An Lushan (Traditional Chinese: 安祿山; Simplified Chinese: 安禄山; pinyin: Ān Lùshān) (703 – 757) was a military leader of Turkic-Sogdian origin during the Tang Dynasty in China. He rose to prominence by fighting during the Tang Frontier Wars between 741 and 755. He was made the military governor of Fanyang Province (Hebei), (jiedushi) of Manchuria, and during frequent visits to the capital, became a personal favorite of Emperor Xuanzong and his beloved Consort, Yang Guifei. An Lushan was extremely fat, and often played the jester to win favor. Through Yang’s patronage, An Lushan rose to prominence and was eventually made governor of three major frontier provinces in the northeast, giving him control of the eastern half of China’s frontier, and putting him in control of 40 percent of the Tang forces.
In 755, after the High Chancellor Li Linfu died, An Lushan came into conflict with Li’s replacement, Yang Guozhong, who was Yang Guifei’s cousin. He captured the eastern capital city of Loyang (Luoyang), declared himself Emperor of the new Great Yan dynasty (大燕皇帝), and launched the An Shi Rebellion (Simplified Chinese: 安史之乱; Traditional Chinese: 安史之亂; pinyin: Ān Shǐ Zhī Luàn). In 756, he took the capital of Chang’an and forced the Emperor to flee. In 757, An Lushan was murdered by his own son. By 763, Tang forces had allied with Turkic troops and ended the rebellion. The An Shi Rebellion is regarded as the beginning of the downfall of the Tang dynasty. It is estimated to have caused the death of thirty-six million people, due to battle, oppression and famine.
An Lushan was born An Rokhan in 703 in northern Manchuria, where his father was a Sogdian sartapo (merchant) employed by the Turkic Khanate to administer their domains. His mother was a Turkic Shaman, and belonged to the nobility of a Turkish clan. The name “An Lushan” is the Sinicized version of the name An Rokhan. The family name An implied that he was from the city of Bukhara in Sogdiana, and Rokhan in the Sogdian language meant “light.” An Rokhan grew up in a town in Ürümqi, and was working as a sartapo in the market when he was accused of sheep theft and sentenced to death. He escaped from the city and joined the Tang army as a mercenary. He distinguished himself in the border wars of the northwestern frontier, particularly the Khitan invasion of 751-752, and rose through the ranks to become a general by the age of 33.
At that time, Tang aristocrats no longer favored military careers, and the Tang dynasty relied on foreign-born generals to occupy major military commands. In 744, An Rokhan (An Lushan) was made the military governor of Fanyang Province (Hebei), (jiedushi) of Manchuria, by the High Chancellor Li lin-fu, who favored foreign generals because he feared that Chinese generals might usurp his authority at court. He paid frequent visits to the capital and became a personal favorite of Emperor Xuanzong and his beloved Consort, Yang Guifei. An Lushan was extremely fat, and often played the jester to win favor. On one occasion, three days after his birthday, he was taken into the women’s quarters of the palace dressed as a baby, and put through a mock adoption ceremony by Yang. This type of conduct led to rumors of an inappropriate relationship between Yang and An Lushan. Through Yang’s patronage, An Lushan rose to prominence. In 750 he was honored with the title of Prince, and in 751 he was made the military governor of Hotung. Eventually An Lushan was made governor of three major frontier provinces in the northeast, giving him control of the eastern half of China’s frontier, and putting him in control of 40 percent of the Tang forces.
An Lushan had good relations with the High Chancellor, Li Linfu. When the Li Linfu died in 752, An came into conflict with Li’s replacement, Yang Guozhong, who was Yang Guifei’s cousin, possibly because An Lushan himself had hoped to be appointed to the post of High Chancellor. Around that time, An Lushan’s army was thoroughly defeated in a campaign against the Khitans, and China suffered other military setbacks at the hands of the Arabs in the Battle of Talus and Nanzhao in southern China. A series of natural disasters, including drought, severe storms and floods, which caused terrible suffering among the Chinese people, were perceived as signs that Heaven was displeased with the conduct of the Emperor.
An Shi Rebellion
In the fall of 755, An Lushan, using the northern provinces of Heibei and Henan as his base, led an army of about 150,000 soldiers from Peking (Beijing) to capture the eastern capital city of Loyang (Luoyang). Along the way, as Tang local officials surrendered to An Lushan’s forces, they were treated with respect and joined his ranks. He moved rapidly along the Grand Canal of China and captured the city of Luoyang within the year. There, An Lushan declared himself Emperor of the new Great Yan dynasty (大燕皇帝), and launched the An Shi Rebellion (Simplified Chinese: 安史之乱; Traditional Chinese: 安史之亂; pinyin: Ān Shǐ Zhī Luàn), also known as the Tianbao Rebellion (天寶之亂), because An Lushan started it in the fourteenth year of that namesake era.
An Lushan next set out to take the Tang capital and the rest of southern China before the Tang forces could recover. However, the battle for eastern China went badly for An Lushan; although his army was large, it was unable to take control of the Suiyang District from the Tang defenders. An Lushan’s forces were blocked from the main imperial capital at Chang’an by loyal troops placed in impregnable defensive positions in the intervening mountain passes, until Yang Guozhong, in a grossly inept military judgment, ordered the troops in the passes to attack An’s army on open ground. They were demolished, and the road to the capital now lay open. Seeing the imminent threat to Changan, Xuanzong fled to Sichuan with his household. On the way, at Mawei Inn in Shaanxi, Xuanzong’s bodyguard troops demanded the death of Yang Guozhong, and of his cousin, Lady Yang, whom they held responsible for the political upheaval in China. With the army on the verge of mutiny, the Emperor had no choice but to agree, ordering the execution of Yang Guozhong and the suicide of Lady Yang. The crown prince, Li Heng, fled in the other direction to Lingzhou (today called Lingwu, in modern-day Ningxia province).
Decline of the Rebellion
After reaching Sichuan, Xuanzong abdicated in favor of the crown prince, who was proclaimed Suzong. 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 tribe (ancestors of the modern-day Uighurs). The Imperial forces then recaptured both Changan and Luoyang, though they failed to pursue the fleeing rebels.
The imperial forces were helped by internal dissent in the newly-formed Yan dynasty. In 757, An Lushan was murdered by his own son, An Qingxu, after exhibiting signs of extreme paranoia which posed a danger to those around him. (It has been suggested, due to his obesity, that An Lushan was suffering the symptoms of acute diabetes.) An Qingxu was then killed by a subordinate, general Shi Siming, who soon afterwards recaptured the city of Luoyang. Shi Siming was killed in turn by his own son, Shi Chaoyi. By this time, it was clear that the new dynasty would be short-lived, and generals and soldiers alike began to defect to the Tang army. Finally, in 763, after Luoyang was taken by the Tang forces for the second time, Shi Chaoyi committed suicide, ending the eight-year-long rebellion.
Effects of the An Shi Rebellion
The beginning of the An Shi Rebellion in 756 marked the watershed of Tang power. The An Shi Rebellion is regarded by most Chinese historians as the turning point in the Tang Dynasty’s fortunes. For the next 144 years, the Tang ceased to exist in all but name, a far cry from its glorious days under Emperors Taizong and Xuanzong.
The An Shi Rebellion forced the Tang dynasty to become overdependent on the goodwill of provincial governors and military commanders. In an effort to quickly establish peace after the Rebellion, the Tang dynasty pardoned many rebels, and put some of them in command of their own garrisons, eroding the authority of the central government. Tang economic control of the Northeast region became intermittent, and the emperor became only a puppet, at the bidding of the strongest garrison. By borrowing troops from neighboring tribes to put down the Rebellion, the Tang Dynasty lowered its prestige in the eyes of the barbarians, who eventually began raiding Tang settlements again. (Changan itself was briefly occupied by the Tibetan army in 764, after the course of the rebellion.)
The rebellion spanned the reigns of three emperors, starting during the reign of Xuanzong and ending during the reign of Daizong. The toll of dead and missing, including those who died by suppression and famine, is estimated at up to thirty-six million, or two-thirds of the total population on the tax rolls at that time. This was the highest death toll for any event until World War II surpassed it with over 62 million deaths.