What was the An Shi Rebellion (755-763)?


The An Lushan Rebellion was an armed conflict between the Tang dynasty of China and various regional powers. The rebellion’s overt phase began on 16 December 755, when general An Lushan mobilised his army and marched to Fanyang, and ended when his Yan dynasty fell on 17 February 763 (although the effects lasted past this).

This event is also known (especially in Chinese historiography) as the An–Shi Rebellion or An–Shi Disturbances (simplified Chinese: 安史之乱; traditional Chinese: 安史之亂; pinyin: Ān Shǐ zhī luàn), as it continued after An Lushan’s death under his son An Qingxu, his deputy and successor Shi Siming, and Shi’s son and successor Shi Chaoyi, or as the Tianbao Rebellion (天寶之乱), as it began in the 14th year of that era.

The rebellion spanned the reigns of three Tang emperors against the rival Yan Dynasty before it was finally quashed. Besides the Tang dynasty loyalists, others involved were anti-Tang forces, especially those in An Lushan’s base area in Hebei and Sogdian forces or influences, among others.

The rebellion and subsequent disorder resulted in a huge loss of life and large-scale destruction. It significantly weakened the Tang dynasty and led to the loss of the Western Regions. The Tang dynasty hired 4,000 mercenaries from Abbasid territories and the Uyghur Khaganate intervened for the Tang dynasty against An Lushan.

The Uyghur Khaganate exchanged princesses in marriage with Tang dynasty China in 756 to seal the alliance against An Lushan. The Uyghur Khagan Bayanchur Khan had his daughter Uyghur Princess Pijia (毗伽公主) married to Tang dynasty Chinese Prince Li Chengcai (李承采), Prince of Dunhuang (敦煌王), son of Li Shouli, Prince of Bin. while the Tang dynasty Chinese princess Ninguo married Uyghur Khagan Bayanchur.



Beginning in 742, Eurasia entered a 13-year period of major political turmoil, with the regional empires generally suffering “a major rebellion, revolution, or dynastic change.” In this year the Second Turkic Khaganate of the eastern Eurasian Steppe was overthrown and then replaced by Sogdian-influenced Uighur rulers. This was apparently the first of several revolutionary events either led by or intimately connected with the merchants and tradespeople involved with the international commerce often referred to as the Silk Road. In 747, the Abbasids began their rebellion against the Umayyad Caliphate in Merv, Khurasan, resulting in the proclamation of a new Abbasid Caliph in about 750. This rebellion also seems to have been organized by merchants and persons identifying themselves as merchants.

The western expansion of the Tang Empire was checked in 751 by the defeat of a large expeditionary force led by General Gao Xianzhi in the Battle of Talas in the modern Fergana Valley, with the Abbasid victory attributable to the defection of the Karluk Turks in the midst of the battle. However, the Arabs did not proceed any further after the battle, and the Tang retained their Central Asian territories until the An Lushan rebellion.

Further, southern expansion of the Tang was limited by the ineffective, and even disastrous, campaigns against the Kingdom of Nanzhao. However, the concurrent Tang campaign against the Tibetan Empire was proceeding more successfully, with the campaign to capture the Tibetans’ Central Asian territories appearing nearly successful. With the assassination of the Tibetan emperor Me Agtsom in 755 in the midst of a major rebellion within the Tibetan polity, final Tang victory over the Tibetan Empire seemed all but assured. However, back in the increasingly financially challenged Chinese heartland, the Sogdian-Turkic General An Lushan had worked himself into a position of trust with the Tang emperor Xuanzong and his consort Yang Guifei.

General An Lushan

An Lushan was a general of uncertain birth origins, but thought to have been adopted by a Sogdian father and Göktürk mother of the Ashina tribe. Eventually he managed to become a favourite of the reigning emperor of China. His success in this regard is shown, for example, by the luxurious house Emperor Xuanzong built for him in 751, in the capital Chang’an. The house was furnished with luxuries such as gold and silver objects and a pair of ten-foot-long by six-foot-wide couches appliqued with rare and expensive sandalwood.

He was appointed by Emperor Xuanzong (following the suggestion of Xuanzong’s favourite concubine Yang Guifei and with the agreement of Chancellor Li Linfu) to be Jiedushi (节度使, regional military commanders) of three garrisons in the north – Pinglu, Fanyang and Hedong. In effect, An was given control over the entire area north of the lower reaches of the Yellow River, including garrisons about 164,000 strong. He took advantage of various circumstances, such as popular discontent with an extravagant Tang court, the synchronous Sogdian-involved Abbasid Revolution against the Umayyad Dynasty, and eventually the absence of strong troops guarding the palace coupled with a string of natural disasters. An Lushan was very influential in the Tang court, his close relationship with Emperor Xuanzong led to him being adopted by the imperial concubine Yang Guifei. However he was pushed out of favour by Yang Guifei’s relative, Yang Guozhong, forcing An Lushan to rebel when the emperor no longer trusted him.

The Course of the Rebellion

The An Lushan Rebellion signaled a period of disorder spanning the reigns of three Tang dynasty emperors, beginning during the final (Tianbao era) period of the reign of Xuanzong (08 September 712 to 12 August 756), continuing through the reign of Suzong (12 August 756 to 16 May 762) and ending during the reign of Daizong (18 May 762 to 23 May 779), as well as spanning the four imperial claimants of the failed Da Yan dynasty.

Revolt and Capture of Luoyang

At the end of 755 An Lushan revolted. On 16 December, his army surged down from Fanyang (near modern Beijing). Along the way, An Lushan treated surrendered local Tang officials with respect. As a result, more and more of them joined his ranks. He moved rapidly along the Grand Canal and captured the “Eastern Capital” city of Luoyang on 18 January 756, defeating the poorly supplied General Feng Changqing. There, on 05 February, An Lushan declared himself Emperor of the new Great Yan dynasty (大燕皇帝). His next steps would be to capture the Tang western capital of Chang’an and then to attempt to continue into southern China to complete his conquest.

Battle of Yongqiu

However, the Battle of Yongqiu, in the spring of 756, went badly for An Lushan. Although his army, under Linghu Chao, was numerous, it was unable to make further territorial gains due to the failure to wrest control of Yongqiu (modern Qi County, Kaifeng, in Henan) and (later) the nearby Suiyang District from the Tang defenders led by Zhang Xun. This prevented the Yan forces from conquering southern China, before the Tang were able to recover. The Yan army did not take control of the Suiyang District until after the Siege of Suiyang (January to October 757), almost two years after their initial capture of Luoyang.

Advance on Chang’an

Originally, An Lushan’s forces were blocked from the main imperial (or “Western”) capital at Chang’an (modern Xi’an), by loyal troops placed in nearly impregnable defensive positions in the intervening high mountain passes of Tongguan. Unfortunately for Chang’an, the two generals in charge of the troops at Tong Pass, Gao Xianzhi and Feng Changqing, were executed due to a court intrigue involving the powerful eunuch Bian Lingcheng. Yang Guozhong, with grossly inept military judgment, then ordered the replacement General Geshu Han, who was in charge of the troops in the passes, together with reinforcement troops, to attack An’s army on open ground. On 07 July, the Tang forces were defeated. The road to the capital now lay open.

Flight of the Emperor

With rebel forces clearly an imminent threat to the imperial seat of Chang’an, and with conflicting advice from his advisers, Tang emperor Xuanzong determined to flee to the relative sanctuary of Sichuan with its natural protection of mountain ranges so the Tang forces could reorganise and regroup. He brought along the bulk of his court and household. The route of travel from Chang’an to Sichuan was notoriously difficult, requiring hard travel on the way through the intervening Qin Mountains.

However, the geographical features of the terrain were not the only hardships on the journey: there was a matter that first had to be settled, involving the relationship between Xuanzong and the Yang family, especially the emperor’s beloved Yang Guifei. So, before progressing more than a few kilometres along the way, an incident occurred at Mawei Inn, in today’s Xingping in Xianyang, Shaanxi. Xuanzong’s bodyguard troops were hungry and tired, and very angry with Yang Guozhong for exposing the whole country to danger. They demanded the death of the much-hated Yang Guozhong, and then of his cousin and imperial favourite, Yang Guifei. Soon the angry soldiers killed Yang Guozhong, Yang Xuan (his son), Lady Han and Lady Qin (Yang Guifei’s sisters). With the army on the verge of mutiny, the Emperor had no choice but to agree, ordering the strangling of Lady Yang. The incident made Xuanzong fear for his own safety, so he fled to Chengdu at once. However, people stopped his horse, not wanting him to go away. So he made the crown prince, Li Heng, stay to hold the fort. Instead, Li Heng fled in the other direction to Lingzhou (today called Lingwu, in Ningxia province). Later, on 12 August, after reaching Sichuan, Xuanzong abdicated (becoming Taishang Huang), in favour of the crown prince, who had already been proclaimed emperor.

The Fall of Chang’an

In July 756 An Lushan and his rebel forces captured Chang’an, an event that had a devastating effect upon this thriving metropolis. Before the revolt, estimates put the population within the city walls at from 800,000-1,000,000. Including small cities in the vicinity forming the metropolitan area, the census in 742 recorded 362,921 families with 1,960,188 persons. Much of the population fled at the approach of the rebels. Then the city was captured and looted by the rebel forces and the remaining population put in jeopardy.

A New Emperor

The third son of Xuanzong, Li Heng, was proclaimed Emperor Suzong at Lingzhou (modern-day Lingwu), although another group of local officials and Confucian literati tried to promote a different prince, Li Lin, the Prince of Yong, at Jinling (modern-day Nanjing). One of Suzong’s first acts as emperor was to appoint the generals Guo Ziyi and Li Guangbi to deal with the rebellion. The generals, after much discussion, decided to borrow troops from an offshoot of the Turkish Tujue tribe, the Huihe, or Huige, also known as the Uyghur Khaganate (ancestors of the modern-day Uyghurs, but then located in Mongolia), who were ruled by Bayanchur Khan until his death in the summer of 759. Four thousand Arab mercenaries were sent by the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur to join the Tang in 756, staying in China after the war. With Uyghur assistance, the Tang Imperial forces recaptured both Chang’an and Luoyang in late 757. However, they failed to capture or subdue the rebel troops, who fled to the rebel heartland in the northeast.

Uyghur Khaganate diplomats clashed against Arab Abbasid diplomats over who would enter the diplomatic hall in Chang’an first in 758.

Siege of Suiyang

Refer to Battle of Suiyang (757).

In the beginning of 757 and continuing through October of that year, a protracted stalemate between the Yan and Tang forces occurred in Suiyang. This effectively blocked the Yan forces from attacking the extensive areas south of the Yangzi River, which remained relatively untouched by the An–Shi disturbances.

Implosion of the Yan Dynasty and End of the Rebellion

The Tang imperial forces were helped by the newly formed dynasty’s internal fighting. On 29 January, An Lushan was betrayed and killed by his son, An Qingxu, (An Lushan’s violent paranoia posed too much of a threat to his entourage). The rebel An Lushan had a Khitan eunuch named Li Zhu’er (李豬兒) (Li Chu-erh) who was working for An Lushan when he was a teenager but An Lushan used a sword to sever his genitals as he almost died loosing multiple pints of blood. An Lushan revived him after smearing ashes on his injury. Li Zhu’er was An Lushan’s eunuch after this and highly used and trusted by him. Li Zhu’er and another 2 men helped carry the obese An Lushan when he was taking off or wearing his clothes. Li Zhu’er helped cloth and take of his clothes at the Huaqing (Hua-ch’ing) steam baths granted by Emperor Xuanzang. Li Zhuer was approached by people who wanted to assassinate An Lushan after An Lushan became paranoid and blind, stricken with skin disease and started flogging and murdering his subordinates. An Lushan was hacked to death in his stomach and abdomen by Li Zhuer and another conspirator, Yan Zhuang (Yen Chuang) (嚴莊) who was beaten by An before. An Lushan screamed “this is a thief of my own household” as he desperately shook his curtains since he could not find his sword to defend himself. An Lushan’s intestines came out of his body as he was hacked to death by Li Zhuer and Yan Zhuang. A horse was once crushed to death under An Lushan’s sheer weight due to his fatness.

On 10 April, An Qingxu was then killed by General Shi Siming, An Lushan’s loyal follower and childhood friend. Soon after, Shi recaptured Luoyang. However, on 18 April 761, Shi Siming was killed by his son, Shi Chaoyi, who promptly proclaimed himself emperor, even though he failed to get widespread support from the other Yan generals.

By 762, Emperor Suzong had become seriously ill; and the combined forces of the Tang and their Huige allies were led by his eldest son. This son, first named Li Chu, was renamed Li Yu in 758, after being named crown prince. On 18 May 762, on the death of his father, he became Emperor Daizong of Tang. In the period before his final victory over the rebels, he was confronted with several threats; for example, in 758, the port of Canton was pillaged by sea-borne Arabs and Persians, probably pirates based out of Hainan. In 760, there was a massacre of Arab and Persian merchants in the Yangzhou massacre (760). But, by this time it was clear that the new Yan Dynasty would not last and Yan officers and soldiers began to defect to the Tang side. Then, in the winter of 762, the eastern capital Luoyang was retaken by Tang forces for the second time. Yan Emperor Shi Chaoyi attempted to flee, but was intercepted early in 763. Shi Chaoyi chose suicide over capture, dying on 17 February 763, ending the eight-year-long rebellion.

The Tang dynasty general Gao Juren of Goguryeo descent ordered a mass slaughter of West Asian (Central Asian) Sogdians in Jicheng (Beijing) identifying them through their big noses and lances were used to impale their children when he defeated An Lushan’s rebels.

The end of the rebellion was a long process of rebuilding and recovery. Due to the Imperial Court’s weakened condition, other disturbances flared up. The Tibetan Empire under Trisong Detsän, taking advantage of the Tang’s weakness, had reconquered much of its Central Asian territories, and proceeding to capture Chang’an on 18 November 763 before withdrawing back to the borders of its empire.

Aftermath and Legacy

Death Toll

Censuses taken in the half-century before the rebellion show a gradual increase in population, with the last census undertaken before the rebellion, in 755, recording a population of 52,919,309 in 8,914,709 taxpaying households. However, a census taken in 764, the year following the end of the rebellion, recorded only 16,900,000 in 2,900,000 households. Later censuses count only households, but by 855 this figure had risen to only 4,955,151 households, little over half the number recorded in 755. The difference in the census figures amounts to 36 million people, two-thirds of the population of the empire, though scholars have attributed to factors including a breakdown in taxation and census gathering.

The figure of 36 million was used in Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, where it is presented as proportionally the largest atrocity in history with the loss of a sixth of the world’s population at that time, though Pinker stated that the figure was controversial. Matthew White, from whom Pinker had taken the figure of 36 million, later revised his figure down to 13 million (based on a different calculation from the census results) in his book The Great Big Book of Horrible Things. White’s revised figure is repeated by cultural historians such as Johan Norberg.

Historians such as Charles Patrick Fitzgerald argue that claims of massive depopulation are incompatible with contemporary accounts of the war, which was fought intermittently over three or four provinces. They point out that the numbers recorded on the post-war registers reflect not only population loss, but also a breakdown of accuracy of the census system as well as the removal from the census figures of various classes of untaxed persons, such as those in religious orders, foreigners and merchants. In addition, several of the northern provinces, with approximately a quarter of the empire’s population, were no longer subject to the imperial revenue system. For these reasons, census numbers for the post-rebellion Tang are considered unreliable.

The An Lushan Rebellion was one of several wars in northern China along with the Uprising of the Five Barbarians, Huang Chao Rebellion, the wars of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms and Jin–Song Wars which caused a mass migration of Han Chinese from northern China to southern China called 衣冠南渡(yì guān nán dù). These mass migrations led to southern China’s population growth, economic, agricultural and cultural development as it stayed peaceful unlike the north.

The Weakening of Tang

The rebellion of An Lushan and its aftermath greatly weakened the centralized bureaucracy of the Tang dynasty, especially in regards to its perimeters. Virtually autonomous provinces and ad hoc financial organizations arose, reducing the influence of the regular bureaucracy in Chang’an. The Tang dynasty’s desire for political stability in this turbulent period also resulted in the pardoning of many rebels. Indeed, some were even given their own garrisons to command. Political and economic control of the northeast region became intermittent or was lost, and the emperor became a sort of puppet, set to do the bidding of the strongest garrison. Furthermore, the Tang government also lost most of its control over the Western Regions, due to troop withdrawal to central China to attempt to crush the rebellion and deal with subsequent disturbances. Continued military and economic weakness resulted in further subsequent erosions of Tang territorial control during the ensuing years, particularly in regard to the Uighur and Tibetan empires. By 790 Chinese control over the Tarim Basin area was completely lost.

The political decline was paralleled by economic decline, including large Tang governmental debt to Uighur money lenders. The old taxation system of Zu Yong Diao no longer functioned after the rebellion. In addition to being politically and economically detrimental to the empire, the rebellion also affected the intellectual culture of the Tang dynasty. Many intellectuals had their careers interrupted, giving them time to ponder the causes of the unrest. Some lost faith in themselves, concluding that a lack of moral seriousness in intellectual culture had been the cause of the rebellion. However, a political and cultural recovery eventually did occur within Tang China several decades after the rebellion, until about 820, the year of the death of Emperor Xianzong of Tang. Much of the rebuilding and recovery occurred in the Jiangnan region in the south, which had escaped the events of the rebellion relatively unscathed and remained more firmly under Tang control. However, due in part to the warlord system, the Tang Empire by 907 devolved into what is known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.

Cultural Influence

Sogdian merchants continued as active traders in China following the defeat of the rebellion, but many of them were compelled to hide their ethnic identity. A prominent case was An Chongzhang, Minister of War and Duke of Liang, who in 756 requested of Emperor Suzong to allow him to change his name to Li Baoyu, due to his shame in sharing the same surname with the rebel leader. This change of surnames was enacted retroactively for all of his family members, so that his ancestors would also be bestowed the surname Li.

The events involved in the An Lushan Rebellion had an immense cultural influence both in China and beyond. Many poets of the time wrote about their lives and emotions, which were deeply impacted by war and rebellion, but few poets wrote outwardly about the rebellion. In fact, only eighteen of around one hundred poems produced between the years of 755 and 763 discussed the rebellion. Although the majority of poems written at the time simply do not mention the rebellion, a few poets attempted to write openly about their experiences living during the rebellion. Some examples of this include:

  • The great poet Li Bai (also known as “Li Bo” or “Li Po”, who lived about 701-762) avoided the rebels, but at the cost of getting involved on the wrong side of a power struggle between the princes of the royal family.
    • He was convicted of involvement with rebellion and sentenced to exile, although he was later reprieved.
    • His surviving poems reflect the golden days before the An Lushan rebellion, his lengthy and deliberately protracted journey toward exile, together with his hardships, wandering and disillusionment as the Tang re-consolidated control after the rebellion.
    • He died in 762, before the final defeat of the rebel forces a year later.
  • Li Bai’s colleague Du Fu (712-770) had finally attained a minor appointment in the imperial bureaucracy when the rebellion broke out.
    • He spent the winter of 756 and the summer of 757 as a captive in rebel-occupied Chang’an, but later managed to escape and join with Suzong’s side and thus avoid charges of treason.
    • Living until 770, his subsequent poetry is a primary source of information about the massive upheavals of the period.
  • Wang Changling (698-756?), was another Tang official and renowned poet who died in the rebellion, in about 756.
  • Wang Wei (approximately 699-759) was captured by the rebels in 756 and sent to Luoyang, where he was forced to serve as an official in their governmental administration, for which he was briefly imprisoned after his capture by loyalist forces.
    • Dying before the end of the rebellion, somewhere between 759 and 761, Wang Wei lived his last years in retirement at his country home in Lantian, secluded in the hills.
  • Wei Yingwu (737-792) of Three Hundred Tang Poems fame is credited with writing the poem “At Chuzhou on the Western Stream”, apparently written in response to the seemingly helmless ship of state of the times.

Later poets, such as Bai Juyi (772-846) also wrote famous verses about the events of the period of the Anshi affairs. The tragic events were epitomised in the story of Xuanzong and Yang Guifei, and generations of Chinese and Japanese painters depicted various iconic scenes, such as Yang Guifei bathing or playing a musical instrument or the flight of the imperial court on the “hard road to Shu” (that is, the royal progress to Sichuan). These artistic themes were also a major source of inspiration in Japan, in regards to the Tale of Genji, partially inspired by the story of Yang Guifei.


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