Adapted from author Ma Bo Yong’s book with the same name, most of the characters in The Longest Day in Chang’An actually appeared in real history, although some of the names were changed slightly. Trust me, have an idea of what has happened in real history would bring your understanding of the show to a whole new level.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
In “Chang’an”, the Tang Dynasty was still a decade away from its boom to bust moment, the An Lu Shan rebellion. But problems had already been brewing beneath a surface of prosperity and cracks had started to appear in this sprawling empire.
Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes, even 1100 years ago. So bingo, Tang China was indeed battling with tax issues. The common tax system at the time was Zu Yong Diao (租庸调). It consisted of collection of grains (Zu), silk fabrics or linens (Diao) and contribution of unpaid labour (Yong). This tax system is built upon the basis of a proper registry of population and household. It also came hand-in-hand with what was called an equal-field system (均田制), which in theory grants all peasant families a fixed size of land to farm.
However, the very basis of this tax system began to crumble, as aristocratic families amassed large land holdings. Peasant families were often forced to sell in times of difficulties such as war or natural disasters. The gradual loss of taxable lands deprived the central government of its valuable tax revenue. The government, in response, further increased taxes to make up for the losses, which then exacerbated the problem by driving more peasants away from their land and turning them into refugees.
“The data on the taxable persons were wrong. The sum of taxable field was incorrect and the economic order of the society was in disorder.”
A de-centralisation of military command was another issue. Tang China previously did not have a large permanent standing army. Instead it employed a Fu Bing system (府兵制), which was effectively a system of peasant soldiers, who farm their land when off duty but could be mobilised in times of conflict. The system was very cost effective as the peasant soldiers could sustain themselves by farming. Well, as long as they actually have time to tend to their field, which unfortunately was no longer the case during Xuan Zong’s (玄宗) reign (the Emperor in “Chang’an”) due to frequent warfare. So the Fu Bing system was eventually dismantled in favour of full time army units.
In the meantime, after years of aggressive foreign expansion, Tang China retrenched to a defence mode after several unsuccessful campaigns against powerful neighbours. They were increasingly challenged by raids from Turks in the north and Tibetans in the west, which inevitably led to a need for strong army forces at the border. The result was the creation of a system of Jie Du Shi (节度使), or regional military commissioners especially at the border provinces, who had the mandate to maintain their own army and also later on to collect taxes.
Unsurprisingly, this new system, while highly effective at the beginning, seriously undermined the authority of the central government. Over time, these regional military commissioners became de facto warlords. This would eventually become Tang China’s Achilles’s Heel, haunting the empire for its remaining hundreds of years of rule.
An Lu Shan (安禄山) was one such warlord. What set him apart from other warlords though, was that he was also very adept at cultivating relationships at court. He ingratiated himself to Yang Guifei (杨贵妃), the Emperor’s favourite concubine (Yan Tai Zhen in “Chang’an”, also known as one of the four most outstanding beauties in ancient China). Allegedly he even managed to make himself an adopted son of hers. Crucially, he also became a protege of Li Linfu (李林甫), the prime minister at the time (the Right Counsellor in “Chang’an”). As rightly depicted in the show, an ageing Emperor Xuan Zong, had become increasingly detached from the court, preferring to seeking the elixir of immortality and spending time with his favourite concubine Yang instead. So the prime minster Li was actually the man running the show.
Unfortunately, after controlling the court for almost 19 years, the prime minster Li lost in a power struggle against Yang Guo Zhong (杨国忠), who was a cousin to the Emperor’s favourite concubine Yang and became the new prime minster himself. Eventually the ex-prime minster Li was stripped of his title with all his wealth expropriated and his family sent to exile.
After his main patron passed away, An Lu Shan was accused of disloyalty by Yang Guo Zhong. In 755 AD, An Lu Shan revolted to allegedly “rid the court of evil ministers”. He declared himself emperor in Northern China shortly after, kick starting 8 years of chaos known as the “An Lu Shan rebellion”.
His army captured Chang’an in 756 AD. The city was devastated as a result. The population plummeted. The Tang Dynasty never recovered or recaptured its glory since that point.
Rebel An Lu Shan, was reportedly to be of Sodgian origin. Remember the Sassanian gold coins in the last few episodes which connected the dots? I hope this offers you some hints if you feel annoyed by the somewhat cliff-hanging ending.
Before the fall of Chang’an, the Emperor Xuan Zong fled the palace to Sichuan with his imperial guards. Hungry and exhausted, a munity took place as they reached Ma Wei Courier Station (马嵬驿). The prime minster Yang was bitterly resented by the soldiers for provoking this disaster, who eventually killed him and demanded the Emperor to put his Concubine Yang to death, too. Fearing for his own life, the Emperor had no other choice – Concubine Yang bade the Emperor farewell and committed suicide by hanging herself. The love story between Emperor Xuan Zong and Concubine Yang has since been immortalised by the well-known Tang poet Li Bai in his famous work “Song of everlasting sorrow” (长恨歌).
It is now worth mentioning Yao Ru Neng (姚汝能), the mole with a torn conscience in “Chang’an”. There was a person with the same name in real history. Historians don’t know much about his personal life apart from the fact that he wrote a biography for Rebel An Lu Shan. Interestingly, in this book, the soldier who killed the Prime Minster Yang during the munity was called Zhang Xiao Jing (张小敬), just like the protagonist in “Chang’an”. If there is ever going to be any sequel, you know what you need to look out for!
In the same year as the fall of Chang’an, the Crown Prince Li Heng (the Crown Prince in “Chang’an”) declared himself emperor at a place called Ling Wu (灵武) in modern day Ning Xia province while his father Emperor Xuan Zong abdicated. Does the name of Ling Wu ring a bell? Yes, in “Chang’an”, Ling Wu was the town where the Crown Prince secretly experimented with his new taxation and policies.
As for the Crown Prince’s jealous younger brother, the Prince of Yong, who tried to sabotage and sideline the Crown Prince in ”Chang’an”, he indeed tried his luck in real life by uprising against the new Emperor from Jin Ling (金陵, modern-day Nanjing). But as in the show, he failed miserably.
So where was the other protagonist Li Bi in all this? In real life, Li Bi (李泌), born to an aristocratic family, was known as a child genius. The Emperor Xuan Zong was very impressed by his talent and asked him to become the Crown Prince’s study companion, with whom Li Bi built a lifelong friendship. Prime Minster Yang resented Li Bi’s closeness to the Crown Prince and found a way to fire him. Sent away from the court, Bi went to study Taoism and to meditate in the mountains.
After the An Lu Shan Rebellion erupted, he was called back by his friend, the new Emperor. They fought side by side until recapturing Chang’an. Li Bi quickly resigned from the court after the success, until he was invited back, twice actually, by the two successor emperors, making important contributions to Tang China’s policy matters of the time. Every time, Li Bi would leave at the peak of his career and come back to serve in time of crisis, showing his remarkable political shrewdness. Perhaps this was why he was able to serve four Tang emperors successfully, while avoiding the downfall shared by many of his contemporary peers.
Finally, let me finish this exceedingly long article with an anecdote. If you have watched “Chang’an”, I think you would love to know this: Yuan Zai (元载), the flip-flopping opportunist in “Chang’an” have indeed become the prime minster decades later in real life under the Emperor Dai Zong (代宗). He married the same wife as in the show and had a fantastic career, except that he became so greedy and corrupted that he was put to death by the emperor. This is an ending, I would argue, quiet befitting to his character in the show.