History of China An Lu Shan Rebellion Paper

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An examination of the causes behind the An Lu Shan rebellion, which stands a decisive turning point in Chinese history.
  Sherry LinHistory of China IResearch Paper  The Causes of the An Lushan Rebellion The An Lushan Rebellion, 755 – 763, was a military uprising led by a rebel general againstthe Tang central government and marks one of the major turning points in Tang Dynasty history.An Lushan was a Sogdian-Turkish general who was able to capitalize upon his successfulneutralization of the northern frontier threats to steadily climb the military ranks and winimperial court favor. During the years of An’s ascent to personal power, the Imperial court wasrun by the imperial minister Li Linfu, a capable administrator whose unchecked power while inoffice left a dangerous power vacuum after his death in 752. The ensuing power struggles between An and several others to fill the political vacuum eventually left An feeling corneredinto rebelling in order to save his political career, as well as his own life. The volatilecombination of rising frontier militarism, in conjunction with a central government weakened bythe collapse of Li’s unchecked power in 752, form the main underlying factors of the An Lushanrebellion. While the increasing power of the frontier military provided An with the institutionalmeans to rise to personal power, the political instability created by the power vacuum followingLi’s death was the immediate catalyst that drove An to seize total government control.The rise of new frontier military threats during the early 8 th century required the Tanggovernment to make substantial institutional changes to ensure China’s border security, and Ansuccessfully maneuvered within this new institutional framework to rise to personal power. TheTang government’s shift from a centralized to decentralized military organizational systemevolved as a response to new types of organized and highly-mobile nomadic threats that arose inthe 8 th century. Whereas before the 8 th century, the Tang government relied upon an informalFuping militia system that was effective only for short conflicts, the rise of powerful, longer-termnomadic threats on the Northern and Western frontiers after the 8 th century forced thegovernment to quickly readjust both its military structure and allocation of institutional power.For example, the protracted length of the conflicts with the Khitan, Xi and Tibetan nomadsnecessitated the creation of large, standing armies on the frontiers of up to half-a-million troopsthat soon required the leadership of military governors. In reorganizing border defense under such governors, the central government inevitably ceded a significant portion of its military andcivil authority, including powers of finance and taxation, to these individuals. This transfer of imperial control over local affairs to the military governors explains how “the frontier wasgradually strengthened at the expense of the central government,” to the point where thedefensively-created armies soon acquired dangerous offensive capacities. Furthermore, althoughthese frontier armies were “highly effective for controlling foreign enemies,” they could also bedirected inwards towards the state itself in the absence of foreign threats. Thus, the creation of military governorships as a response to nomadic frontier threats reflects an institutional shiftaway from concentrated central power and towards an effective, but potentially disloyaldecentralized military organization centered around military governors.The prestige, professionalism and hierarchical structure of the new frontier armies under the military governorship system provided outsiders like An with a legitimate avenue to rise to political power. Before the establishment of the military governorship system, hereditary rightand the exam system were the only two methods for attaining government positions. Both of   these avenues to political power restricted large segments of the population from governmentservice, as those lacking in money, education or connections were automatically disqualifiedfrom contention. Later, the rise of the military governorship system in the 8 th century vastlyequalized the availability of government service opportunities by creating a military hierarchy onthe frontier that paralleled the bureaucratic hierarchy of the central government. For instance,whereas connections and intellectual merit determined promotion under the government bureaucracy, military skill and success now determined promotion under the frontier militarysystem. This development shows how the frontier armies created invaluable opportunities for those lacking the traditional means to success, as military advancement had fewer qualification barriers than advancement by intellectual or hereditary merit.As repelling the nomadic invaders became increasingly challenging, the stature and prestigeof the frontier armies rose accordingly, and promotion through the frontier military hierarchy became a viable way to attain political appointments within the imperial court. An Lushan, for example, was able to use his military successes as a stepping stone for acquiring important political posts. An began as simple soldier in the Chinese army, but his military merits ensuredsteady promotions that eventually earned him governorships of the powerful Pinglu and Fanyangmilitary commands in the Northeast by 744. His success in particular in pacifying the Khitan andXi nomads soon led to several important civil service appointments, including “civil inspector of Hebei” and “honorary president of the censorate,” in addition to his military responsibilities of over 200,000 troops. An’s attainment of these high-ranking military and civil service positions,despite his background of limited means, reflects the political fluidity and mobility enabled bythe military governorship system. Therefore, the creation of military governorships equalized theavailability of government service opportunities, and provided An with an institutionalizedmeans to attain personal power.Coinciding with the rise in frontier military power was a corresponding fall in centralgovernment authority that stemmed from the consequences of imperial minister Li Linfu’sunchecked power. Li had srcinally been a successful administrator, but the alarming scope of his power soon spawned bitter internal factionalism that severely weakened the central bureaucracy before its partial collapse following Li’s death in 752. In the early part of his career,Li’s ambitions were kept firmly in check by his rival minister in the censorate, Chang Qiuling,with Li representing bureaucratic efficiency and Chang championing scholarly Confucianorthodoxy. After years of rivalry, Li successfully forced Chang from power, and beganconsolidating his military and financial power in order to implement his reforms. For instance, Lisuccessfully gained control over the frontier armies by establishing the precedent for promotingfrontier officers to political positions, a shrewd move that kept handpicked generals like AnLushan personally beholden to Li, as they owed their political position to Li’s sponsorship. This policy eliminated the critical separation between political and military power, since theappointed generals never relinquished their military power, and effectively weakened thegovernment’s ability to self-regulate. Whereas military and political power traditionally served tocounterbalance one another, Li’s melding of the two sides enabled a dangerous amount of power to quickly accumulate in the hands of very few. Likewise, Li also co-opted the power of thefinance ministers by manipulating their selection to the ministry, which rendered the financeministers beholden to Li’s sponsorship as well. Both these examples show how, by controlling both the government’s military and political authority, Li was thereby able to control virtually allother aspects of government, ranging from the minutiae of local appointments to longer-term policy aims.  Although Li successfully implemented many beneficial reforms during his tenure as chief minister, members of the inner court became increasingly alarmed by the extent of his power,and sought to challenge him. Li retaliated by spending the next ten years until his death in 752methodically purging all potential challengers to his authority. He either killed off or removedfrom office a majority of competent officials, and instead installed unqualified but seeminglyloyal officials who ruined the credibility of the bureaucracy with their corruption, like WangHung, the self-enriching finance minister. Thus, Li’s career trajectory captures how, despite hiswell-intentioned and generally successful reforms, his means for achieving these policies haddestabilizing consequences for the central government. Li’s unchecked power consolidation after Chang’s death essentially put the central government at his whim, and subsequent challenges tohis stranglehold on power resulted in bitter infighting that seriously damaged the credibility of the central government. Most importantly, while Li’s attempts to silence his challengersdamaged the bureaucracy he had worked so hard to strengthen, his death left a truly dangerous power vacuum: as the “linchpin” of the central government, Li had no other replacement with theability to keep the central government together. Therefore, while Li’s unchecked rise to power enabled the implementation of beneficial reforms in the short-run, it also unintentionally resultedin damaging infighting and a gaping power vacuum that all proved to be destabilizing to thecentral government in the long-run.The dangerous combination of rising military power on the frontier and a political power vacuum at the center created the volatile conditions behind An’s revolt. In the wake of the political vacuum created by Li’s death, An and Li’s successor to the chief ministry, YangGuozhong, became the two top contenders for political power. Where An had overwhelminglysuperior military power, Yang had infinitely better political connections as the relative of theEmperor’s favorite consort. Both tried to outmaneuver the other to make up for their respectiveweaknesses, with Yang attempting to gain control of a military governorship in Sichuan, and Anmaking increased court appearances to curry political favor. When Yang realized he could not possibly match An’s military strength as the most powerful of the military governors, heinstigated a political witch hunt against An, and aggressively sought to discredit the general’sloyalty while ostracizing and punishing his followers at court. By early 755, An was too afraid toeven set foot in the imperial court for fear of arrest and torture, and became convinced that hehad completely lost the emperor’s support. Feeling politically cornered and certain that hisdisgrace was imminent, An finally decided to turn his troops against the state in the spring of 755in what felt like his only option out of the situation. This sequence of events demonstrates howAn’s decision to rebel came down to two simple factors: he was politically cornered by Yang, but had the military means to fight his way out of it. Some commentators argue that An had plotted all along to usurp power. The events leading up to the rebellion, however, show that itwas borne of specific political circumstances at a specific time when the center was crippled by a political vacuum and the frontier was militarily strong. Thus, rather than being a calculated and pre-meditated decision, An’s impetus to rebel was truly a product of purely political conflict setwithin the opportune military conditions.The An Lushan Rebellion stands as one of the defining events in Tang Dynasty, and indeed,of all of Chinese history. While the rebellion itself was the unfortunate product of an unstable political power vacuum combined with a strong frontier military, the effects of the rebellion arefar more profound. The rebellion completely crippled and devastated a once-powerful state, anddirectly led to the decentralized and chaotic political order of its aftermath. Even though theTang government was able to regain some measure of its former authority, the dynasty never   fully recovered from the rebellion’s damage. Though the causes of the rebellion seem to berooted in a specific historical context, the broader lessons of the dangers of political-militaryimbalances are easily relevant to modern day. Thus, the lessons of the An Lushan Rebellioncontinue to transcend time and place, and stand as an example and warning to all regimes, past, present and future. 
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