebellion or An-Shi Disturbances as it continued after An Lushan's death under his son An Qingxu and his deputy and successor Shi Siming, or as the Tianbao Rebellion (天寶之亂), as it began in the 14th year of that era.
The rebellion spanned the reigns of three Tang emperors before it was quashed, and involved a wide range of regional powers; besides the Tang dynasty loyalists, others involved were anti-Tang Han Chinese families, especially in An Lushan's base area in Hebei, Arab, Gokturk, and Sogdian forces or influences, among others. The rebellion and subsequent disorder resulted in a huge loss of life and large-scale destruction.

An Lushan Rebellion
Date December 16, 755 to February 17, 763
Location Northern China
Tang defeat of Yan Dynasty of An and Shi, although with Tang Dynasty greatly weakened
Tang Empire Yan
Commanders and leaders
Tang Xuanzong
Tang Suzong
Tang Daizong
Feng Changqing
Gao Xianzhi
Geshu Han
Guo Ziyi
Li Guangbi
Zhang Xun
An Lushan
An Qingxu
Shi Siming
Shi Chaoyi
c.300,000 c.150,000–200,000 (at the beginning of the rebellion)
Casualties and losses
Heavy. Registered population declined by 36 million.

It significantly weakened the Tang dynasty, and led to the loss of the Western Regions.

Course of the rebellion

The rebellion spanned the reigns of three emperors, starting during the final (Tianbao era) period of the reign of Xuanzong (8 September 712 – 12 August 756), lasting through the reign of Suzong (12 August 756 – 16 May 762) and ending during the reign of Daizong (18 May 762 – 23 May 779).

Revolt and capture of Luoyang

At the end of 755, An Lushan revolted. His army surged down from Fanyang (near modern Beijing). Along the way, An Lushan treated surrendered local Tang officials with respect. As a result, more and more local officials joined his ranks. He moved rapidly along the Grand Canal and captured the "Eastern Capital" city of Luoyang within the year, defeating the poorly supplied General Feng Changqing. There, An Lushan declared himself Emperor of the new Great Yan dynasty (大燕皇帝). His next steps would be to capture the Tang western capital of Chang'an and then to attempt to take the rest of southern China.

Battle of Yongqiu

However, the horrific Battle of Yongqiu, in the spring of 756, went badly for An Lushan. Although his army, under Linghu Chao, was numerous, it was unable to make further territorial gains due to the failure to wrest control of Yongqiu (modern Qi County, Kaifeng, in Henan) and (later) the nearby Suiyang District from the Tang defenders led by Zhang Xun. This prevented the Yan forces from quickly conquering southern China, before the Tang were able to recover. The Yan army did not take control of the Suiyang District until after the Siege of Suiyang (January–October 757), almost two years after their initial capture of Luoyang.

Advance on Chang'an

Originally, An Lushan's forces were blocked from the main imperial (or "Western") capital at Chang'an (modern Xi'an), by loyal troops placed in nearly impregnable defensive positions in the intervening high mountain passes of Tongguan. Unfortunately for Chang'an, first the generals in charge of the troops at Tong Pass the two generals Gao Xianzhi and Feng Changqing were executed due to a court intrigue involving the powerful eunuch Bian Lingcheng; and then, Yang Guozhong, with grossly inept military judgment, ordered the replacement General, Geshu Han, who was then set in charge of the troops in the passes, together with reinforcement troops, to attack An's army on open ground. The Tang forces were defeated, and the road to the capital now lay open.

Flight of the emperor

With the rebel forces clearly an imminent threat to the imperial seat of Chang'an, and with conflicting advice from his advisers, Tang emperor Xuanzong determined to flee to the relative sanctuary of Sichuan, with its natural protection of ranges of mountains, which would allow for the Tang forces to reorganize and recoup. Together with the emperor went the bulk of his court and household. The route of travel from Chang'an to Sichuan was notoriously difficult, requiring hard travel on the way through the intervening Qin Mountains.
However, the geographical features of the terrain were not the only hardships which this journey involved: there was a matter which first had to be settled, involving the relationship between Xuanzong and the Yang family, especially the emperor's beloved Yang Guifei. So, before progressing more than a few kilometers along the way, an incident occurred at Mawei Inn, in today's Xingping in Xiangyang, Shaanxi: Xuanzong's bodyguard troops demanded the death of the much-hated Yang Guozhong, and then of his cousin, Yang Guifei. With the army on the verge of mutiny, the Emperor had no choice but to agree, ordering the suicide of Yang Guozhong and the strangling of Lady Yang. Meanwhile, the crown prince, Li Heng, fled in the other direction to Lingzhou (today called Lingwu, in Ningxia province). Later, in 756, after reaching Sichuan, Xuanzong abdicated (becoming Taishang Huang), in favour of the crown prince, who had already been proclaimed emperor.

Fall of Chang'an

In 756, An Lushan and his rebel forces captured Chang'an, an event which had a devastating effect upon this thriving metropolis. Before the revolt estimates put the population within the city walls at around 800,000–1,000,000. Including small cities in the vicinity forming the metropolitan area, the census in 742 recorded 362,921 families with 1,960,188 persons. Much of the population fled at the approach of the rebels. Then city was captured and looted by the rebel forces and the remaining population put in jeopardy.

Implosion of Yan Dynasty and end of the rebellion

The imperial forces were helped by internal dissent in the newly formed dynasty. An Lushan was killed by his son, An Qingxu, in late January 757. (His father's violent paranoia posed too much of a threat to his entourage.) His son was then killed by a subordinate, general Shi Siming, An Lushan's childhood friend and follower. Shi recaptured the city of Luoyang soon after. However, in 761 Shi Siming was killed by his son, Shi Chaoyi, who then promptly proclaimed himself emperor, although failing to get general support from the other Yan generals.
In 762, Emperor Suzong had become seriously ill. The combined forces of the Tang and their Huige allies were led by the eldest son of Suzong. This son was at first named Li Chu, then renamed Li Yuin, in 758, after being created crown prince; and, eventually renamed again as Emperor Daizong of Tang, on 18 May 762. In the period before his final victories over the rebel forces, he was also confronted with a wide variety of threats; for example, the port of Canton was pillaged in 758 by sea-borne Arab and Persian forces, probably pirates based on Hainan. However, by this time it was clear that the new Yan Dynasty would not last long, and Yan officers and soldiers began to defect to the Tang side. Finally, after the eastern capital Luoyang was taken by Tang forces for the second time, in the winter of 762. Yan Emperor Shi Chaoyi attempted to flee, but was intercepted in the spring of 763. Shi Chaoyi then chose suicide to avoid capture. Thus ended the eight years of the rebellion.
However, the end of the rebellion was only part of a long process of rebuilding and recovery for the Tang. In part due to the weakened condition of the Tang, other disturbances continued to evolve. The Tibetan Empire under Trisong Detsän, taking advantage of the Tang's weakness during the rebellion, had reconquered much of their Central Asian territories, even going so far as to take the city of Chang'an in late 763.


Death toll

There is no doubt that the rebellion resulted in a major death toll. The devastation of the population was not only a direct result of the combat casualties and civilian deaths as a direct result of warfare, but due to the widespread dislocations of the social and economic system, especially in the north and middle areas of China, mass starvation and disease also resulted in death by the millions. Another factor may have been the decreased territory of the subsequent Tang empire.
However, the number of casualties is difficult to estimate. The 754 census recorded a population of 52,880,488, while the 764 census found only about 16.9 million, a reduction of about two-thirds. The numbers recorded on the post-war registers reflect not only population loss, but also a breakdown of the census system, as well as the removal from the census figures of various classes of untaxed persons, such of those in religious orders, foreigners, and merchants. Another consideration is that due to the fact that territory controlled by Tang central authority was diminished by the equivalent of several of the northern provinces, something like a quarter of the remaining population no longer remained within the imperial revenue system. Historians such as Charles Patrick Fitzgerald further argue that a claim of 36 million deaths is incompatible with contemporary accounts of the war. However this figure has been popularised by Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature, where it is presented as proportionally the largest atrocity in history, though with a caution that "These figures, of course, can not all be taken at face value."

Weakening of Tang

The rebellion of An Lushan and its subsequent aftermath greatly weakened the centralized bureaucracy of the Tang Dynasty, especially in regards to its perimeters. Virtually autonomous provinces and ad hoc financial organizations arose, reducing the influence of the regular bureaucracy in Chang'an. The Tang Dynasty's desire for political stability in this turbulent period also resulted in the pardoning of many rebels. Indeed, some were even given their own garrisons to command. Political and economic control of the Northeast region became intermittent or was lost, and the emperor became only a sort of puppet, set to do the bidding of the strongest garrison. Furthermore, the Tang government also lost most of its control over the Western Regions, due to troop withdrawal to central China to attempt to crush the rebellion and deal with subsequent disturbances. Continued military and economic weakness resulted in further subsequent erosions of Tang territorial control during the ensuing years, particularly in regard to the Uighur and Tibetan empires. By 790, Chinese control over the Tarim Basin area was completely lost.
The political decline was paralleled by economic decline, including large Tang governmental debt to Uighur money lenders. In addition to being politically and economically detrimental to the empire, the rebellion also affected the intellectual culture of the Tang Dynasty. Many intellectuals had their careers interrupted, giving them time to ponder the causes of the unrest. Some lost faith in themselves, concluding that a lack of moral seriousness in intellectual culture had been the cause of the rebellion. However, eventually a political and cultural recovery did occur within Tang China several decades after the rebellion, until about the year 820, the year of the death of Emperor Xianzong of Tang. Much of the rebuilding and recovery occurred in the Jiangnan region in the south, which had escaped the events of the rebellion relatively unscathed and remained more firmly under Tang control. However, eventually, due in part to the to the warlord system, the Tang Empire by 907 devolved into what is known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period.