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The An Lushan Rebellion began in 755 as a revolt by a disgruntled general in the Tang Dynasty's army, but it soon engulfed the country in unrest that lasted nearly a decade until its end in 763. Along the way, it nearly brought one of China's most glorious dynasties to an early and ignominious end.
An almost unstoppable military force, the An Lushan Rebellion controlled both capitals of the Tang Dynasty for most of the rebellion, but internal conflicts eventually brought an end to the short-lived Yan Dynasty.
Origins of Unrest
In the middle of the 8th century, Tang China was embroiled in a number of wars around its borders. It lost the Battle of Talas, in what is now Kyrgyzstan, to an Arab army in 751. It also was unable to defeat the southern kingdom of Nanzhao - based in modern-day Yunnan - losing thousands of troops in an attempt to put down the rebellious kingdom. The only military bright spot for Tang was their limited success against Tibet.
All of these wars were expensive and the Tang court was quickly running out of money. The Xuanzong Emperor looked to his favorite general to turn the tide - General An Lushan, a military man probably of Sogdian and Turkic origin. Xuangzong appointed An Lushan commander of three garrisons totaling more than 150,000 troops which were stationed along the upper Yellow River.
A New Empire
On December 16, 755, General An Lushan mobilized his army and marched against his Tang employers, using the excuse of insults from his rival at court, Yang Guozhong, moving from the area that is now Beijing along the Grand Canal, capturing the Tang eastern capital at Luoyang.
There, An Lushan announced the formation of a new empire, called the Great Yan, with himself as the first emperor. He then pushed on toward the primary Tang capital at Chang'an - now Xi'an; along the way, the rebel army treated anyone who surrendered well, so numerous soldiers and officials joined the rebellion.
An Lushan decided to seize southern China quickly, to cut off the Tang from reinforcements. However, it took his army more than two years to capture Henan, severely dampening their momentum. In the meantime, the Tang emperor hired 4,000 Arab mercenaries to help defend Chang'an against the rebels. Tang troops took up highly defensible positions in all of the mountain passes leading to the capital, completely blocking An Lushan's progress.
Turn of the Tide
Just when it seemed that the Yan rebel army would have no chance to capture Chang'an, An Lushan's old nemesis Yang Guozhong made a devastating mistake. He ordered the Tang troops to leave their posts in the mountains and attack An Lushan's army on flat ground. General An crushed the Tang and their mercenary allies, laying the capital open to attack. Yang Guozhong and the 71-year-old Xuanzong Emperor fled south toward Sichuan as the rebel army entered Chang'an.
The emperor's troops demanded that he execute the incompetent Yang Guozhong or face a mutiny, so under intense pressure Xuanzong ordered his friend to commit suicide when they stopped in what is now Shaanxi. When the imperial refugees reached Sichuan, Xuanzong abdicated in favor of one of his younger sons, the 45-year-old Emperor Suzong.
Tang's new emperor decided to hire reinforcements for his decimated army. He brought in an additional 22,000 Arab mercenaries and a large number of Uighur soldiers - Muslim troops who intermarried with local women and helped form the Hui ethnolinguistic group in China. With these reinforcements, the Tang Army was able to retake both of the capitals at Chang'an and at Luoyang in 757. An Lushan and his army retreated east.
End of the Rebellion
Fortunately for the Tang Dynasty, An Lushan's Yan Dynasty soon began to disintegrate from within. In January of 757, the Yan emperor's son, An Qingxu, became upset by his father's threats against the son's friends at court. An Qingxu killed his father An Lushan and then was killed in turn by An Lushan's old friend Shi Siming.
Shi Siming continued An Lushan's program, retaking Luoyang from the Tang, but he also was killed by his own son in 761 - the son, Shi Chaoyi, proclaimed himself the new emperor of Yan, but quickly became quite unpopular.
Meanwhile in Chang'an, the sickly Emperor Suzong abdicated in favor of his 35-year-old son, who became Emperor Daizong in May 762. Daizong took advantage of the turmoil and patricide in Yan, recapturing Luoyang in the winter of 762. By this time - sensing that Yan was doomed - a number of generals and officials had defected back to the Tang side.
On February 17, 763, Tang troops cut off the self-proclaimed Yan emperor Shi Chaoyi. Rather than facing capture, Shi committed suicide, bringing the An Lushan Rebellion to a close.
Although the Tang eventually defeated the An Lushan Rebellion, the effort left the empire weaker than ever. Later in 763, the Tibetan Empire retook its Central Asian holdings from Tang and even captured the Tang capital of Chang'an. The Tang had been forced to borrow not only troops but also money from the Uighurs - to pay those debts, the Chinese gave up control of the Tarim Basin.
Internally, the Tang emperors lost significant political power to warlords all around the periphery of their lands. This problem would plague the Tang right up until its dissolution in 907, which marked China's descent into the chaotic Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period.