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The Tang Dynasty: An Age of Innovation


The Tang Dynasty era (618-907 AD) was a period of unprecedented peace and stability in China. Chinese arts and culture flourished, and the Tang era is generally considered the greatest age for Chinese poetry.

It was also a period of notable Chinese technological progress and innovation. The development of woodblock printing facilitated the rapid spread of written works and, hence, spreading knowledge and improving literacy rates. Advancements were made in cartography, timekeeping and astronomy, such as the invention of the world’s first clockwork escapement mechanism by an innovative Tang engineer, monk and astronomer named Yi Xing (surely a curious career combination!). Porcelain was invented, and the study of medicine was advanced.

Woodblock prints from the Tang Dynasty
These may look like chocolate truffles, but are actually woodblock for printing from the Tang Dynasty (images from www.history-of-china.com)

During the time of Emperor Xuanzong, there were some 35,000 Tang craftsmen – many of them structural and mechanical engineers – serving the state. They were keen experimenters. Imperial engineers built a “cool” innovation for the emperor, an Imperial hall that employed water-powered fan wheels and rising jet streams from water fountains for air-conditioning! There was also fun innovation, of course. There were records of an ingenious and intricately designed mechanical device, which used a hydraulic pump to siphon wine into serving bowls – the Tang emperor must have thrown some really eye-opening parties for guests. It was truly a time of great innovation and invention during the Tang era.

Fast forward to present times, and we find that cities and entire nations – Singapore, Israel, Stockholm, amongst many others – are today rushing to be the next big innovation capital of the world. Are there any lessons we can learn from the Tang Dynasty?

An Open Connectedness

Silk Road.
The Silk Road connected China to the rest of the known world (image from www.absolutechinatours.com).

The Silk Road was the most important pre-modern trade route that linked East and West. It allowed the Tang Chinese ready access to markets in the Middle East, Persia and Central Asia. There was active maritime trade as well, with Chinese junks plying the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and all the way to the Horn of Africa, the Persian Gulf and even the Red Sea. Chinese goods such as silk, ceramics and lacquerware flowed into these markets, and Tang porcelain was even highly prized in Egypt.

The Tang empire’s reach to the rest of the world, coupled with its open trade policy, greatly facilitated the flow of people and ideas. This not only brought prosperity, but also gave the Chinese new ways of thinking and doing things. They embraced new ways of smithing and making ceramics. Religions flourished. They incorporated new concepts on fashion. The Tang even adopted the practice of sitting on stools and chairs, where previously they only sat on mats on the floor.

These days, such connectedness is afforded by the digital Silk Road known as the Internet. Search engines, social networking sites like Facebook or micro-blogging platforms like Twitter is all about being connected, facilitating the exchange of ideas and – driving innovation.

Idea Capital

Map of Changan
This diorama Tang era Chang'an shows how extensive and well-organized the capital city was (image from www.chinaeu.de).

It is interesting to note that the Tang capital of Chang’an was the largest city in the world during its time. At its peak the Chang’an supported upwards of two million inhabitants, an impressive number in ancient times. According to Imperial census, many thousands of foreigners from over 70 countries worked, lived and traded within its city wards – merchants from Persia, Central Asia and the Middle East, skilled tradesmen from Vietnam and Korea, and even religious missionaries from India and Japan.

The reason that Chang’an was so cosmopolitan, was that the Tang – unlike most other Chinese dynastic eras – were incredibly open to, and tolerant of, foreign cultures. Although the Tang did employ border laws and manned checkpoints, people could move relatively freely within the empire. Its prosperity was a magnet. With such an incredible concentration of people and ideas, innovation abounded.

In modern economies, however, managing population movements – and culture – will be an increasingly fine line for governments to tread. There is always the fear of a threat to national identity, yet a talent deficit can adversely impact innovation, growth and prosperity.

Stability Drives Innovation

The Tang eventually entered into decline and collapse, more of a result of rebellions and natural calamities like famine and floods rather than poor economic management that finally shattered its prosperity.

Technological progress and innovation is intrinsically tied to a whole host of macro-economic factors. Entities – teams, organizations or countries – that are financially, socially and politically stable are best placed to reap the rewards of innovation.

This article was contributed to and first posted on The Digital Movement.


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