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Ān Lùshān

The Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography
Lee ChamneyLee CHAMNEY, Jennifer W. JayJennifer W. JAY

Ān Lùshān 安祿山 703–757 ce—Sogdian-Turkic military governor and leader of the Ān Lushan Rebellion (755–763) 


Ān Lushan was a Sogdian-Turkic general who launched a rebellion in 755 to overthrow the Tang dynasty. He died a year later, but the rebellion was not suppressed until 763, by which time millions of lives had been lost and China’s land and resources were in ruins. Subsequent institutional shifts were so drastic that historians divide the Tang into two periods, before and after the rebellion. Ān Lushan had considerable interpersonal skills that disarmed others and often led to them adopting him as a relative or son. He was illiterate but spoke several languages besides Chinese. After his failed rebellion, the attitude toward foreigners in Tang China changed from one of cosmopolitan acceptance to rejection, leading to several massacres of the Sogdian people.


Ān Lùshān

Tomb figure of a warrior from the end of the seventh century (Tang dynasty).

Ān Lushan was a Sogdian-Turkic soldier from the diaspora community in Yingzhou (modern Chaoyang, Liaoning Province) who rose through the military ranks and in December 755 ce launched the devastating Ān Lushan Rebellion, an event better known in Chinese texts as the Ān and Shi Revolts (Ān Shí zhī biàn 安史之变‎).

Ān Lushan and the Sogdian-Turkic Diaspora

The three centuries of the Suí 隋‎ (581–618 ce) and Táng 唐‎ (618–907 ce) dynasties were marked by cosmopolitanism in their worldview and material culture. Several hundred years of intermarriage between the Chinese elite and the Turkic Tuoba aristocracy had produced some Xianbei Turkic blood in the Sui and Tang ruling families. In the reign of Emperor Xuánzōng 玄宗‎ (r. 712–756), who has been called the last Sino-Turkic ruler of the Tang, the ruling family and aristocracy had not yet become thoroughly Chinese in ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identities. Tang China was connected to the outside world through the Silk Roads economy and through military intervention with foreign peoples at the borders. Vibrant trade along the Silk Roads led to merchant diaspora settlements in Chinese cities.

During the Ān Lushan Rebellion, the rebels marched southward from Fanyang (modern Beijing); at the eastern capital of Luoyang (Henan Province), they declared the end of the Tang and proclaimed the new dynasty of Yān 燕‎. After seven years and four successive rebel leaders, the Tang survived with the military assistance of the Uygurs but never recovered its internal stability and global prestige. Subsequent institutional and structural changes were so drastic that historians divide the Tang dynasty into two periods—before and after the Ān Lushan Rebellion.

Ān Lushan’s ancestral homeland was on the Silk Roads, in Sogdiana, encompassing modern Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and in particular the cities of Samarkand, Panjikstan, and Bukhara. The economy before the sixth century ce was diversified, with both agricultural and mercantile sectors. The Hephtalite Turks conquered Sogdiana in 425 ce, after employment and intermarriage formed a Sogdian-Turkic elite of the steppe. Members of the elite were literate and had agricultural and mercantile skills that were in short supply among the pastoral, largely illiterate steppe people. The Hephtalites and their successor regime, the Göktürks, came to rely on Sogdians as administrators, advisors, diplomats, and generals. The Sogdian merchant network developed and dominated the overland Silk Roads trade between China and the Near East, which reached its height in the seventh to eighth centuries ce.

The Sogdians settled in the Tang capitals of Chang’an (Xi’an, Shaanxi Province) and Luoyang, as well as in Fanyang and Yingzhou, where they built communities centered around the temples of religions they brought from Persia: Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism, and Manichaeism. In these diaspora communities, the Sogdians spoke an Indo-European language and adopted Chinese surnames, with Ān 安‎ identifying Bukhara origins and Kāng 康‎ indicating Samarkand roots; the other surnames used—Shí 石‎, Shǐ 史‎, Mǐ 米‎, Cáo 曹‎, and Hé 何‎—also indicated geographic roots. Intermarriage between the Sogdians and the Turks created the mixed Sogdian-Turkic elite whose members inherited both the pastoral, militaristic traditions of the Turkic aristocrats and the sedentary, mercantilist education of the Sogdians. Ān Lushan was born and raised in this culture, learning both the political savvy and military valor that would serve him well in his career in China.

Childhood to Military Career, 703–740

Ān Lushan was born on 10 February 703, most likely in Yingzhou. The New History of the Tang records that the Turkic god of battle impregnated his sorceress mother. In fact, his mother was from the Turkic Āshǐdé 阿史德‎ family in Yingzhou, whose members served as viceroys in the Eastern Turkic khanate and intermarried with the Āshǐnǎ 阿史那‎ royal family. Ān Lushan’s personal name was transcribed from Rokshan (Sogdian term for “light”). An was a commonly adopted surname by Sogdians living in Tang China whose ancestors came from Bukhara, 4,700 kilometers west of modern Beijing. There is disagreement whether Ān Yányǎn 安延偃‎ was his biological or adoptive father, whom his mother remarried when he was a child. An Yanyan, from a Sogdian settlement on the Ordos River in Inner Mongolia, was serving as a general in the Eastern Turkic khanate, which at that time controlled Yingzhou.

In 716 An Yanyan was killed and his clan destroyed when he backed the losing side in a political dispute, following the death of his benefactor, Qapaghan Qaghan (r. 691–716). Ān Lushan and his mother fled across the border to Lanzhou (Gansu Province), in the company of his father’s elder brother’s son, Ān Sīshùn 安思顺‎ (d. 756), and other cousins. A wealthy Sogdian sabao, a Tang government appointee acting as the political and temple leader for the Sogdian enclaves, took them in and later adopted Ān Lushan as his younger brother. The surname of the sabao was An, but historians do not know if he and Ān Lushan were related by blood.

In the early 720s, Ān Lushan traveled through non-Chinese communities and learned to speak six languages besides Chinese. He likely worked as an interpreter at the frontiers and as a trader in the army markets. Without a formal education, he was illiterate in Chinese or perhaps in any other language. By then his older cousins had left for the northwest to fight in the Tang frontier wars. One cousin in the Anxi circuit (modern Xinjiang) became a general. (A circuit is a historical administrative division similar to a province.) Ān Lushan likely joined him and enlisted in the army in 725, as soon as he reached the legal enlisting age.

Ān LùshānClick to view larger

A tomb figure of a warrior, in pottery painted with color and gold, dated to the end of the seventh century (Tang dynasty). His face suggests that he was descended at least partially from Central Asian forebears (like Ān Lushan) and his military armor was in use at the time of the Ān Lushan Rebellion. Collection of the Historical Museum, Xi’an, Shaanxi Province.

Photo by Joan Lebold Cohen.

An arrived just as frontier armies underwent a drastic change and became professionalized. Having subdued and resettled their enemies in Inner Mongolia, the Tang court decided to return one-third of the frontier armies to their lives as peasants and put an end to the fǔbīng 府兵‎ militia system of part-time militiamen. To make up for the loss of manpower, the court placed a particular emphasis on experienced, professional soldiers, usually foreign born. Ān Lushan demonstrated considerable military abilities and took advantage of this policy shift to rise quickly through the ranks. From 726 to 729, he likely took part in the campaign to break the military might of the Tibetans through repeated attacks on Tibetan strongholds around Lake Kokonor. This campaign was a great success, and Ān Lushan apparently distinguished himself.

In 732 Ān Lushan became a general in the Tang military. That year he was transferred to the northeast at the request of his superior, Zhāng Shǒuguī 张守珪‎ (fl. 725–740), a Chinese commanding general who just had been transferred from the Tibetan frontiers to stabilize the northeast borders. In his new position as military governor in Fanyang circuit (Youzhou, modern Beijing). Zhang was tasked with bringing to submission the Khitan (Qìdàn 契丹‎) and Xī 溪‎, two related Mongol groups inhabiting Mongolia and Manchuria. From 720 on, much volatility and frequent swings of betrayals characterized their alliances with each other and with the Tang. In 732 the Khitans united under a powerful new leader and sought to cast off the shackles of Tang hegemony. The court memorandum appointing Zhang Shougui to the military governorship specifically mentioned Ān Lushan and showed optimism that Zhang’s general strategy and An’s military talent would quickly bring the Khitan and Xī to heel. On the basis of this document, it is unlikely that the often cited story in the standard histories—that these two men met then for the first time when Ān Lushan stole a sheep and Zhang gave him an entry-level position of catching criminals—is true.

Ān Lushan and Zhang Shougui used able politicking and the threat of a new, capable military leader to provoke a leadership crisis among the Khitan, preventing any concerted action between the between the Khitan and the Xi peoples. The peace secured in early 734 was short-lived. In 736, while Zhang Shougui was on a visit to the eastern capital of Luoyang, Ān Lushan took it upon himself to invade the Khitan and Xi peoples to prevent them from taking in the harvest and thus bankrupted the alliance. Ān Lushan overstretched his army, attacked during the late autumn rains, and lost tens of thousands of soldiers when he retreated. Zhang Shougui was displeased with Ān Lushan’s campaign and even more so with his defeat, and so sent him to the western capital of Chang’an to be executed. But Ān Lushan pleaded with him and promised to subdue the Khitans and the Xi, so Zhang later relented and asked the court to demote An and subject him to a public humiliation.

But Ān Lushan and the execution order had already reached the Chang’an court. Deliberating on the case intensified the power struggle between the two chief ministers. Zhāng Jiǔlíng 张九龄‎ (673–740) was a much respected scholar-official and poet from the south’s Guangdong province, and Lǐ Línfǔ 李林甫‎ (d. 753) was a member of the Tang imperial clan and in power since 722. Zhang Jiuling wanted the execution order to proceed, warning the court about an unusual look about Ān Lushan that could bring disaster to the state. Li Linfu argued that An should live, and Emperor Xuanzong sided with him. An was demoted and ordered to wear white as a sign of disgrace. After Zhang Jiuling was dismissed from the government in 737 on accusations of factionalism and slander, Li Linfu became virtually the sole decision maker at the Chang’an court.

It is not clear how long Ān Lushan’s humiliation lasted, but he seemed to have returned to the northern frontiers to engage in battle. He was favorably mentioned in 737 in court for fighting bravely on the front line against the Khitan, despite being injured by an arrow. The following year Zhang Shougui attempted to report a defeat as a victory and was subsequently demoted, while Ān Lushan, unaffected by the scandal, regained his post as general by 740.

Between the Northeast and Chang’an Court, 740–755

In the next fifteen years Ān Lushan split his time between the Chang’an court and his commissions in the northeast provinces. Shuffling between locations, Ān Lushan built an extensive military network in the capital while shoring up his power base in the northeast provinces. An had a propensity for self-deprecation and considerable interpersonal skills that disarmed others and often led to them adopting him as a relative or son. The sabao in Lanzhou adopted him as a younger brother when he was thirteen. An’s superior in the army at the Tibetan borders, Zhang Shougui, might have also adopted him as a son in the late 720s and 730s.

In the 740s, Ān Lushan continued to benefit from the military policy changes of the powerful chief minister Li Linfu, who since 722 had steered the course of government to fiscal and military reforms. Expanding his policy of recruiting foreign-born professional soldiers to replace militiamen and conscripts, he now hired non-Chinese generals and officers to replace the Chinese counterparts. He sought those too aristocratic and soldierly to find common cause with his scholar-official enemies in the government and too foreign and unlearned to have any ambitions to compete with him at the Chang’an court. Ān Lushan was just such a man, and Li Linfu persuaded Xuanzong to give him more military powers and honors. In 740 Ān Lushan was appointed troop commissioner for Pínglú 平卢‎ circuit (headquarters at Yingzhou) and two years later became its military governor. In 744, his power and influence were acknowledged with an additional appointment as military governor of Fanyang circuit (headquarters at Beijing), the post held previously by his mentor and superior, Zhang Shougui. That year he also received a nonmilitary post as acting vice president of the censorate, giving him reason to visit the capital.

In the northeast borders, An continued to deal with the border unrests caused by the shifting loyalties of Khitan and Xi peoples. In 745 the Khitan and Xi chieftains killed the Tang princess brides who had been sent to them less than half a year before. They then relented on their earlier submission and rebelled against the Tang. Ān Lushan claimed success in subduing the unrest, and the court heaped more military honors on him. His strategies included inviting the Khitan and Xi for drinks, then poisoning their wine and food, resulting in thousands being killed at each feast.

In the capital, Ān Lushan first showed his ambitions beyond military rank by ingratiating himself with Emperor Xuanzong and his favorite concubine, Consort Yáng Guìfēi 杨贵妃‎ (also known as Yáng Yùhuán 杨玉环‎, 719–756). Consort Yang had first entered the palaces in 737 as the wife of Xuanzong’s eighteenth son. After a divorce and some years in a Daoist nunnery, she re-emerged in 744, now as Consort Yang. She and Emperor Xuanzong adopted An as a son. The standard histories state that she bathed him as if he were a baby. Stories about Ān Lushan entering the palace women’s quarters without supervision led contemporaries and commentators to assume that Consort Yang and Ān Lushan had a close or even erotic relationship. Apart from bribing court attendants and flattering Xuanzong, Ān Lushan used self-deprecation to show that he was a harmless buffoon and not a threat to the Tang state. Declaring himself to be a mixed barbarian abiding by the barbarian protocol of honoring one’s mother, he bowed first to Consort Yang before bowing to Xuanzong. He did not bow to the crown prince, claiming that he did not know what a crown prince was. Xuanzong and the court ladies were amused by his physiognomy; he was short and obese with a huge belly reaching his knees. When Xuanzong asked what was in his belly, An replied that it held nothing but his loyal heart.

But Li Linfu and the Chang’an court were not completely confident about Ān Lushan’s loyalty to the Tang. An had to leave relatives behind in Chang’an when retuning to the northeast provinces. He had two wives and a family that would expand to eleven sons and an unspecified number of daughters. His Sogdian wife, neé Kāng 康‎ (with Samarkand roots), was the mother of his heir Qìngxù 庆绪‎; she lived in Chang’an with another son, Qìngzōng 庆宗‎, who was later married to a daughter of the Tang imperial clan. The other wife, neé Duàn 段‎, might have been of Chinese ethnicity; she was the mother of Qìng’ēn 庆恩‎, who lived with her and Qingxu in the northeast.

An’s loyalty to Li Linfu was indeed fickle, when he involved himself in court politics by helping to expose Li Linfu’s attempt to rig a civil service examination in 744. While Li Linfu was not demoted and did not take any vengeance upon Ān Lushan, it was a clear sign to all players in Chang’an that An was not a loyal puppet of Li Linfu and the Sino-Turkic aristocrats, but rather a political force unto himself. His demeanor, military record, and demonstrated loyalty had won the ear and gratitude of the emperor, who also bestowed noble titles for An’s two wives. In 751, he acquired an additional appointment as military governor of Hedong circuit (headquarters at Taiyuan). With three circuits in his total control and ready access to between 150,000 to 200,000 soldiers, he was the most powerful military commander in Tang China or, for that matter, in the world.

Apart from Ān Lushan, the court also entrusted vast amounts of power to the Turgesh general Gēshū Hàn 哥舒翰‎ (d. 757) and the Sogdian-Turkic An Sishun, An’s cousin, who did not join An’s revolt in 755. By 751, Sichuan was the only circuit that still had a Chinese military commander. Li Linfu had indeed taken away military control from the civilian administrators while maintaining a delicate power balance between the Chang’an court and the frontier commanders. Powerful chief minister for nineteen years and architect of the military restructuring of Tang China, he died in disgrace in early 753. The standard histories blame him for creating the environment that fostered the Ān Lushan Rebellion, and accordingly his biography is found in the section reserved for treacherous officials.

After Li Linfu died, Ān Lushan was faced with a powerful rival in the Chang’an court. The new chief minister was Yáng Guózhōng 杨国忠‎ (d. 756), a cousin of Consort Yang, who had military support in Sichuan. The balance of power shifted sharply and the rivalry between Ān Lushan and him intensified. Xuanzong wanted to appoint Ān Lushan as a chief minister, but Yang Guozhong rejected the appointment on the basis that An was illiterate. An was sent out to the provinces as commissioner of imperial stables and imperial horses. Because he was already the military governor of Pinglu, Fanyang, and Hedong circuits, this appointment allowed him to store weapons and horses in preparation for revolt. He repeatedly reported to Chang’an on the instability of the borders, requesting additional forces and equipment. At the same time he seized ample opportunities to cultivate the connections with the non-Chinese generals at the borders. In 754, he requested, and obtained, honors and rewards for a total of 2,500 generals and officers he claimed contributed to the suppression of the Khitan and other nomadic peoples. Ān Lushan was selective with building his support and did not include his rival, the Turgesh general Geshu Han, who in 754 also requested that honors be bestowed on generals and officers under his command. By 755, Ān Lushan had built a multi-ethnic force of 150,000 to 200,000 soldiers under the command of generals and officers of Sogdian, Khitan, Xi, Turkic, Arab, and Han Chinese ethnicities. Many of these soldiers came from the surrendered Khitan, Xi, and Tóngluó 同罗‎ tribes that he had subdued at the frontiers between 740 and 755. Other soldiers were from the Tang central forces that had been sent to the northeast when he requested backup during the years he was stationed at the frontiers. His most significant subordinate was Shǐ Sīmíng 史思明‎ (703–761), a fellow Sogdian-Turkic who learned to speak six languages besides Chinese, as Ān Lushan did.

An stopped going to Chang’an even when Xuanzong summoned him; by late 754, almost two years had lapsed without his coming to the capital, not even to attend his own son’s wedding to a daughter of the imperial family. Yang Guozhong repeatedly warned the emperor that An was preparing to rebel, but government spies sent to observe Ān Lushan came back bribed and ready to present negative reports of rebellion.

The Ān Lushan Rebellion of 755–763

Ān Lushan indeed rebelled against the Tang dynasty. Historians are divided about his primary motive for revolt. Some argue that the power struggle between him and the chief minister Yang Guozhong caused the rebellion. He had no reason to hate Emperor Xuanzong, who bestowed generous honors and power on him. It is likely that Ān Lushan’s ambition to become emperor was the key motive; he had systematically prepared for the rebellion for at least ten years, long before Yang Guozhong became chief minister. But certainly the timing of the rebellion might have been decided by An’s anticipation of demotion and execution from the Yang Guozhong government.

On 16 December 755, Ān Lushan led his troops southward to the Tang capitals from Fanyang, claiming that he was executing a secret edict from Emperor Xuanzong to kill “the bandit” Yang Guozhong. His multi-ethnic force had hard, professional frontier soldiers and was well equipped with weapons and horses imported from the frontiers or hoarded from the central Tang armies. The force of 150,000–200,000 soldiers, with thousands of elite Sogdian-Turkic cavalry, vastly outmatched the Tang loyalist soldiers, local elites, and conscripts blocking the rebel advance. In a month his armies reached the Huang (Yellow) River valley, where they disrupted the vital trade and tribute along the Grand Canal and captured the eastern capital of Luoyang. Once settled into Luoyang, Ān Lushan showed that his ambition extended far beyond removing Yang Guozhong from the Tang court. On lunar new year in 756, he proclaimed a new dynasty, the Yan, to replace the Tang. He also declared himself emperor with the reign title of Shèngwǔ 圣武‎ (Sacred Militarism), clearly claiming both legitimacy as a sage ruler and continuing commitment to the values of militarism, so important among those from the frontier in his army. The dynastic name of Yan was the same name of a strong and independent state that had existed in the northeast during the Eastern Zhōu 东周‎ (770–221 bce). It is a clear sign that Ān Lushan presented himself as the liberator of the northeast from central Chinese oppression.

The northeast would never be fully pacified, however, and did not stand united with Ān Lushan. Soon after declaring the new dynasty, his garrisons in the northeast came under attack as the Tang organized stronger resistance. Upon news of the rebellion, Xuanzong immediately put to death Ān Lushan’s wife, Lady Kang, and her son, Qingzong. Qingzong’s wife was a member of the imperial clan, so she was given some respect and allowed to commit suicide. The Tang court recalled the northwest frontier armies to resist the rebel armies. These armies had been defending the Tang territories in Central Asia, and once gone, the Tibetans took advantage of the crisis and occupied the northwest regions.

The Tang frontier commander Geshu Han set up the main defensive line in the Tóngguān 潼关‎ passes to the western capital of Chang’an, which the Yan did not have the strength to assault. But politics intervened, and Yang Guozhong, wanting to score a major and popular victory against the rebel regime while weakening Geshu Han in case the latter also had rebellious intent, ordered Geshu Han to attack the rebel forces. The attack failed, and the road to Chang’an was cleared for the rebels. Geshu Han was captured and died a year later.

On 14 July 756, within days of the arrival of the rebel forces in Chang’an, the Tang court abandoned the capital to seek refuge in Sichuan, whose Chinese military governor had connections with Yang Guozhong. At the Mawei station, the soldiers escorting the royal entourage mutinied. Blaming the military crisis on the Yang family, they killed Yang Guozhong and demanded that Consort Yang also die. Xuanzong ordered the suicide of Consort Yang, and the entourage continued the trek to Sichuan. He soon abdicated and the new emperor, Sùzōng 肃宗‎ (r. 756–762), set about restoring the Tang dynasty by enlisting the assistance of the Uygurs and appointing two capable generals, Guō Zǐyí 郭子仪‎ (697–781) and Lǐ Guāngbì 李光弼‎ (708–764), to lead the suppression of the rebel forces. The Tang recovery force was of mixed ethnicity: Guo Ziyi was Chinese, Li Guangbi was Korean, Púgù Huái’ēn 仆固怀恩‎ (d. 765) was Turkic, and An Sishun, a cousin of Ān Lushan, was Sogdian-Turkic.

The rebel forces cut off access to the Grand Canal, which devastated the economy by stopping the transport of goods and supplies. The heavy casualties and extremist acts of loyalty during the rebellion can be illustrated in the defense of Suiyang (Henan), the collapse of which would allow the rebels to control the region between the Huai and Yangzi (Chang) rivers. Zhāng Xún 张巡‎ (709–757), the county magistrate, defended Suiyang against the siege of the rebels. When food was exhausted, he offered up his concubine to be cooked as food for the soldiers. Others followed his example and offered up their women and slaves, and soldiers ate the women first, then the old and the young. By November 757, when the ten-month siege ended, 30,000 people had died and only about 400 of the civilian population were left. Cannibalism did not save Suiyang or the life of Zhang Xun, who was killed by the rebels a few days before the Tang army arrived.

Ān LùshānClick to view larger

Scene from the painting Emperor Xuanzong’s Journey to Shu, ink and color on silk, by an anonymous artist, ninth/tenth century. It shows Emperor Xuanzong and his army retreating through the mountains to Sichuan in 756 ce after rebels took over the capital Chang’an.

From the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan.

The Tang forces recovered the two capitals, Luoyang and Chang’an, but the rebel forces in the northeast provinces continued to hold out until their final surrender in February 763, at which point both Xuanzong and Suzong had passed away and Dàizōng 代宗‎ (r. 762–779) had become the new Tang emperor. While the Tang throne changed hands three times over the course of the rebellion, the rebel Yan regime went through four rulers. In late 756, with capture of the two capitals, a total Yan victory seemed near, but Ān Lushan had fallen ill. He had long been overweight, but for most of his life he still had enough vigor and energy to lead his soldiers, often from the front lines. Soon after he arrived in Luoyang, however, Ān Lushan’s life of indulgence caught up with him. His severe obesity led to a skin infection that worsened, and he was becoming blind and plagued by painful boils. He gradually retired from military life, allowing subordinate generals to lead the attacks. In January of 757, Ān Lushan, already known for brutality, punished his own subordinates so severely that several feared for their lives and plotted to murder him. On 27 January 757, Ān Lushan’s eunuch slave and a subordinate general stabbed him in his sleep and elevated Ān Lushan’s son An Qingxu as emperor (r. 757–759). The Yan survived another six years, first under An Qingxu, who was deposed and executed by the Sogdian-Turkic general Shi Siming, who set himself up as the third Yan emperor (r. 759–761). Whereas Ān Lushan was obese, Shi was extremely thin, and both had hot tempers. Shi’s epitaph has been located; it has titles in both Chinese and Sogdian, including titles from royal Sogdian families. Shi Siming was murdered by his own son, Cháoyì 朝义‎, who became the last Yan emperor (r. 762–763). The Ān Lushan Rebellion came to an end in early 763, when Shi Chaoyi committed suicide and a number of rebel generals were placated and re-installed as governors in the northeast regions.

Consequences of the Rebellion

Although the Tang dynasty survived for another 150 years, the empire was much diminished. It is hard to come up with precise numbers of casualties, but we can say that millions of lives perished through war and famine during the course of the rebellion. Tang lost control of Central Asia, and the Tibetans and other ethnic groups occupied the northwest regions. In late 763, after the rebellion had ended, the Tibetan empire occupied the capital of Chang’an for two weeks. The Uygurs, who assisted the Tang to crush the rebels, chased the Tibetans out. They were handsomely paid with princess brides, silk, and huge amounts of money that caused a considerable drain on Tang revenues.

The central government was much weakened by subsequent regionalism in the northeast. The rebel generals who were re-installed in the northeast made their positions hereditary, undermining the credibility of the Tang imperial house. The central government lost a significant taxation base in the northeast, because these provinces contained 25–30 percent of the Tang population. As the population shifted to the Huai and Yangzi from the war-torn northeast, the south acquired new importance and became the chief source of revenues for the central government.

The rebellion disrupted trade and transportation on the Grand Canal. War and starvation during the sacking of Luoyang and Chang’an destroyed millions of lives. The destruction of land, resources, and registration records led to the collapse of the financial structure and the taxation system. In 780 the twice-a-year tax replaced the poll tax that was based on land allocation and the tax-in-kind that was paid in grain, cloth, and corvée (i.e., enforced labor). Both the plots that had been allocated to families in their lifetime and the perpetual land grants were converted to private ownership, and the tax was based on the amount of land owned and was paid in cash, twice a year.

Destruction of the Sogdian Diaspora

The attitude toward the foreigner in Tang China changed from one of cosmopolitan acceptance to rejection. The clearest example of changed perception was the chilling genocide that occurred in 763, when the Tang army captured the rebel Yan capital in Fanyang. Every member of the An and Shi families was killed. The Tang general decreed that rewards should be given to any soldiers who killed a Sogdian man, woman, or child. The soldiers targeted not only Sogdians but those who looked like Sogdians, and the foreign population of Fanyang was put to the sword. A similar massacre was perpetuated by a Tang sympathizer warlord in the south, at Yangzhou (Jiangsu), far away from the birthplace of Ān Lushan. Ethnic violence may have been a feature of other Tang campaigns against the rebels. Over the course of the rebellion, the Tang executed well over 100,000 prisoners of war; ethnic tensions may have motivated many of these killings. Although the rebellion did not begin as an ethnic conflict, but as a power struggle between a high-level general and the chief minister, many of the elites involved defined it an ethnic conflict.

The Ān Lushan Rebellion stigmatized the Sogdians and Sogdian-Turkic communities and dramatically hastened the assimilation process of the Sogdian diaspora in the Tang. Many prominent Sogdian families changed their names or claimed Chinese ancestry. Others assimilated with the Turkic groups and replaced the Sogdian language with Turkish. By the tenth century, the Sogdians had disappeared as an ethnic group, and the Sogdian and Sogdian-Turkic communities, once such large and influential groups in Chinese society, faded from historical records. The disappearance and assimilation of the Sogdians, combined with the instability caused by Tibetan, Uygur, and Arab conquests in Central Asia, severely restricted the overland Silk Roads trade network, slowing the supply of foreign goods into China.

Popular Culture and Literature

The An and Shi families are vilified in the historical records, but in the popular culture and religion of the northeast regions where the rebellion was mostly anchored, some local people in the eighth and ninth centuries worshiped the four rebel emperors—Ān Lushan and his son Qingxu, Shi Siming and his son Chaoyi—as sages. In 773, bribery stopped an attempt to build a temple to worship them. In 821 there were reports about the worshiping of Ān Lushan and Shi Siming as “The Two Sages” (Pulleyblank 1955).

Without Ān Lushan and his rebellion against the Tang dynasty, there would not be the tragic love story between Emperor Xuanzong and Consort Yang that takes up considerable space in popular culture and literary genres (poetry, drama, fiction) from the eighth century to the present time. The standard histories paint a negative picture of Ān Lushan and Consort Yang. In popular culture and literary representations, Ān Lushan remains the villain, but the love story of the emperor and the consort has become romanticized and the historical details are changed.

In 807 Bái Jūyì 白居易‎ (772–846) composed a ballad poem, “Song of Everlasting Regret” 长恨歌‎, that remains the most popular version of the love story of Xuanzong and Consort Yang. In the poem, Consort Yang is an innocent teenage girl when she becomes his concubine and the two fall in love. The rebellion forces them to seek refuge in Sichuan, but on the way there, the horses trample Yang to death. Xuanzong visits her in the spiritual world, where they proclaim their everlasting love to be like the single-winged birds flying in unison and like the twigs intertwined on Earth. Around the same time his friend Chén Hóng 陈鸿‎ wrote a short story, “The Legend of the Song of Everlasting Sorrow” 长恨歌传‎, that contains more historical details, but the love story line is similar and also romanticized. These two ninth century works were heavily drawn upon by subsequent adaptations of the story in popular culture and literary genres.

The romanticized portrayal ignores historical facts and the incest between Xuanzong, the father-in-law, and Consort Yang, his daughter-in-law. The age gap has also been omitted: when the two met, Consort Yang was in her late twenties and Xuanzong was in his fifties. Xuanzong had many other concubines, and when he died in 762, he had fathered a total of fifty-nine children.

Rain on the Firmiana Tree (Wútóng Yǔ 梧桐雨‎), a Yuán 元‎ dynasty (1279–1368) drama written by Bái Pú 白仆‎ (1226–1306), is anchored more on historical facts and allocates a much larger role to Ān Lushan than the above works. Ān Lushan serves under the military governor of Youzhou circuit, Zhang Shougui. He fails to subdue the Khitans and is sent him to the capital to await punishment. Xuanzong and Consort Yang are excited by An’s barbarian dance, and the two adopt him as a son and shower him with political and military positions. Xuanzong and Consort Yang make an oath of everlasting love on the seventh day of the seventh month. The court is shocked by news that Ān Lushan has rebelled. Xuanzong leads his entourage to escape the chaos. At Mawei postal station, he concedes to the soldiers’ demand that Yang Guozhong and Consort Yang be killed. When the rebellion is crushed, Xuanzong returns to Chang’an, lonely and cold, missing Consort Yang day and night. The autumn rain beating down on the firmiana trees adds poignancy to his grief.

The Palace of Eternal Life 长生殿‎, written by Hóng Shēng 洪昇‎ (1645–1704), is based on Rain on the Firmiana Tree and is currently performed in Kun opera (kūnjù 昆剧‎). Recently the Taiwanese composer Chen May-tchi 陳玫琪‎ adapted The Palace of Eternal Life and Song of Everlasting Sorrow to deliver a Western-Chinese fusion opera, titled Firmiana Rain. Performed in Taipei in 2007 and in Beijing in 2011, the opera is sung in four languages: Mandarin, Taiwanese, German, and French. The roles for Xuanzong and Consort Yang are taken by Japanese artists, who sing Western operatic scores in Chinese. Ān Lushan is performed by a Chinese artist singing in German and speaking in French. Today, Ān Lushan continues to be a presence in China’s two hundred regional operas besides Beijing opera, although he is eclipsed by the Xuanzong and Consort Yang romance.


Ān Lushan was a military figure whose notoriety in Chinese history rested on the rebellion that he launched in late 755. As such his biography in the standard histories is relegated to the section reserved for traitors. In seven years and two months, the Tang went through three emperors, and the rebel Yan regime passed through two families and four Sogdian-Turkic rulers. The Tang dynasty recovered, but the empire was much diminished. Tang rulers henceforth rejected the residual traces of Turkic ancestry and self-identified as Chinese rulers.

Some historians have described the Ān Lushan Rebellion as a foreign invasion; it is not a clear case of a foreign attack against a Chinese dynasty, however. Two military families from the Sogdian-Turkic diaspora in China launched the rebellion and declared the rebel Yan dynasty to replace the Tang. The rebel movement had Chinese and non-Chinese participants among the generals and the soldiers. It was crushed by the Tang central government, whose emperors had mixed Chinese-Turkic ancestry and whose army also contained Chinese and non-Chinese generals and soldiers.

In China’s Cosmopolitan Empire, author Mark Lewis sums up the Ān Lushan event well. The rebellion not merely changed the direction of Tang China, but had a huge impact on subsequent Chinese history; it brought China out of the medieval period into the early modern era. The Tang empire was reconfigured with a new cultural geography with population, economic, and fiscal shifts from the north to the Yangzi and Sichuan regions.

Lee CHAMNEY and Jennifer W. JAY

University of Alberta


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