On this day in 618, the future Tang Dynasty fought rival Qin forces in the Shaanxi province of China. The Qin, led by Emperor Wu, had taken control of much of China after the collapse of the Sui dynasty in 617. After a 60 day siege, the Tang attacked and ended the short-lived Qin rule. The Battle of Qianshuiyuan is significant for giving us one of the most successful periods in Chinese history, lasting from 618 to the 900s. At its most powerful, Tang China was a global leader in arts and culture; it was also a notable exception during the Dark Ages (roughly 200-1400) in that it managed to survive attacks from barbarians and nomads.
One of the Tang’s most important innovations was placing its military under civilian control: according to Ian Morris, Tang officers were not allowed to move any more than 10 soldiers without permission, and general were rotated through the provinces frequently so they could not build up enough individual power to challenge their emperor. Emperor Taizong in particular understood that ones’ subjects needed to be treated well, or the state would become weak, saying “…oppressing the people to make them serve the rule is like someone cutting off [one’s] own flesh to feed his stomach… the ruler is wealthy but the state is destroyed.” This enlightened (for the time) style of leadership makes the Tang Dynasty stand out during the period as most of the world – in particular, Europe – descended into feudal anarchy.
Further reading on Tang’s unique status in the era: Morris, Ian. War! What is it good for? New York: Picador, 2014.