Why was the rebellion of An Lushan during the Tang Dynasty one of the most important events in the history of Imperial China?
One of the main reasons why, during its healthy periods, the Chinese empire was so strong was the deliberate inclusion of meritocratic policies designed to help the very best talent to rise to the top. For example, the Imperial Examination system enabled all young boys (no girls, sorry about that) with the leisure and resources to study the classics intensively to obtain a position in the Imperial Bureaucracy and, hence, much better lives for themselves and their families. This is important because the alternative is to allow the powerful elites to retain all important positions for themselves and their relatives, whether qualified to hold them or not. Stultification and corruption generally follow.
Another meritocratic practice followed in the Chinese Empire was to permit non-Chinese to join the army and to rise to high, even the highest positions. This was the case of An Lushan who, at the height of the power of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), became perhaps China’s most powerful general. From Turkic descent – the Turks were at this time one of the nomadic horsepeople of the Steppes and were eventually driven further west by even fiercer tribes – An Lushan held the loyalty of most of the armoured cavalry of the empire and, hence, one of the most powerful weapons available. Horses were always in short supply to Chinese armies, most of which was composed of infantry in more or less disciplined formations. Controlling access to the supply of horses was a major motivating force in Chinese foreign policy, since they were necessary to ward off the nomads of Inner Asia and of the northern Steppes. From holding power at the heart of the empire, therefore, An Lushan was transformed into a dagger threatening the heart of that empire.
The reason for the rebellion was conventionally personal in nature with precious little in the way of ideology. An Lushan feared for his position as a result of a succession struggle following the death of one emperor and decided to make his play for power by rebelling. He would not have been the first non-aristocrat to have fought his way to the throne and the Mandate of Heaven. At first, the rebellion was successful because of An Lushan’s generalship, the loyalty of the northern fortresses and his control of the cavalry. In 755 CE, An Lushan launched the rebellion but two years later he was assassinated and while the revolt was not finally crushed until 763, the end seemed inevitable once alliances were concluded with nomads from the north.
The results of the revolt were enormous. Military people found new opportunities to progress to high office as a system of semi-autonomous provincial governments was instituted. The central government was almost bankrupted by the war effort and had to find new forms of revenue. The land allocation system was abandoned and widespread population movement followed, once it became clear that holding onto the central Asian provinces was no longer feasible. Power shifted and the interests of power-holders shifted also. This was one of the most important episodes in Chinese history, not just for the Emperors and great men of the time but for the ways in which the ordinary people lived too.